- michael bristow
- BBC World Service
Geng He has suffered persecution, surveillance, and the breakup of his family, all simply because of the man he married. Her story reveals the dark side of the China of Xi Jinping, who has just secured a third term in office.
Geng He remembers exactly where he was when he realized how truly overwhelming the power of the Chinese state is: he had taken his daughter Grace to a beauty salon in Beijing for a haircut.
Suddenly, a group of people burst in and asked them to leave with them. It was the secret police.
At first, Geng He did not understand what was happening or who were the people who were taking her and her daughter away. She asked if they could finish the cut first. The answer was a “no”. There were more officers on the street outside; others were waiting for them in her apartment block.
“I looked around and wow, both the first and second floors were packed with people,” he told me.
Agents searched the apartment and Geng He was told her husband had been arrested while visiting his sister in Shandong province, a few hours south of the capital.
It was 2006 and the end of their life as a family began.
Geng He’s husband, Gao Zhisheng, was a lawyer. He had once been recognized by the communist government but he began to defend people whom the authorities did not want him to defend.
Among them were followers of the forbidden spiritual movement Falun GongChinese Christians who were accused of preaching without authorization, and people fighting against the confiscation of land by local officials.
After being arrested, he spent the next few years in jail –accused of inciting subversion– and house arrest.
During house arrest, officers built a special police station in the apartment block where the couple lived to make it easier to monitor them 24 hours a day.
“From time to time, I would open the curtains just to see how many police vehicles were below,” Geng He said, “and my husband would yell at me, ‘What are you doing? Why give them the satisfaction of looking at them?'”
The situation became more and more unbearable. The authorities forced the couple to move, and then they had trouble finding a school that would accept Grace.
The situation eventually faced Geng He with a dire choice: stay or flee China with Grace, then 16, and their other son, Peter, 5. This meant that she was going to have to leave her husband behind..
“I felt bad because I had to choose between my husband and my children, and I chose my children,” she said, unable to hold back her tears.
The three escaped in 2009 with the help of human rights activists. Geng He and her husband had already agreed that they had to try to escape, but the departure was so hasty that she left without being able to tell him.
Geng He did not want to reveal details of his journey to freedom because it could put others at risk who may need to take the same route. But the journey included a stint in the luggage hold of a bus.
Eventually, they illegally crossed the border between China and Thailand, from where they The US agreed to give them asylum.
Life in the US initially was difficult. Geng He had difficulties – some that persist to this day – with a different language. He constantly worried about his children.
As expected, it was difficult for them without their father. Grace has been undergoing hospital treatment for mental health issues.
But 13 years later, the children have finally come to terms with their past and built their own lives in the US Grace, now 28, has just married and Peter, 19, has been accepted to study medicine at university.
“He stays optimistic and happy every day. He studies and has a little job. Everything is quite promising,” said his proud mother.
But Gao Zhisheng himself has suffered terribly since his family escaped to the US He says he has been tortured, in and out of prison. When he served his sentence in 2014, his physical and mental health had deteriorated. Many of his teeth were so loose that he could pull them out by hand.
At the end of his sentence, Gao Zhisheng he was again placed under house arrest in his hometown in the northern province of Shaanxi, despite allegedly being a free man.
It is an example of what an American expert on Chinese law calls “liberation without bereleased“.
At times, Geng He was able to contact her husband by phone to see how he was doing. The last time they spoke was five years ago..
“I don’t remember exactly what we talked about because it seemed like just another call, but of course I asked him how he was doing,” he said. “He was in a good mood. He said he was fine. That was just him; always confident and positive.”
When she called him again a few days later, she got no answer. She hasn’t heard from her husband since then and she doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive.
“I have a nightmare feeling that the Communist Party is going to use covid as an excuse to make it disappear forever.”
She is concerned that the Chinese authorities are going to announce that her husband died of the disease, a natural death that absolves them of any responsibility.
The Chinese embassy in London refused to answer questions from the BBC about Gao Zhisheng.
It is not only the lawyer who has suffered. The fallout from the campaign against him has embroiled his extended family still living in China.
Geng He’s brother-in-law suffered a similar fate. He contracted a serious illness, but was unable to receive proper medical treatment because the police had taken the identity cards of Gao Zhisheng’s relatives. He committed suicide.
As expected, these incidents put Geng He on alert.
A few years ago, a stranger suddenly appeared in the garden of his house, near San Francisco. It was difficult to see clearly in the dark, but fearing that he might be someone connected to the Chinese authorities, fired a warning shot into the air with the gun he keeps in the house. The effect he got was what he wanted: the stranger ran away.
Geng He stands his ground. Once she saw her children established by her, she again focused her attention on her husband. The plight she was in had gradually faded from public awareness, both in China and abroad.
And she has dedicated herself to trying to find out where her husband is and campaign to make sure his name never disappears entirely.
In August, to mark the fifth anniversary of his disappearance, he projected an image of Gao Zhisheng’s face outside the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles, and in September he unveiled a sculpture of his face made from more than 7,000 empty bullet casings.
Geng He has also hired lawyers in Beijing to see if they can locate her husband, but no government department is giving them any information.
She is one of several dozen Chinese scattered across North America who try to free their loved ones in China.
It is difficult to know how many activists are imprisoned in China, since Beijing does not even admit to holding political prisoners.
Geng He admits that she never really understood the dangers of her husband’s job until she moved to the US She now feels closer to him in some ways, even though they live apart, possibly for the rest of their lives.
“Now I feel that I am like a colleague who fights side by side with him. He has given a new meaning to my life,” she said.
Faced with such a powerful force as the Chinese Communist Party, Geng He’s campaign seems doomed to fail. But she is determined to continue.
“My little family has suffered too much, but I feel like I’ve acquired an even bigger family,” he reflects.
“I met so many people who are working hard for a better China.”
The guilt of leaving your husband behind with an unknown fate will probably never go away. But there may be a glimmer of hope in the success of your children, in your new friends, and in the belief in a better future.
Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC News World. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.