How to get thrown into a Chinese prison

James Powderly planned to use a green laser to project a pro-Tibet message on the Bird's Nest Stadium during the Olympics. Before he could make the attempt, Chinese authorities locked him up for nearly a week.

Elsa Wenzel
9 min read

q&a James Powderly didn't trek from New York City to Beijing during the 2008 Olympics to watch table tennis. The artist was plotting to laser-beam a billboard-size, pro-Tibet message at the Bird's Nest Stadium. Instead, he spent six days locked up and interrogated by Chinese police under conditions he likens to torture. He was joined by other American would-be protestors sentenced to prison without being charged of a crime, then released early following U.S. pressure.

The Graffiti Research Lab co-founder and former engineer has helped pioneer open source, digital graffiti techniques, like L.A.S.E.R. tag projections of words and icons onto public walls, as well as LED bulb "throwies" that stick to surfaces to spell out messages in light.

Originally Powderly was invited to participate in a show at the National Art Museum of China, until he says organizers, fearing political controversy, kicked him out. Instead, he collaborated with Students for a Free Tibet (SFT).

Powderly says his high-tech gear--including a cell phone, green laser, laser printer, laptop, camera, tripods--may have tipped off Chinese authorities. And he suspects that if Twitter stops working in China, you might blame him and his collaborators.

Some protestors were deported from China after successfully launching this street protest using a message made of LED "throwies," lights that stick to surfaces.
Some protestors were deported from China after this street protest outside the Olympic stadium. The message is made of LED "throwies," lights that stick to surfaces. Students for a Free Tibet

Q: The last time we were in touch, you'd mentioned the upcoming Green (Chinese) Lantern project, which you didn't detail for obvious reasons. What happened? How did Chinese authorities find out what you were planning to do?
Powderly: When I entered the country on the 15th of August I had a cell phone that might have already been compromised. It had already been used by protesters in the country...We don't know. They weren't telling.

It's safe to say I'm much more like Dr. Strangelove than like James Bond. I stick out like a sore thumb in Beijing. I'm about a foot taller than everybody. I'm wearing a fedora, camos, and sleeveless vest...

These people were still kind of bumbling but resourced and numerically outnumbered adversaries, in terms of the Chinese secret police. There are just so many of them and they're working with so much citizen support, meaning there are 300,000 people in the city just looking constantly and reporting, from taxi drivers to people on the street, undercover cops, policemen in uniforms, soldiers.

Whatever clued them into us, by the afternoon of the 18th I was being tailed by a woman. I spotted her, but I'm in a city of 20 million people. No way they're on me, I hadn't done anything. I was literally at the Wal-Mart superstore buying supplies..I doubted what I was seeing...

Powderly was among the would-be protesters detained in China without being charged of a crime.
Powderly was among the would-be protesters detained in China without being charged of a crime. James Powderly

What happened next? When did you know for sure? How were you arrested?
Powderly: I spent the day of the 17th scouting locations, buying a new laser printer. I went to kind of a safe house to build this laser stencil thing...They'd snuck a new laser in to me and I'd snuck in LED throwies for the LED banner for another group of activists...

I went to Tiananmen Square to scout that location because we'd planned to do two projection events. If we got away with the first one at the Olympic stadium, then we were gonna do the second one in Tiananmen Square...We were gonna project "Free Tibet" or "Tibet will be free" or "6/4/1989."

What worked and what didn't go forward?
Powderly: None of them worked. We did nothing. We were arrested and detained in China...for doing nothing except for thinking about it.

On the 18th...I did my one and only laser projection that evening out the window on some torn-down buildings...way out in the outskirts of Beijing, literally the last stop of the "One" line...It worked better than any had before, and I'd come up with a new technique for making the stencils to do transparencies with a normal laser printer.

I'd printed out one test message, a little computer inside joke, just the words: "Free Beer." It's a quote from a renowned hacker (Richard Stallman) that refers to free software...

I projected that, took a few photos to show my collaborators, and walked to the subway station...Unfortunately, I realized that this woman was on me again...

Click on this image for a photo gallery of digital graffiti.

Click on this image for a photo gallery of digital and eco-friendly graffiti from Powderly and other activists and artist pranksters.

(Credit: Graffiti Research Lab)

We did the most foolish thing, which is all six of us on this mission were gonna meet at the bar. It was gonna be all eight of us, but one of my other collaborators was out scouting another location with two of the other witnesses, these citizen bloggers willing to document the act and get the footage out, and they noticed they were being tailed and without saying a word to anybody got on a train station, went to the airport and got out. It's the smart thing to do...

But I didn't do the smart thing...I waited until the subway doors closed and at the last minute, jumped through them. I watched this woman's face plastered to the window, waved to her, feeling smug with myself.

I went to this bar and the first thing I said was, "I've been made, they're tailing me. I've finished this laser, it's in the safe house, but they know who I am."

We sat down, planned what we were gonna do, filed out one by one...I saw the woman again. It was too late. There were 50 Beijing secret police, public security officers, some in uniform, some in plain clothes, some school dress, CCTV camera crew--ironically the name of their nationalized media outlet. We were arrested and picked up, thrown into the back of an SUV, but never charged with a crime...That's why it's called extrajudicial detention.

It also turns out..."V for Vendetta" style, everyone else who had walked out of the place was busted in their beds later that night, or taken in the cab they got into, or taken in the lobby of their hotels. They got all six of us. They later picked up four other protesters, two of whom were Americans, and detained them also...

They took us into the basement of this hotel...then they carried us in separate security details of five or so people, transported us to the basement of this restaurant where we went through these nice, fancy backrooms and they began a 24-hour plus interrogation.

How did you send a Twitter message?
Powderly: I've been given credit, but I didn't. Actually, it was Brian Conley from Alive in Baghdad...

