As a university student, Zhang Ching was captivated by the idealism and passion of the young teacher who taught her philosophy class.
She could never have imagined the qualities that drew her to become his wife would also lead to their cruel and painful separation.
Now he is a democracy campaigner and human rights activist in jail in China for the fourth time in 10 years on trumped-up charges and she is a refugee in the US, where she fights to keep his story alive.
Zhang’s husband Yang Maodong, a 48-year-old university lecturer and self-taught lawyer more commonly known by his pen name, Guo Feixiong, was honoured in his absence yesterday as this year’s winner of the Front Line Defenders Award — presented annually to activists who have made extraordinary sacrifices to fight for the rights of others.
Guo first came to prominence in China in 2005 when he helped a group of villagers campaigning to have a local official removed from office after the corrupt sell-off of village land.
Despite using only peaceful means, the campaign leaders and Guo were arrested, Guo on charges of “inciting people to cause trouble” — a conveniently vague and all-encompassing offence that can cover just about every act of public assembly and protest.
The charges were dropped but Guo was arrested three more times as he lent his weight to other human rights campaigns, spending long spells in prison and suffering degrading and agonising torture.
In November 2007, he received a five-year sentence for rallying support for another human rights lawyer, and life for the family became impossible.
Zhang, a medical doctor, had taken a break from work to care for their children, Sara and Peter, but after Guo’s imprisonment she needed to find a job — only to find she was unemployable.
“I got a job in a pharmacy but the police followed us everywhere to put us under pressure. My employer was too scared to hire me,” says Zhang.
Their extended family were also followed and harassed, but when the children were targeted, it became too much to bear. Peter was due to start school but was told there was no place for him and Sara, who was to move to middle school — equivalent to our Junior Cert cycle — found none would admit her.
“The last time I saw my husband was in 2008, in October,” says Zhang. “I visited him in prison and he told me if we have the chance, I should take the children to the US.”
The family’s flight was fraught with difficulty. Peter had no passport and the authorities would not issue one for him, but eventually, with the help of international NGOs, they made their way overland to Thailand and, some months later, secured passage to the US.
Guo was released from prison in September 2011 but detained again in August 2013. He remains behind bars awaiting further sentencing next month amid growing concerns for his health.
“He is in a cell 30 metres square with 30 prisoners — one square metre each. He is there more than two years without access to the sunshine, to the outside or medical care,” says Zhang.
In some ways, his current conditions are an improvement on past experiences. He was once roomed with a deranged murderer who tried to gouge his eyes out. But Zhang has not even been permitted a phone call with him and the couple rely on letters to comfort one another.
Zhang dreams of the family being reunited. “We would eat together, talk, go for a trip — normal things,” she says. But she is under no illusions, particularly as Guo cannot be convinced to run if he does get out of prison.
“He wants to stay in China, to push for democracy, to fight for the common good,” says Zhang. “That’s his dream and I support that. I knew his beliefs when I met him. He was involved in the student movement in 1986 and again in 1989 and I also supported that.
“I never imagined one day I must leave him. I believed China would change. I still believe the Chinese communist party will think about change. People want democracy and they need to concede to this reasonable request.”
Chinese president Xi Jinping will visit the US later this month and Zhang hopes US president Barack Obama will use the occasion to raise the case of her husband and others like him, just as she hopes the Irish and European governments will keep human rights on the agenda and not see China purely in terms of a lucrative market for trade.
However, she says the Chinese people too will have to be brave if they want change.
“The real driving force will be from Chinese citizens,” she says. “This is why I want to speak about my husband and publish his writing. He was a really excellent, inspiring teacher and he can still teach people. He is in prison but his ideas are outside and they can still inspire.”
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