Missing Gao Zhisheng: A Chinese dissident is returned to prison while his family faces continued suffering in exile.

The Wall Street Journal December 22, 2011


Last Friday, China’s state-run news media announced that human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng would return to prison to complete his full three-year sentence, supposedly because he violated the terms of his probation. The news was a surprise because the police have illegally detained Mr. Gao for the last 20 months, making it difficult for him to violate anything.

But then again, nothing in Mr. Gao’s experience in the Chinese legal system makes sense. He was arrested and charged in 2006 with “subverting the power of the state” for defending parishioners of Christian house churches and members of the Falun Gong spiritual group. He received a suspended sentence, after which he and his family faced constant surveillance and abuses. His re-imprisonment came only a few days before his probation was scheduled to end.

Days after the announcement, Mr. Gao’s worried family still does not know where he is, or which prison he will be sent to, although friends and family conclude that being in a prison is better than “being disappeared,” an increasingly common practice in which police simply abduct activists off the streets.

And so Mr. Gao’s wife, daughter and son, who made a harrowing escape to the United States in 2009, continue to suffer the pain of not knowing whether he is alive or dead. In November, I interviewed Geng He, Mr. Gao’s wife, in California; she asked me not to reveal the exact location for fear the Chinese authorities might still harass the family. Her harrowing story sheds light on the lengths to which activists’ families must go to avoid persecution.

Ms. Geng’s story began in 2008, when a vegetable-seller slipped a note into her hand with the change. “We will protect you—don’t worry,” said the message, which she believes was from a member of the Falun Gong.

Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. Associated Press

Matters reached a head when her daughter, Gege, now 17, was told to transfer to a new high school for her freshman year, a heavy emotional blow for the teenager. Seeing the effect of the government’s campaign against Mr. Gao on the family, Ms. Geng turned to the vegetable seller asking for help. This set in motion the escape.

Shortly after, the seller told her to proceed to the Beijing West Train Station one evening. She was to take her young son Tianyu, six years old at the time. Gege was to leave on her own. Ms. Geng had no opportunity to tell her husband she was leaving. “When we left our apartment, I didn’t look in any direction,” she recalls. “We just left with the clothes on our backs.”

At the train station, she was given a mobile phone and a set of SIM cards, which she was to use to call an overseas contact at various points along the way, throwing the card away after each call. After arriving in southern China, people on motorcycles took the family across the border in the dark. Across the border—she says she doesn’t know what country she was in, but it might have been Vietnam—the family was met by a truck driver, who whisked them to the next point.

At one village, the family was stopped when locals noticed that they were too pale-looking to be from that area. Their release was arranged “by friends,” but the family had to proceed separately. The mother had no news of Tianyu for several days, until they were reunited at a safe house. They arrived in Bangkok on Jan. 31, 2009, some 21 days after leaving Beijing. Weeks later, the U.S. offered them political asylum.

Ms. Geng worries about her husband. “When we go out, I worry about whether he has enough clothes to wear,” she says. “When we eat, I worry about whether he has food to eat. Because we have no news about Gao Zhisheng, we can’t be happy. Until he is free, I can never be satisfied.”

Ms. Geng’s story illustrates how activism in today’s China is a family affair, and when authorities crack down it isn’t only the individual dissidents who suffer. Ms. Geng expresses guilty feelings about Gege. “When in China, the police went with her to school every day and the pressure on her was tremendous,” she says. “We really let her down. She should not have had to go through this.”

The teenager, who has been hospitalized for depression, worries about her father. She tells her mother of a frequent dream in which she’s in total darkness, but can’t escape. Ms. Geng says that Gege is busy now applying for university in America, but that during the weekends and holidays, when she’s less busy, “her mood is not good.”

Ms. Geng says that Tianyu, now eight years old, deeply misses his father. She tells of the boy examining a globe, pointing out where Tiananmen Square and the imposing portrait of Mao Zedong are located. “I’m looking for my father,” he told his mother. Before she sent him off to school the first day in the U.S., she told him he had to work hard to learn English. “I want to keep my Chinese,” he responded, “so I can speak with my father.”

Ms. Geng supports her husband despite the trouble his activism has brought upon the family. “He’s a genuine and a good person,” she says smiling, her eyes still teary. “I don’t blame him. What he did was for other people, and not himself.”

Mr. Mooney is a Beijing-based writer.


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