While being detained, Powderly snapped this shot of a dozing interrogator.
While being detained, Powderly snapped this shot of a dozing interrogator. James Powderly

They did some classic torture interrogation techniques. They said they would kill us, that we were gonna spend the rest of our lives in Chinese prison...they kept us up all night and gave us water, wouldn't let us use the bathroom, wouldn't let us eat food.

But they were all going through the same thing, so at some point, they all fell asleep. I didn't have a phone at that point so I was only able to take a photograph of one of my interrogators sleeping.

Brian was able to pull out his iPhone because they couldn't figure out how to take the SIM card...he was able to send a message that said, "Detained at 3 a.m." The hub didn't know who was detained...Later, I had hidden the cell phone in my bag. They called and that got me in mad trouble when it rang...

They told some of my collaborators they were gonna shoot us. They really didn't know what we were doing or who we were...At about the 26th hour, they gave up. So they filed us all in vans...and started driving us way on the outskirts of town... Before long we see this ominous spectre of a giant building surrounded by barbed wire. That was Chongwen detention center.

They stripped us and took photos of us naked. They put us in little red shorts and red shirts, prison clothes, and marched us into general population prison cells...At that point we were in a position no or very few Americans had been before.

What did you imagine was going to happen next?
I've never done military training. I'd already cracked. Under 24-hour interrogation, I told them things, including lies...

They take me to my cell. I thought I was gonna fight for my life and get owned. The door shuts behind me. Immediately a man jumps up, grabs a blanket, and another puts his arm out to me...Then one offered me a bar of chocolate...

I realized people in Chinese detention centers are not criminals. In my cell there were regular Chinese nationals, Mongolians, Africans from Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana. None had committed any serious crime. Some had paperwork errors on their visa. They were black in China. People from outside the provinces who hadn't registered. In effect, the people I was thinking would (attack me), they were just trying to be kind. They became friends...There's nothing I can do to get them out.

Powderly's gear worth some $2,500, which Beijing police confiscated, included a green laser mounted on a tripod. He's sharing details online about how to replicate the project.
Powderly's gear worth some $2,500, which Beijing police confiscated, included a green laser mounted on a tripod. He's sharing details online about how to replicate the project. James Powderly

Did you see people there related to protests about Tibet?
Powderly: They brought in an American and a Brit also involved in SFT protests but we didn't see each other. We were deprived of sleep...

On the 20th, they finally said, "You're in detention. You've been sentenced to 10 days in Chongwen."

On the 22nd, the fourth day we were being held, we finally got to see the U.S. Embassy. We met among a cadre of 10 to 15 secret police officers...

None of us were getting our medication. There were diabetics, asthmatics. I have Crohn's disease. We were not Hogan's heroes. None of us had slept for four days. Various people were experiencing sickness.

The general process of interrogation involved strapping you into a metal chair that cuts you, in a room with blood splattered on the floor.

None of us could eat the food. It's disgusting, this anise, licorice-flavored broth and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast. They don't supply you with potable water in prison, which I tried to explain is not conducive to human life...

(The Embassy counsel) told us although it was unprecedented, (the Chinese) could hold us and there was nothing they could do to get us out early.

Did you think this would become a big deal politically back home?
Powderly: I knew there would be some noise. But being an activist in my country, America also uses detention centers and so does the U.K. This type of torture has been standard practice all over the world. It reinforces China's belief that it's okay. They consider the Dalai Lama a terrorist. They told us we were plotting the murder of China and while I had not administered the knife, I'd built it.

I didn't know some (activists) had taken an LED throwie banner and employed it. They were deported immediately...

That said, "Free Tibet?"
Yes, I was involved in the design on the Dr. Strangelove end of that, but didn't execute it. I'm a bad spy. You can't have an armful of tats and walk around in German sunglasses. The other people getting away with it were wearing Team America track suits. Brian Conley just came out of the desert of Iraq. He didn't look like the guy wanted to see Mexico versus Singapore table tennis.

Ultimately we didn't actually do anything. Maybe the degree of technology we were using was devious enough that it suggested we were doing something. We were "teched" out.

What kind of gear?
We used Twitter extensively as a method of communicating. That came out during the interrogation, so probably Twitter's...banned in China now.

I brought in lasers, optical lenses, tripods. There were computers with biometric logins, ways of getting satellite and broadband connections. We'd mapped Wi-Fi nodes in the city.

Protesters intended to use a green laser and laser-printed stencils to project massive, pro-Tibet messages at Bird's Nest stadium and at Tiananmen Square. This was a test run.
Protesters intended to use a green laser and laser-printed stencils to project massive, pro-Tibet messages at Bird's Nest stadium and at Tiananmen Square. This was a test run. James Powderly

You flew with the lasers?
I was coming from Seoul, Korea. It wasn't a rigorous security situation. I thought I could explain that it was related to my camera. In China, this technology isn't illegal. In the U.S., a 400-milliwatt laser is illegal. I use it responsibly as part of a peaceful protest...

I'm writing an Instructable on "how to get yourself thrown into a Chinese prison," showing how to build the laser technology...

Do you think this drew more attention to the point of your protest than if it had been carried out successfully?
Yes. This was a huge miscalculation on the part of China...The spotlight of the Olympics is now overshadowed. It looks like a spectacular publicity stunt meant to secure their place among the elite governments of the world...Now every story in the media has been grappling to address, yes, China did a decent job, but...why did a Mexican protester disappear? Why did eight Americans disappear for 10 days? Why did two Tibetans get shot? What happened to the Tibetan monks in March?

The sad thing is, anything that happens to us that would be considered torture, it's nothing compared to what's happening to the Africans and Chinese nationals held, who don't get calls from embassies and senators. There's no victory there.