The sister and niece of Chinese rights attorney Chen Jiangang were harassed and then detained for five hours by police in China on Friday in what was likely revenge for his decision to leave the country while under a travel ban, he told RFA’s Mandarin Service.
Chen, his wife, and two young sons arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 3 after a tortuous flight to freedom via Southeast Asia. He was banned from leaving China earlier this year and is applying for political asylum.
Chen told RFA that his sister Chen Yuling and 14-year-old niece were staying at his apartment in Beijing to help move his belongings back to Shandong when the police came knocking on the door.
Chen Yulin refused to open the door, and the police destroyed the lock and came into the apartment, taking away Chen’s cell phones and computer, together with his sister and niece. Chen said the police presented no legal documents.
Chen Yuling and the niece were held for more than five hours and questioned as to why she was at her brother’s home, and told it was illegal to stay at Chen’s home.
Chen also told RFA that the police changed the lock on his apartment door, and gave his sister a temporary key.
Chen said earlier this month that he had fled China in order to protect his wife and children rather than himself.
"I wasn't very concerned about my own safety, but I am a father, and the Chinese government has been using threats to the safety of my wife and children to control me for the past few years," he said. "This was unacceptable to me."
Chen said China under President Xi Jinping increasingly resembles the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under late supreme leader Mao Zedong, and also drew parallels with the level of oppression in North Korea.
"The Chinese government wants to turn defense lawyers into a fake profession," he said. "Now, you have to cooperate with them by acting a part in court, or you will be arrested, or have your license revoked."
In April, border guards at Beijing's International Airport prevented Chen from leaving China for the U.S., where he was due to take up the prestigious Humphrey Fellowship to study law and human rights at American University in Washington, DC.
He told RFA at the time that the ban was linked to his acting as defense attorney to fellow human rights lawyer Xie Yang, and also the fact that the fellowship is funded by the U.S. State Department.
Border guards also told him that his departure would "endanger national security."
Chen has been banned from leaving China before: he, his wife, and the couple's two children were all added to an exit ban "blacklist" in 2017 as part of a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and their families launched in July 2015.
The family was also detained and forcibly escorted back home from a vacation in the southwestern province of Yunnan in 2017.
Chen and his family had a tortuous journey before they arrived in the U.S., passing through several countries in Southeast Asia, according to Bob Fu, founder and president of the Christian rights group ChinaAid.
Dozens of people were involved in helping them escape, before the family finally boarded a flight for the U.S. in Manila, alongside Fu and Yaxue Cao of the rights website China Change.
Chen was also instrumental in exposing the torture of Xie Yang, who was initially detained on July 11, 2015, then held under "residential surveillance at a designated location" in a government guesthouse belonging to the National University of Defense Technology in Hunan's provincial capital, Changsha.
Reported by RFA’s Mandarin Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.