By Gerry Shih, Associated Press
May 8, 2017, 8:43 AM ET
Within minutes, Chen feared, she and her two daughters would be escorted back to China, where her husband, the prominent rights lawyer Xie Yang, was held on a charge of inciting subversion — and where punishment for attempting to flee surely awaited her.
After weeks on the run, Chen was exhausted, and so was her luck. A Christian, she prayed: “Don’t desert us now, not like this.”
Help arrived, from America.
U.S. Embassy officials managed to enter the facility just in time to whisk Chen and her daughters out a back door. The Chinese agents outside soon realized what had happened and pursued them, finally meeting in a standoff at the Bangkok airport where Chinese, Thai and U.S. officials heatedly argued over custody of the family.
Chen and her supporters disclosed details of her family’s March escape for the first time to The Associated Press. Their journey reveals the lengths that China’s government has been increasingly willing to go to reach far beyond its jurisdiction in the pursuit of dissidents and their families.
The saga also demonstrates that in at least some cases, American officials are willing to push back, even at a moment weeks before President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping were to meet in Florida. The Trump administration has been criticized for downplaying human rights in foreign policy, but may have viewed Chen’s case as special — if not for herself then for her youngest daughter, a 4-year-old American citizen.
The family’s ordeal began July 9, 2015, when the Chinese government launched a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers. Chen’s husband, Xie, a lawyer who represented evicted farmers and pro-democracy activists, was among dozens detained in the “7-09 crackdown” and, months later, charged with crimes against the state.
In January, Chen helped release her husband’s account of being beaten, deprived of sleep and otherwise tortured while in detention — drawing further condemnation of Beijing by Western governments. Police summoned Chen for hours-long meetings where, she said, they threatened to evict her, deny her children schooling and have her fired from her job as a professor of environmental engineering at Hunan University.
By early February, the pressure was becoming unbearable. Seemingly unable to extract a confession out of Xie, the authorities turned up threats against Chen and, increasingly, those close to her.
When police detained Chen’s 14-year-old daughter as she tried to board a train for Hong Kong, Chen knew a travel ban had been placed on their names.
That was when she decided to contact Bob Fu, a Christian rights activist based in Texas who has helped several high-profile dissidents flee China, including Chen Guangcheng, a blind rights lawyer whose 2012 flight to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sparked diplomatic tensions.
“We’re going on a trip,” Chen told her daughters the morning of Feb. 19.
They headed south from their home in central China, then crossed into at least two countries without paperwork. There were nights, she said, when they had nowhere to sleep and days when they had nothing but a bag of chocolates to eat.
Traveling by foot and car for five days, they finally arrived at a safe house in Bangkok whose owners knew Fu.
Even though Chen took precautions, never turning on her phone or accessing the internet, Chinese authorities had gotten wind that she might be in Thailand. While she was in hiding, Chinese security agents forced her 70-year-old father, her sister, her university employer and other relatives and friends to fly with them to Bangkok in an unusual attempt to locate her.
Less than a week later, on March 2, Thai police, directed by a Chinese translator who Chen believed was from the Chinese Embassy, barged into the safe house, seized her belongings and sent the family to detention. It is unclear how they were located.
Chen appeared in immigration court the next morning. She was accompanied by the translator, who took away Chen’s phone and snapped pictures of Chen’s court documents with her own phone camera. A judge ruled that Chen had entered the country illegally and ordered her deported. The translator paid for her legal proceedings and fine.
An increasing number of Chinese in recent years have sought refuge in Thailand only to be sent back. In 2015, Thailand deported two Chinese dissidents who the United Nations recognized as refugees, a journalist who feared Beijing’s persecution and 109 minority Uighurs who said they had fled repression. Later that year, a Hong Kong publisher of books on Chinese political gossip vanished from his Thai home and into Chinese custody, alarming the international community.
As Chen was taken back to the jail to pick up her children and things, with Chinese officials waiting for her outside, she appeared likely to meet a similar fate.
In Texas, Fu was dumbfounded by news of Chen’s arrest. He sprang into action to alert the State Department, and his associates in Thailand, who quickly located her in the jail.
