A Chinese activist detained by police after marking the 27th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in 2016 has arrived safely in the United States with the help of Washington and a dissident organization.
Zhao Changqing, a former student leader in the 1989 pro-democracy movement who has been jailed six times, arrived in San Francisco late on Monday after U.S. officials and rights groups campaigned for his release.
He was met at the airport by his wife Liu Xiaodong and the couple's two children, who had arrived in the U.S. two years ago after fleeing China and applying for political refugee status at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok.
Former fellow 1989 activists including Fang Zheng were also there to meet Zhao, who made a brief speech vowing to continue to work for democracy in China from the U.S.
"I got off the plane at 4.00 p.m. [Monday] and was reunited with my wife, child, and friends in San Francisco at 6.00 p.m.," Zhao told RFA.
"My daughter was born in San Francisco, she's now two years, four months, while my son, the eldest, is now six-and-a-half years old," he said.
"I would like to thank [veteran exile dissident] Yang Jianli, founder of Citizen Power For China, for helping me to come to the U.S. at this time," Zhao added.
Yang's Initiatives for China/Citizen Power For China group "believes that continued world democracies’ leadership in holding China accountable for respecting the human and political rights of its citizens is a critical component for world stability and for the peaceful transition to a democratic society in China," according to its website.
Zhao said Liu had found the past two years caring for the children in a strange country "very hard."
"I saw how hard it was for my wife raising two children alone, so I left, but I was in a very mixed-up state of mind about it," he said.
"As a veteran of the 1989 movement, I have been working for 30 years [for democracy], during which time I have been imprisoned six times, and yet the democracy we were working for in 1989 is still only a dream," Zhao said. "This has made me very heavy-hearted."
"Now I have left, and I'm away from the front line, with the Chinese people, but that doesn't mean I have left the ideals of 1989 behind," he said. "I will try to start over with these efforts in a new time and a new place, and under different circumstances."
Zhao said the human rights situation, and the ruling Chinese Communist Party's suppression of dissent, is at its harshest now under the administration of President Xi Jinping since the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests.
He said the crackdown seems permanent, and shows no sign of abating.
"The Chinese government has continually targeted the people in the past decades, in a way that is basically consistent," Zhao said. "But the last six years have been the darkest since 1989."
"There are blows being aimed in all directions, and ... there is no sign of any relaxation; ... at least I haven't seen any," he said, citing the recent detention of dozens of members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
A heavy price
A fellow activist surnamed Wang who knows Zhao said he has paid a heavy price for his beliefs under the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Now he has flown the cage, everyone is happy for him, and I hope that his family will start a happy life in the United States," Wang said.
Zhao was detained on June 1, 2016 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 on her arrival that she had fled China to seek a better life for the couple's children.
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 at the time that Zhao, 49, had been concerned for the safety of his wife and child for some time, and had wanted them to leave China.
Others also detained
Zhao, who 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, 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. He was released in October 2015.
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 six jail terms in total, including after taking part as a student leader in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, and subsequently for calling for a reappraisal of the official verdict of "counterrevolutionary rebellion" used by the Communist Party to describe the 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 Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.