In the aftermath of 9/11, Chinese President Jiang Zemin resolved to use the attacks to fundamentally improve relations with the United States. In doing so he ignored Vladimir Putin’s entreaties and the advice of several close aides to distance China from the United States. The principal goal of Jiang’s strategic move was to drive a wedge between Taiwan, then headed by Chen Shuibian, and the United States, led by George W. Bush. Shortly after taking office President Bush had pledged to do whatever it would take—perhaps including the use of nuclear weapons—to help Taiwan defend itself.
Who to Release?
By the end of 2001, I had been intervening on behalf of political prisoners for more than 10 years and had helped around 250 prisoners gain early release (according to a rough count by The Sunday New York Times Magazine for a 2002 profile on me). My greatest assets in these efforts were skills and relationships developed over a 25-year business career in China. Once the decision was made to release political prisoners, China’s leadership turned to me for advice and assistance regarding who should be released.
We agreed that the first to be released should be Ngawang Choephel. On January 20, 2002, he was released on medical parole from De Yang Prison in Sichuan Province and flown to the United States.
As anticipated, the reaction in Washington was positive.
Naturally, I was eager to meet Jigme Sangpo, but not in prison. In the past, he had staged protests when foreigners—notably the Swiss ambassador—visited Drapchi. In each case, the resulting punishment was harsh and added many years to his prison term. Despite assurances that, whatever happened, the Tibetan prisoner would not be mistreated, I held firm. I suggested that Jigme Sangpo be granted medical parole and placed in a monastery, a hospital, or in the house of a relative.
Discussions were put on hold and resumed two days later. No monastery or hospital would shelter the elderly teacher, fearing the consequences of a huge security presence. Likewise, no relatives dared take him in. Having heard that Jigme Sangpo had a niece living in Lhasa who was a Communist Party cadre, I suggested that she be ordered to temporarily house her uncle; surely, as a loyal party member, she’d be willing to do so.
That did the trick. Details of Jigme Sangpo’s release and my visit to Lhasa were hammered out. I asked for permission to bring my own translator (I speak passable Chinese, no Tibetan.), which was denied—the explanation being that, as a teacher, Jigme Sangpo would know at least some Mandarin. I also asked to visit the U.S. consulate in Chengdu before or after my visit to Lhasa. (In those days, all flights to Lhasa from Beijing passed through the Sichuan capital.) This was also denied. However, the Chinese government placed no restrictions on Jigme Sangpo’s eventual choice of foreign residence. (Switzerland, with its large Tibetan population, had expressed an interest in hosting the Tibetan prisoner.) Its only condition was that he fly to the United States first.
Before the meeting broke up, we agreed that I would return to Beijing in two months, then fly to Lhasa with an official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet Jigme Sangpo.
Two weeks later, on April 1 at 1 AM, as I drove from Orlando to Port Saint Lucie, Florida to visit my ailing mother, I received the news on my cellphone that Takna Jigme Sangpo had been released from prison on medical parole on March 31, 2002. His niece had taken him in.
Getting to Lhasa
Before returning to China in June, I prepared for my trip to Lhasa by buying a disposable camera and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s (for medicinal purposes!). I also needed a picture of Jigme Sangpo, whom I’d never laid eyes on. Without it, how could I be sure I was meeting the right man? By then I was working with Tibetans living abroad, one of whom sent me a photograph taken in Jigme Sangpo’s cell at Drapchi Prison. It pictured the elderly prisoner sporting a long white beard, huddled in a corner. Because of his deteriorating eyesight, he wore his glasses at a tilt.
I began by asking if the hosting officials would like to say a few words of welcome, but they all declined. For my opening question, I asked if a foreigner had ever been allowed to interview a prisoner on medical parole, to which the PSB official answered no. When I asked if they knew whether or not Jigme Sangpo would like to go abroad for medical treatment, they said I could ask him myself.
I was then advised that medical parole is granted for an initial period of six months, after which the parolee’s condition is reviewed. If the parolee is deemed not seriously ill, he or she is returned to prison to serve the remainder of his or her term. It was clear to me that this is what TAR officials intended to do.
After the meeting I was taken on a tour of the city’s notable sites. When I thanked the official accompanying me, I was told very pointedly that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had paid for the tour, not the TAR government; thanks weren’t necessary.
On the afternoon of June 17, 2002, my companion and I were driven to the home of Jigme Sangpo’s niece. As we approached, I noticed an iron chain across the road leading into the residential compound and security was everywhere, with armed police on the rooftops and a PSB guard post near the front door. As we entered, the niece stuck out her tongue in the traditional Tibetan greeting. We went into a room that was filled with officials and uniformed and plain clothes police, and I was told to take a seat on a couch against the wall, directly in front of the audience.
My drinking companion finished up by saying that, “with Jigme Sangpo’s release, every prisoner in Drapchi experienced a great sense of joy, of hope, knowing that if the Chinese government could free him, they could free anybody.” In the following months, the Chinese government granted early release to a number of Tibetan political prisoners, including Ngawang Sangdrol and Phuntsog Nyidron, leaders of the Singing Nuns of Drapchi.