According to Fu, U.S. officials made it into the facility on March 3 while Chen was in court, found Chen’s daughters and stayed with them while they searched for the mother. Finally, through their Thai contacts in the jail, the Americans located her and convinced Thai officials to let them whisk her out the back, said Fu and another person with knowledge of the operation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
The family piled into a car and sped through Bangkok’s congested streets headed for the airport while Fu, 12 time zones away, frantically tried to book flights and prepare the family’s requisite U.S. paperwork.
But the Chinese agents were not far behind.
Despite her deportation order, Chen was stopped at the airport by Thai immigration officials who explained that they were under immense Chinese pressure to prevent her departure. In an hours-long standoff at the airport, the person with knowledge of the operation said, the confrontation between the Chinese, American and Thai officials nearly boiled over into a physical clash.
Chen and Fu declined to explain what happened next, citing diplomatic sensitivities, other than that the family eventually made it to the U.S. on March 17.
It is unclear whether Chen was housed in the U.S. Embassy in the intervening weeks or whether and how a deal was negotiated to allow Chen’s departure from Thailand.
A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said Monday he was not aware of the matter. The Ministry of Public Security did not respond to faxed requests for comment. Thai and U.S. authorities declined to comment on Chen’s experience.
Justin Higgins, a State Department spokesman for East Asia, said that in general the U.S. “urges China to release all of the lawyers and activists detained in the July 9, 2015, crackdown and remove restrictions on their freedom of movement and professional activities.”
It’s unusual for U.S. officials to take such bold action to help Chinese citizens — in Chen’s family’s case, human rights workers say. But the citizenship of Chen’s younger daughter, who was born 4 years ago in the U.S. while Xie was studying in the country on a sabbatical, was likely a key factor.
Compared to previous years, when China’s diplomacy with its neighbors touched mostly on economic and national security issues, Beijing increasingly demands foreign governments’ cooperation when it hunts for fugitives, even those whom other countries may view as political dissidents.
“China is exporting its human rights abuses beyond its borders,” said Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, and former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
“The Thai government has always tried to maintain good relations with the U.S. and with China,” Shirk said, “but these kinds of cases make that balancing act very difficult.”
The U.S. may be changing its stance on China, given Trump’s effusive praise for Xi and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent remarks that Washington will not force human rights issues on other nations. Yet Chen’s case suggests that America is still willing to confront China on thorny rights issues, at least when U.S. citizens are involved.
“This administration appears to be more muscular, more assertive, and we’re seeing ‘Putting Americans First’ play out,” said John Kamm, the founder of the Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco who has advised U.S. administrations on Chinese human rights issues. “But what I’m hoping is that ‘Putting Americans First’ doesn’t mean putting other people last.”
Kamm noted that two U.S. citizens — Texas businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis and aid worker Aya Hijazi — were released by China and Egypt, respectively, in recent weeks in response to high-level pressure from U.S. officials. Yet the U.S. notably did not sign onto a letter from 11 Western countries who, spurred by Xie’s allegations, protested the torture of Chinese human rights lawyers, he added.
Now safe in Texas, Chen said she wanted to thank the State Department and the Trump administration. But her sense of relief has been tempered by a painful reckoning of the ruin and chaos she left behind.
Xie’s trial began Monday and was expected to be completed by day’s end. A government-appointed defense lawyer is representing him.
Chen Jiangang, Xie’s former lawyer who helped release his account of torture, was detained last week in a Chinese province near Myanmar, human rights observers say.
The relatives of Chen who were pressed by the government to travel to Thailand have had their passports confiscated upon their return to China. They have been repeatedly interrogated, and their jobs have been threatened, she said.
The electricity at Chen’s apartment has since been cut, forcing her elderly father to move back to his village. Authorities have emptied her Chinese bank accounts, she said.
For now, Chen and her daughters are living off the charity of her supporters. The former professor plans to seek a job, a home, and school for the girls. Chen said she was happy to start over in America. She has little money, but still has her voice.
“All the things we tried to expose, all the articles we used to write about the truth of 7-09 — the harassment, the torture, the denial of our children’s schooling, the forced evictions — we were always smeared so quickly,” she said.
“If I’ve escaped the country, they can’t control the situation anymore. Now, what can they do?”
AP writers Gillian Wong in Beijing, Matthew Pennington in Washington and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.