Censored Lives: Shi Taos Mother, Wang Xiaonings Wife

2007-11-13
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Gao Qinsheng, mother of Shi Tao, during her trip to Washington, DC. Photo: RFA

Gao Qinsheng is the mother of jailed Chinese journalist Shi Tao, whose conviction for "revealing state secrets" was obtained by the national security police after Yahoo! turned over details of Shi's private e-mail account. Shi is serving a 10-year jail term after he posted details online of reporting restrictions discussed during an editorial meeting. Gao spoke to Jill Ku, presenter of the Mandarin program "Different Voices" in our Washington studios after a Congressional committee meeting in which Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang was strongly criticized by committee members, and apologized to Gao :

We have been invited to the United States on this trip to witness Congress severely censuring Yahoo! for telling lies. We heard the criticisms of the chairman of the House committee on foreign affairs, and his support for us. I was very moved by this.

What's more it has implications that reach beyond this case involving Yahoo! Multinational corporations will not in future be allowed to do things which violate the rights to privacy of individual citizens. This is very significant for the continuing development of the Internet, the flow of information, and for freedom of the press. This is its political meaning.

And Yahoo! has also apologized to us, the relatives of the people it harmed in this way. We accepted this apology with an open heart. I am Shi Tao's mother, and it was because Yahoo! released his details outside the company that he was sent to jail. Of course I feel very sad about this. My son received a 10-year prison sentence, and he is having a very hard time in there, but he is innocent. As a journalist, he has the legal right to promote the free flow of information. It is his duty.

Conversation with Jerry Yang

I hope in future that China doesn't use the State Secrets Law to prevent the flow of information on social developments, administration orders, or political history. When I saw Jerry Yang there in front of me, apologizing, I thought of my son. I cried, because I felt very sad.

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Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang at the Congressional hearing (Shi Tao's mother sits behind him.) Photo: RFA

Later, after the meeting, I said that I had heard that he and my son were exactly the same age. Your mother took you from Taiwan to the U.S. when you were a child, and you grew up in such a powerful, free and democratic country. You had every privilege. But you helped the authorities in an unjust case, and the result was my son's downfall. I told him this after the meeting. He repeated his apology. He said Shi Tao is a good person and I have let him down. How do you think I will feel if something happens to him during 10 years of labor camp, and I lose my son?

I said that people were more important than money, and that perhaps he believed that money was more important than a person's life? He said, yes, yes, and kept nodding and apologizing to me.

There was some talk of compensation. We will have to leave that to our lawyers, because we have to return to China... The most important thing for us has been that Yahoo! has admitted its mistake in front of the whole world and explained what really happened. I hope that they will explain this to the Chinese government and demand that they release my son.

Prison transfer, improved conditions

I am very grateful to the U.S. government for arranging this visit, and for the international action that can be taken against multinational corporations. They have also made it clear to us that they are interested in pursuing this matter via the United Nations Human Rights Commission to push for the release of my son.

Shi Tao had a very hard time after he was sent to jail; in fact he almost had a total breakdown. It's very hot in the south, and the conditions at the first prison he was sent to, Chishan Prison, were terrible. It was very damp and humid...he nearly collapsed, but then he remembered all the people outside who support him, he remembered his mother, and he was able to continue. He was very unwell. He had stomach pains, and had to work very long hours in the prison workshop, making gemstones. He had very little time to rest and recuperate.

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Gao Qinsheng and Yu Ling talk to Different Voices host Gu Jirou. Photo: RFA

At the end of June, when I got back from South Africa to accept the prize on his behalf, his life had taken a slight turn for the better...They transferred him to Changde Prison in Hunan, where the conditions are a bit better, and the management is a lot more as it should be. His working conditions are much less harsh than before. He has to work on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They don't have to work on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so he has time rest, and time to study. So we are much happier with this.

Homeless, divorced

I get to visit him once a month, but I can't stay long in Changsha because my landlady charges me too much rent. I stay in a basement room there but I can't afford to go there for every visit. He wants me not to stay in such a horrid place, but he is also afraid of losing his mother. I am his only relative now. His wife divorced him when he went to jail in order to keep her job and her means of existence. She was a victim of this too, so now all the property belongs to her.

