My father, a doctor who witnessed the Japanese occupation during World War II, made sure I grew up with a strong sense of social responsibility. He liked to read us the newspaper while we ate dinner, and when I was just six or seven years old, he'd include me in discussions of current events. Also, I've never been able to stomach telling lies.
You have been in jail for most of your daughter's life. How do you weigh responsibilities to your country against those to your family?
If you have a conscience and you've made a decision to defy an authoritarian regimeto resist it thoroughlythen you have no choice but to put your personal life second. If I'd thought about my family, my wife, my daughter, I'd definitely have abandoned my mission. But if everyone with a family abandons this kind of mission, then who is left to act?
Where do you see the impact of your opposition?
Chinese leaders constantly declare their opposition to multiparty elections. If they weren't scared that other Chinese people might follow the example of the organizers of the China Democracy Party, they wouldn't need to repeat this mantra.
Do you see direct Confrontation as the only way to bring about political reform in China?
Not at all. I never ask people to be like me. For democracy to really take hold, it has to become ordinarylike bread or water or air. The actions of people like me, while necessary, may not be as important as, say, the person who recently decided to use voting booths in a village election so villagers could cast their ballots without officials watching them.
The first time around I spent a year-and-a-half in solitary confinement, under constant interrogation between my arrest and my trial. It was terrifying and mentally exhausting. In 1998 I decided I didn't owe the authorities any explanations, and I didn't answer a single question. The sentencing process only took a month and I entered jail feeling much more at peace.
How did your treatment in prison differ?
I was treated much better than most political prisoners this time. The authorities knew my name had become well known outside China, so they were very careful with me. I could read every day. I even read a biography of Nelson Mandela. There were eight cameras on my cell at all times. Once, when I slipped on a puddle in the latrine, two guards appeared to make sure I was O.K. They punished the person who'd left the floor wet.
What do you plan to do now that you're free?
I want to adjust my relationship with my family. Now I'm getting old, and I want to put my wife and daughter first. Of course, I won't stop my calls for political reform in China, but I don't plan to go to jail again.
What has surprised you about New York? I can't believe how few policemen I've seen on the streets.
When you were asleep in prison, did you dream?
Yes, I had wild, strange dreams, and often I talked in my sleep.
What do you dream about now?
I haven't had a dream since I arrived in the U.S. Maybe I don't need to dream anymore. Lying next to my wife, I can finally sleep soundly.