BEIJING — On a quiet block in western Beijing where otherwise only a few retirees can be seen walking their dogs or trimming their bushes, one building is under constant and conspicuous surveillance. A plainclothes policeman stands guard before an entranceway, while another keeps watch sitting inside a small cabin.
The unlikely object of the Chinese state's attention in this instance is Liu Xia, a painter, poet, and photographer -- and the wife of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Guilty by association, she has been under house arrest, with almost no contact with the outside world, since November 2010, when her husband's award was announced. No one has heard from Liu since February, and her friends are increasingly worried about her health. Still, there is no sign that the authorities are planning to relent.
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Liu's arrest underscores a peculiar aspect to the recent Chinese crackdown on political dissidents that has seen the detention of dozens of prominent activists, intellectuals, and artists. Authorities are increasingly targeting not just critics of the ruling party, but their family members, including spouses, parents, and even young children. While the dissidents gain the headlines, their relatives are punished out of the spotlight. Though the wife of jailed artist Ai Weiwei was recently allowed a visit her husband, she could be next in line to lose her freedom.
It's a punitive strategy that seeks to exploit Chinese traditions of filial piety. For China's dissidents, family is often both a source of strength and weakness: Chinese families tend to be close and highly involved in each other lives, and they take seriously the promise to stick together through thick and thin. The government, aware of these close ties, is using them to put more pressure on activists.
It also bears echoes of the Cultural Revolution-era, when many Chinese families were torn apart as spouses and children were forced to denounce loved ones labeled by the authorities as capitalist traitors and were sometimes forced to take part in their public humiliation. Today's China is again making a policy of manipulating familial love and devotion to suppress any political challenges.
"One of the more troubling trends we see in recent years has been for the government to more directly involve family members," observes Joshua Rosenzweig, a senior researcher at the Dui Hua Foundation, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to improving human rights in China. "We see surveillance, constant harassment, even extended house arrests. These all happened before, but now they have become routine" -- as in the case of Liu Xia. Rosenzweig adds, "Legal procedure has become irrelevant" in the Communist Party's quest to maintain stability. Under Chinese law, there is no procedure that allows for a person to be held indefinitely under house arrest without charges or a police investigation. "To put it simply, families are being held hostage," says Rosenzweig.
Zeng Jinyan would concur. She has been under constant surveillance and subject to frequent house arrests ever since 2001, when she met her husband, AIDS activist Hu Jia, who is now serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for "subversion of state power." Zeng was a student when they met, and she says she never imagined her life turning out the way it did. "I thought I'll graduate, find a job, and marry. I planned on a simple life and was hoping I could have enough time and money to travel the world," she tells me in a telephone interview. But she has since become an acclaimed activist in her own right, detailing her everyday life under the party's watchful eye on her blog and Twitter account. In 2007, Time magazine included her on its list of the world's 100 most influential people. Clearly, the regime's strategy backfired in this case.