Shi Tao and I don't have a home. I stay with my other two sons and friends, but even his brothers are afraid because everyone is afraid of being associated with political prisoner. They know that we are being watched and followed. So I have become very self-reliant. I have never asked them to do me a favour, or for help of any kind. I always say I'm fine.

Shi Tao and I support each other, encourage each other. I would do anything, pay any price, for my son. I just want him to come out of jail, even if it means I am on my deathbed when he does, I will be able to die in peace. I am the only relative who stays in touch with him or who goes to visit him.

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In the US Congress on October 7, Ms Yu Ling brandishes the September 2003 court sentence condemning her husband to 10 years in prison. Photo: RFA

Yu Ling is the wife of Wang Xiaoning, jailed for 10 years on July 25, 2003 for "incitement to subvert state power" after he posted articles online calling for democratic reforms. She also attended the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing during which Yang and executive vice president Michael Callahan were slammed for providing misleading information to Congress about Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning's case :

After April 2002 the order issued by the National Security Bureau in Beijing ordered Yahoo! to hand over information relating to individual users' e-mail accounts. Yahoo! complied very quickly with this request. The information which they providing was relating to Wang Xiaoning's private e-mail account...I thought Yahoo!'s apology came too late.

My husband Wang Xiaoning was detained on Sept. 1, 2002 by the National Security Bureau. They didn't issue a formal notice of his detention until Sept. 30 2002. The trial didn't take place until July 25, 2003. Then there were the appeals. He didn't start serving his sentence until Feb. 18, 2004. But I didn't get to see him until more than 18 months after his initial detention, on March 15, 2004.

They wanted to get as much as they could to make the charges against him more severe, so they beat him and kicked him to force a confession out of him. Then, his two cellmates started to give him verbal abuse. When we hired the lawyer, the first thing he said to me after his very first meeting with Wang Xiaoning was that his cellmates were abusing him verbally. But he never said anything about it directly to me, because he didn't want me to be upset.

Before that first meeting on March 15, 2004, I had never even been allowed to see him. They wouldn't even let me in the building when I went to the detention center to take some things to him. So, when I first saw him, he had a glazed stare, straight ahead, with no expression on his face at all. He was in a very poor state of health. He couldn't stop coughing, coughing.

The last time I saw him was on Oct. 8, 2007. We are allowed to visit once a month in the prison, with 30 minutes allowed per visit. I think that his physical health was deeply affected by the extreme psychological pressure he was feeling. Because of this, I believe that he will only get better physically with emotional support. So that means that our meetings are extremely precious, and I will do absolutely anything to make sure I see him at those visits.

Litigation threat

I have a rule – because you know that they won't let anything through with the slightest political content in it, and we were only allowed to start exchanging letters after March 15, 2004 – I have a rule that when we write to each other we are only allowed to say good things, to talk about happy things. We don't mention the difficult stuff. That's the same when we meet, as well. I also tell him to be sure to force himself to thing of something happy every day. But he wouldn't want to tell me even if he was suffering anyway, so there's a lot that I don't get to hear about.

Inside the jail, they have a daily living allowance of four yuan (U.S. 50 cents) a day and they're not allowed to spend all of it on food. I kept telling him to eat more greens, because out in the normal world we of course think that eating more vegetables is good for you. But he said the vegetables were too disgusting; that they were made from the outer leaves of cabbages thrown away by street vendors.

So of course when I received an apology from Yahoo!, I felt it had come a bit too late. I really hope that my husband will be released. Since he went to jail he has lost his basic human rights and his most basic personal security.

Of course I hope that they will give us compensation. That would only be right. It's to teach Yahoo! a lesson. But actually, that's too easy for them; a big company like that with so much revenue. They would be able to afford any sum you named. But they wouldn't find it very easy to have him released, although how come it was so easy to get him in there in the first place? So that's why I told him, if Yahoo! can't get my husband released, I am going to sue the pants off you. He didn't answer.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Jill Ku. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Please continue to send contributions to RFA’s Women in Their Own Words project to this address: women@rfa.org

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