Guilty by Association
It's not just famous artists like Ai Weiwei and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. In China's ongoing crackdown against dissidents and critics, the government is on a rampage against their families, too.
BEIJING — On a quiet block in western Beijing where otherwise only a few retirees can be seen walking their dogs or trimming their bushes, one building is under constant and conspicuous surveillance. A plainclothes policeman stands guard before an entranceway, while another keeps watch sitting inside a small cabin.
The unlikely object of the Chinese state’s attention in this instance is Liu Xia, a painter, poet, and photographer — and the wife of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Guilty by association, she has been under house arrest, with almost no contact with the outside world, since November 2010, when her husband’s award was announced. No one has heard from Liu since February, and her friends are increasingly worried about her health. Still, there is no sign that the authorities are planning to relent.
Liu’s arrest underscores a peculiar aspect to the recent Chinese crackdown on political dissidents that has seen the detention of dozens of prominent activists, intellectuals, and artists. Authorities are increasingly targeting not just critics of the ruling party, but their family members, including spouses, parents, and even young children. While the dissidents gain the headlines, their relatives are punished out of the spotlight. Though the wife of jailed artist Ai Weiwei was recently allowed a visit her husband, she could be next in line to lose her freedom.
It’s a punitive strategy that seeks to exploit Chinese traditions of filial piety. For China’s dissidents, family is often both a source of strength and weakness: Chinese families tend to be close and highly involved in each other lives, and they take seriously the promise to stick together through thick and thin. The government, aware of these close ties, is using them to put more pressure on activists.
It also bears echoes of the Cultural Revolution-era, when many Chinese families were torn apart as spouses and children were forced to denounce loved ones labeled by the authorities as capitalist traitors and were sometimes forced to take part in their public humiliation. Today’s China is again making a policy of manipulating familial love and devotion to suppress any political challenges.
"One of the more troubling trends we see in recent years has been for the government to more directly involve family members," observes Joshua Rosenzweig, a senior researcher at the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to improving human rights in China. "We see surveillance, constant harassment, even extended house arrests. These all happened before, but now they have become routine" — as in the case of Liu Xia. Rosenzweig adds, "Legal procedure has become irrelevant" in the Communist Party’s quest to maintain stability. Under Chinese law, there is no procedure that allows for a person to be held indefinitely under house arrest without charges or a police investigation. "To put it simply, families are being held hostage," says Rosenzweig.
Zeng Jinyan would concur. She has been under constant surveillance and subject to frequent house arrests ever since 2001, when she met her husband, AIDS activist Hu Jia, who is now serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for "subversion of state power." Zeng was a student when they met, and she says she never imagined her life turning out the way it did. "I thought I’ll graduate, find a job, and marry. I planned on a simple life and was hoping I could have enough time and money to travel the world," she tells me in a telephone interview. But she has since become an acclaimed activist in her own right, detailing her everyday life under the party’s watchful eye on her blog and Twitter account. In 2007, Time magazine included her on its list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Clearly, the regime’s strategy backfired in this case.
Most families, however, don’t have nearly that kind of wherewithal. Take, for example, the family of Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer from Shandong province who was imprisoned for four years for his work with disenfranchised villagers and woman forced to have abortions. After his release, he was forced to live in isolation in a Shandong village, together with his wife, Yuan Weijing, and their 6-year-old daughter. Yuan is denied almost all contact to the outside world, including to her son, who she sent away to be raised by relatives so that he can attend school. In February, the couple managed to smuggle a video out of the country in which they described their plight. They were reportedly beaten and denied medical treatment after the video was posted online.
On the phone, Zeng describes the successive levels of pressure that the government applies to her: "First of all, there is worrying about [Hu’s] safety. For some time, we didn’t even know where he was and what kind of abuse he was suffering. I worry about his health, about his mental situation."
"Then there is the question of making a living and sustaining some income as a de facto single mother," she continues. (Zeng’s daughter is three-and-a-half years old. Her father was imprisoned shortly after she was born). "Because of constant police harassment, I could not get a good job or start a business. For a time, I couldn’t even get a nanny for my child because when I hired one, the police would threaten her and scare her away."
Zeng says the psychological warfare she faces is brutal. Between threats and detentions, she repeatedly has to deal with the innuendo from her surveillance teams and government-sponsored neighborhood committees, which suggest there were "high-positioned" men "interested" in her and imply that she could improve her situation greatly if only she would leave her partner.
"All this is meant to isolate me from society and to break me down," Zeng concludes. "Sometimes it works. They planted deep trauma in my heart."
Although Zeng has chosen to join her husband in dissenting against the government, picking up where Hu was forced to leave off when he was arrested for his activism, some relatives of dissidents prefer to keep quiet. Still others try to actively distance themselves from activism, sometimes going so far as to move to an entirely new city or even to file for divorce. That’s what happened in the case of Yang Zili, a social commentator who was imprisoned for eight years in 2001 for organizing a discussion group on political issues. His wife at the time, Lu Kun, petitioned several times on his behalf, took care of his defense and finances, and visited prison when allowed, but eventually moved to the United States. The couple divorced after Yang was released in 2009. Yang says he understood her decision. "It is just too much pressure, being the wife of a dissident in China; it’s a fate many prefer to avoid," he says. Still, Lu’s choice also made Yang’s life more difficult: the last couple of years of his prison term he was held in almost complete isolation, with no family visits at all.
"Tactics are definitely designed to put pressure on those who contemplate political activism," Rosenzweig explains. "It is one thing to be willing to confront authorities or even go to jail, and another thing to know your family will suffer. This doesn’t always deter everyone from speaking up, but it is a factor dissidents take into account." Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate, referred to this factor in addressing his wife in a speech before the court that sentenced him — after a speedy trial that Liu Xia was not allowed to attend — to 11 years in prison: "Throughout all these years … our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savor its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin…. My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight," Liu said.
Wives (and in some cases husbands) are not the only ones who earn the attention of the state: Zeng’s parents, who live in Fujian province, receive frequent police visits, while her in-laws in Beijing were put under house arrest several times. In another case, the elderly parents of an activist were threatened by the local police in their small town and were then rushed to Beijing so that they could pressure their son to stop his involvement in human rights organizations. A Shanghai lawyer, Li Tiantian, reported in February that her boyfriend was threatened that he’ll be dismissed from his job on account of her activism. Li has since been taken into police custody.
Although some of the dissidents were arrested for their involvement with social media, those outlets also have served as a balm, as families facing repression from the government try to contact the outside world. When human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong was arrested in February, his wife, Jin Bianling, opened a Twitter account to record her efforts to get information as to his whereabouts, counting the days of his detention online to a crowd of several thousand followers. (Jiang returned home two weeks ago, but is under surveillance, and the couple declined requests for press interviews to keep a low profile.)
Twitter isn’t a medium known for its depth of emotion, but it was undeniably heart-rending when Jin described a conversation with her 8-year-old daughter one evening not long after Jiang’s arrest. "Mommy," Jin recorded the child saying. "We shouldn’t think about daddy much. You told me when I sneeze, it is a sign that someone is thinking about me. If we make daddy sneeze where he is now, he might be in even more pain."