Guilty by Association

It's not just famous artists like Ai Weiwei and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. In China's ongoing crackdown against dissidents and critics, the government is on a rampage against their families, too.

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.

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.

Most families, however, don't have nearly that kind of wherewithal. Take, for example, the family of Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer from Shandong province who was imprisoned for four years for his work with disenfranchised villagers and woman forced to have abortions. After his release, he was forced to live in isolation in a Shandong village, together with his wife, Yuan Weijing, and their 6-year-old daughter. Yuan is denied almost all contact to the outside world, including to her son, who she sent away to be raised by relatives so that he can attend school. In February, the couple managed to smuggle a video out of the country in which they described their plight. They were reportedly beaten and denied medical treatment after the video was posted online.

On the phone, Zeng describes the successive levels of pressure that the government applies to her: "First of all, there is worrying about [Hu's] safety. For some time, we didn't even know where he was and what kind of abuse he was suffering. I worry about his health, about his mental situation."

"Then there is the question of making a living and sustaining some income as a de facto single mother," she continues. (Zeng's daughter is three-and-a-half years old. Her father was imprisoned shortly after she was born). "Because of constant police harassment, I could not get a good job or start a business. For a time, I couldn't even get a nanny for my child because when I hired one, the police would threaten her and scare her away."

Zeng says the psychological warfare she faces is brutal. Between threats and detentions, she repeatedly has to deal with the innuendo from her surveillance teams and government-sponsored neighborhood committees, which suggest there were "high-positioned" men "interested" in her and imply that she could improve her situation greatly if only she would leave her partner.

"All this is meant to isolate me from society and to break me down," Zeng concludes. "Sometimes it works. They planted deep trauma in my heart."

Although Zeng has chosen to join her husband in dissenting against the government, picking up where Hu was forced to leave off when he was arrested for his activism, some relatives of dissidents prefer to keep quiet. Still others try to actively distance themselves from activism, sometimes going so far as to move to an entirely new city or even to file for divorce. That's what happened in the case of Yang Zili, a social commentator who was imprisoned for eight years in 2001 for organizing a discussion group on political issues. His wife at the time, Lu Kun, petitioned several times on his behalf, took care of his defense and finances, and visited prison when allowed, but eventually moved to the United States. The couple divorced after Yang was released in 2009. Yang says he understood her decision. "It is just too much pressure, being the wife of a dissident in China; it's a fate many prefer to avoid," he says. Still, Lu's choice also made Yang's life more difficult: the last couple of years of his prison term he was held in almost complete isolation, with no family visits at all.

"Tactics are definitely designed to put pressure on those who contemplate political activism," Rosenzweig explains. "It is one thing to be willing to confront authorities or even go to jail, and another thing to know your family will suffer. This doesn't always deter everyone from speaking up, but it is a factor dissidents take into account." Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate, referred to this factor in addressing his wife in a speech before the court that sentenced him -- after a speedy trial that Liu Xia was not allowed to attend -- to 11 years in prison: "Throughout all these years ... our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savor its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin.... My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight," Liu said.

Wives (and in some cases husbands) are not the only ones who earn the attention of the state: Zeng's parents, who live in Fujian province, receive frequent police visits, while her in-laws in Beijing were put under house arrest several times. In another case, the elderly parents of an activist were threatened by the local police in their small town and were then rushed to Beijing so that they could pressure their son to stop his involvement in human rights organizations. A Shanghai lawyer, Li Tiantian, reported in February that her boyfriend was threatened that he'll be dismissed from his job on account of her activism. Li has since been taken into police custody.

Although some of the dissidents were arrested for their involvement with social media, those outlets also have served as a balm, as families facing repression from the government try to contact the outside world. When human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong was arrested in February, his wife, Jin Bianling, opened a Twitter account to record her efforts to get information as to his whereabouts, counting the days of his detention online to a crowd of several thousand followers. (Jiang returned home two weeks ago, but is under surveillance, and the couple declined requests for press interviews to keep a low profile.)

Twitter isn't a medium known for its depth of emotion, but it was undeniably heart-rending when Jin described a conversation with her 8-year-old daughter one evening not long after Jiang's arrest. "Mommy," Jin recorded the child saying. "We shouldn't think about daddy much. You told me when I sneeze, it is a sign that someone is thinking about me. If we make daddy sneeze where he is now, he might be in even more pain."



Tunnel Vision

Why even Egypt's new government won't end Gaza's isolation.

RAFAH, Gaza — For many Palestinians living in Gaza, a trip to Egypt begins much as I mine did last week: down a jury-rigged elevator that lowers a rickety cage some 30 to 60 yards into the ground, leaving the occupants at the bottom of what looks disturbingly like a human version of a hamster habitat trail. Some two weeks after Egypt announced that it would permanently open its main border crossing with Gaza, this 300-yard-long tunnel was still seeing heavy traffic.

Stepping into the tunnel, I stopped to put my hand gently against the roof and felt loose dirt crumble against my touch; ahead I could see where sandbags had been piled to stave off a partial wall collapse; above, added wooden scaffolding showed evidence of a cave-in. Gaza's now famous smuggling tunnels are predominantly dug by hand, typically by teenage boys. Tunnels are built over and under other tunnels, often intersecting by accident, creating a haphazard, unmapped underground world where human traffic mingles with an eclectic mix of goods that range from cows to elevator parts. The engineering is questionable, collapses are frequent, and fatalities are a cost of doing business.

