Fri, May 12, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Chinese lawyer’s family says US helped them flee

Chen Guiqiu, whose husband remains in custody, says US embassy officials helped the family escape from Bangkok, including a tense airport confrontation with Chinese officials

By Gerry Shih  /  AP, BEIJING

Illustration: Mountain People

Stuck in a Bangkok jail with a deportation order against her, Chen Guiqiu (陳桂秋) waited with dread for what seemed certain to come next. A Thai immigration official showed her surveillance video of the jail entrance, where more than a dozen Chinese security agents were waiting.

Within minutes, Chen feared, she and her two daughters would be escorted back to China, where her husband, the prominent rights lawyer Xie Yang (謝陽), was being held on charges of inciting subversion — and where punishment for attempting to flee surely awaited her.

After weeks on the run, Chen was exhausted, and so was her luck.

A Christian, she prayed: “Don’t desert us now, not like this.”

Help arrived, from the US.

US embassy officials managed to enter the facility just in time to whisk Chen and her daughters out a back door.

The Chinese agents outside soon realized what had happened and pursued them, finally meeting in a standoff at the Bangkok airport, where Chinese, Thai and US officials heatedly argued over custody of the family.

Chen and her supporters disclosed details of her family’s escape in March for the first time to The Associated Press. Their journey reveals the lengths that the Chinese government has increasingly been willing to go to reach far beyond its jurisdiction in the pursuit of dissidents and their families.

The saga also demonstrates that in at least some cases, US officials are willing to push back, even at a moment weeks before US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping (習近平), were to meet in Florida.

The Trump administration has been criticized for downplaying human rights in foreign policy, but may have viewed Chen’s case as special — if not for herself, then for her youngest daughter, a four-year-old US citizen.

The family’s ordeal began on July 9, 2015, when the Chinese government launched a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers. Xie, who represented evicted farmers and pro-democracy activists, was among dozens detained in the “7-09 crackdown” and, months later, charged with crimes against the state.

In January, Chen helped release her husband’s account of being beaten, deprived of sleep and otherwise tortured while in detention — drawing further condemnation of Beijing by Western governments.

Police summoned Chen for hours-long meetings where, she said, they threatened to evict her, deny her children schooling and have her fired from her job as a professor of environmental engineering at Hunan University.

By early February, the pressure was becoming unbearable. Seemingly unable to extract a confession out of Xie, the authorities stepped up threats against Chen and, increasingly, those close to her.

When police detained Chen’s 14-year-old daughter as she tried to board a train for Hong Kong, Chen knew a travel ban had been placed on their names.

That was when she decided to contact Bob Fu (傅希秋), a Christian rights activist based in Texas who has helped several high-profile dissidents flee China, including Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠), a blind rights lawyer whose 2012 flight to the US embassy in Beijing sparked diplomatic tensions.

“We’re going on a trip,” Chen told her daughters the morning of Feb. 19.

They headed south from their home in central China, then crossed into at least two countries without paperwork. There were nights when they had nowhere to sleep and days when they had nothing but a bag of chocolates to eat, she said.

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