Family's dangerous journey to safety

The wife and children of a missing human rights lawyer decide to flee China and make their way to freedom in the US.

Geng He, left, the wife of Gao Zhisheng, their daughter Geng Ge, centre, and their son Gao Tianyu.
Powered by automated translation

BEIJING // The wife and two children of a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer arrived in the United States last week after evading heavy police surveillance around their Beijing home to make a harrowing escape across mountains and rivers to freedom in Thailand. Geng He, the wife of the self-trained lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been missing since Feb 4, said the risks were worth it to protect her children.

"My family could not live a normal life after my husband was persecuted for his advocacy work," she said from Arizona, where she has been living for the past week. "I had no place to turn, so I had to leave." Mr Gao, who in 2001 was named one of China's 10 top lawyers by the ministry of justice for his pro bono work for the poor, got into trouble in 2005 after calling for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, underground Christians, people whose homes had been seized for urban renewal projects and pro-democracy activists.

He was sentenced to three years in prison in Dec 2006 after accusing the government of persecuting members of the banned Falun Gong movement. The sentence was suspended for five years but he remained under 24-hour surveillance. Ms Geng said she was particularly worried about their 16-year-old daughter Geng Ge. The teenager raised the ire of the authorities three years ago when she phoned a human rights activist, Hu Jia, to recount the story of her father's treatment by police.

Mr Hu recorded the phone call and it was later put on the internet. After that Ge Ge, as the teenage girl is known in the family, was escorted to and from school by police. On at least one occasion, Ms Geng said, police officers beat her after she refused to get into their car. "The turning point came when our daughter Ge Ge was beaten up by the public security bureau." Ms Geng said police told everyone at Ge Ge's school that she was the daughter of a mafia leader and had Aids and ordered her classmates to stay away from her. The final blow came last year, she said, when police ordered the school not to allow Ge Ge to attend classes.

"My daughter became depressed and tried to commit suicide three times," she said. And so on Jan 9, Ms Geng and her two children donned disguises to sneak past police guarding their Beijing home. She said her husband was not at home and that she had left him a note explaining why she had to leave. Bob Fu, the founder of ChinaAid, a Christian organisation based in the United States that monitors the treatment of Christians in China, said the escape was a "very dangerous mission".

The family boarded a train in Beijing for Yunnan province, in south-west China, from where they were led across the border to a third country, travelling mainly at night on foot, by car, motorcycle and boat, according to Ms Geng and Mr Fu. Ms Geng said she considered giving up several times. The hardest time, she said, was when she was separated from her children to avoid being noticed. At one point, her five-year old son, Gao Tianyu, was detained at a police checkpoint.

The people guiding him won his release after a few hours, Mr Fu said. The family reached Thailand on Jan 16. While waiting for refugee status, they moved several times, tried to stay indoors and did not speak Chinese to avoid being noticed by Chinese intelligence agents in Thailand. "During the time waiting in Thailand, I was always afraid of being kidnapped or arrested by Chinese spies or the Thai police," Ms Geng said.

Mr Fu, a former political prisoner in China, who spent two weeks with the family in Thailand, said that for safety reasons the US Embassy was not notified until the family reached Thailand. Once they did, he said the embassy moved quickly to help the family. "Every party that knew about this understood that the stakes were very high and that the family was in grave danger," he said. Mr Fu said that three hours before the inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan 20, the Bush administration, as one of its last acts, granted the family asylum. They arrived in Los Angeles on March 11, nearly two months after leaving Beijing.

Plainclothes police took Mr Gao from his siblings' home in Shaanxi province on Feb 4 and there has been no word of him since. "I'm not very optimistic," said Mr Fu. "We are very worried about him, very concerned." The non-governmental organisation Human Rights in China last month published an account by the lawyer in which he described 50 days of torture in Sept 2007. The article, titled Dark Night, Dark Hood, and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia, detailed severe beatings and electric shocks to his genitals.

Ms Geng said her first priority is to help her children and to seek her husband's release. "I want to heal the wounds of my children and myself and get my children into school," she said. "I want to appeal to the international community to help my husband be released and live a normal life."