Wife, Child of Tiananmen Activist Arrive in U.S. After Fleeing China

china-asylum-07202016.jpg Liu Xiaodong, (second from left), wife of jailed dissident Zhao Changqing, and her 4-year-old son, with supporters after their arrival at San Francisco Airport, July 20, 2016.
Photo courtesy of Yang Jianli.

The wife of a Chinese activist detained by police after marking the 27th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre last month has arrived in the United States with the couple's child after fleeing China via Thailand.

Liu Xiaodong, wife of Zhao Changqing, and the couple's four-year-old son arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday after applying for political refugee status at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok.

"After we got off the plane and went through immigration, I felt as if I was in a dream of peace and freedom," Liu told RFA in an interview soon after her arrival.

"I am really excited to be here, but I feel a lot of complicated emotions, because there are so many families of democracy activists still in China, still having to go through all the pain and despair that we did," she said.

"They have very difficult lives when their husbands are in detention."

Zhao was detained on June 1 in Beijing after meeting in private with a group of fellow activists to mark the 27th anniversary of the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

Liu said she fled China to seek a better life for the couple's son.

"He is growing up fast, and he would have had a lot of problems [because of his father's activism], including the problem of finding a school," she said. "It would be very hard for a family like us to offer him a stable environment for a good education."

"Then there's the issue of where we would live; we could be told to leave a place by police at any time, because they would put pressure on our landlord to make us move," she said. "That happened a lot."

Dissidents' children are frequently targeted by the ruling Chinese Communist Party for retaliation over their parents' political activities, with some being denied schooling altogether.

U.S.-based rights activist Yang Jianli, who advised Liu Xiaodong on her application, said Zhao, 47, had been concerned for the safety of his wife and child for some time, and had wanted them to leave China.

"He said he would feel better about everything if he knew that his kid was able to go and live a normal life in a safe place," Yang said.

"The first time he went into jail for his activism with the New Citizens' Movement, his kid was just four months old," Yang said.

"He wrote to me from prison asking me to take care of his son."

To do that, Yang flew out to Bangkok on July 16, helping Liu to fill out the correct forms on the 17th, and escorting her to the U.S. Embassy on the 18th, he said.

They got their visa to enter the U.S. on the same day, and took a flight to San Francisco the very next day.

"So many people have found their route to freedom via the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok," he said. "It was very emotional. I told Liu that we were going there to find freedom [for her and her son]."

Precarious lives in Thailand

Fellow U.S.-based democracy activists welcomed Liu's safe arrival.

We have been working towards this all along, so that Zhao Changqing's wife and child can come to the U.S.," 1989 protest veteran Zhou Fengsuo told RFA.

"These are very difficult times, so it hasn't been easy. Now they can start a new life," he said.

Not everyone has been as lucky as Liu and her son.

Many Chinese refugees in Thailand, which is run by a military junta with close ties to Beijing, are now effectively on the run, constantly moving around in a bid to evade arrest and deportation on illegal immigration charges, activists have told RFA.

Last November, Chinese asylum seekers Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, who had fled persecution in their home country, were handed back to Chinese authorities in a move that drew strong criticism from the U.N.

They are now in pretrial detention in the southwestern city of Chongqing, and their families fear they may be at risk of torture or mistreatment.

Zhao, who has already served two-and-a-half years in prison for "gathering a crowd to disrupt order of a public place" after being detained in April 2013 and released in October 2015, was detained alongside other activists who also tried to mark the politically sensitive anniversary, including Li Meiqing, Li Wei, Liang Taiping, Lu Fuhai and Zhang Baocheng.

Most are being held on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," while Lu Fuhai faces charges of "incitement to subvert state power."

The group had also posted a photo of themselves online, sitting in front of a slogan calling for the release of political prisoners Guo Feixiong and Yu Shiwen, and calling for a memorial for the victims of the June 4 military crackdown, which ended weeks of pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

The detentions came amid tight security ahead of the June 4 anniversary, public commemoration of which is banned by the government, which styles the 1989 democracy protests a "counterrevolutionary rebellion."

A native of northern Shaanxi province, Zhao has served three jail terms in total, including after taking part as a student leader in the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

Since his release in 2007, he has devoted himself to promoting civic activism and organizing advocacy campaigns on issues ranging from equal education rights to anti-corruption measures.

Reported by C.K. for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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