After Israel -- with tacit assistance from Egypt -- imposed an economic blockade against Hamas-controlled Gaza in 2007, the tunnels became the region's primary means of consumer trade, bringing in everything from shampoo to electric generators. They also have proved a useful conduit for drugs like tramadol, a prescription opiate now widely abused in Gaza, and weapons, including the Grad-type rockets launched against Israel. Since Israel eased the blockade last year, most consumer goods are now cheaper to import legally, but forbidden or restricted items, like gas, cement, cars, people, and of course, weapons, still come through the tunnels. (On my way to the tunnels, I drove around with a white-bearded trader from Rafah who stopped his car in a back alley to pick up half a dozen misspelled plastic bags marked "Maed in China," containing grips for Kalashnikov rifles.)

Last month's surprise reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian parties vying for power, along with the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's Israel-allied regime in Egypt, seemed to hold out the potential to alter the landscape of the tunnel economy, possibly by opening the border to Egypt and normalizing cross-border traffic. In February, the Egyptian government reopened the Rafah terminal, Gaza's pedestrian crossing with Egypt, and then announced at the end of April that it would soon make it permanent.

But when I arrived in Rafah last week, the terminal was nearly a ghost town -- not much had really changed. A small trickle of people made their way across: an elderly woman in a battered wheelchair, a young boy with oxygen tubes in his nose. An empty waiting room in the terminal had a single metal detector, unused and in disrepair in a corner.

Lt. Col. Ayoub Abu Shaar of the Hamas security forces, the manager of the Rafah crossing on the Gazan side, told me that Egyptians are currently allowing 300 people per day to pass over the border, but a significant number of those -- about 40 to 60 -- are still being turned back by the Egyptian side for unexplained "security reasons." There is no commercial trade at Rafah, nor are there any plans to start it up.

Rafah's tunnels, by contrast, are a hive of activity. On a Friday afternoon when I visited, when most stores in town were already closed, workers at one tunnel were busy hauling up gravel in plastic blue bins; in the next tunnel over, a truck was being loaded with fuel. I passed by the coveted car tunnels -- there are four now -- where elevators are used to lower and raise automobiles into massive holes that are said to cost $2 million to build. Those tunnels, which can fit trucks as a big as a Land Cruiser, have transformed the Gaza car market.

For many, the legal crossing simply isn't an option. The day before visiting Rafah, I interviewed Dalia, a 23-year-old Palestinian woman who described being smuggled through a tunnel from Egypt to Gaza so that she could marry another Palestinian from Gaza. Dalia, who grew up in Tripoli, Libya, lacked the official paperwork needed to cross the border legally, so the tunnels were her only option. As a bride, the tunnel owner agreed her passage would be free (but charged her for her baggage). She had a relatively high-end trip -- pulled along on a mattress that had been turned into something of a human conveyor belt, with oxygen tanks hung at points along the way to help those who had trouble breathing. (At the other extreme, I interviewed a trader who went through a tunnel not controlled by Hamas -- one of the "illegal illegal" tunnels built for those escaping the local authorities or trying to escape fees -- at just 20 inches high, it was crawling space only.)

I was ushered into a tunnel in Rafah, just over 4 feet high, enough to walk stooped over, but with no oxygen tanks in sight. After about 20 minutes of making my way through the dimly lit trail, my breathing grew more rapid and I realized I wasn't getting enough oxygen. As my head began to spin, panic washed over me, and I turned to Omar, a car dealer from Gaza City who had offered to take me to the tunnels. "Gaza," I said, pointing back. "Can we go back to Gaza?"

"No. Egypt," Omar replied, laughing, as his 4-year old son raced past me.

Lightheaded and no longer sure whether we were closer to Egypt or Gaza, I didn't seem to have much choice other than to move forward. About 10 minutes later, the tunnel slanted sharply up, leading to a makeshift ladder embedded in a dirt wall. We climbed up, emerging in the middle of a house in Egypt.

Outside, we were greeted by a Bedouin who owned the house and served us cups of tepid Coca-Cola under a thatched roof meant to shield the tunnel activities from view. Despite that half-hearted attempt at concealment, the idea that the tunnel entrances are secret to anyone is a facade for a more complicated, nuanced structure of cross-border trade between Gaza and Egypt: Hamas controls the vast majority of the tunnels, grants permits for new construction, posts guards to monitor activity, collects "customs," and even runs a tunnel committee that resolves disputes among workers and tunnel owners. The Bedouin owner even asked to see my papers, issued by the Hamas-controlled police, which gave me permission to visit the tunnels.

Emerging into Gaza after a trip back through the tunnel, a beat-up white Daewoo car pulled up, and a man carrying a large, weathered suitcase, accompanied by his wife and children, got out. It was a scene that would have been typical anywhere in the world: a family seeing off their father on a trip abroad -- except rather than climbing into a train or an airplane, he was about to descend into a tunnel.

Hamas's argument for the tunnels is simple: Israel still does not let in enough goods to allow a functional economy, not to mention rebuild from the destruction left by the 2008-2009 invasion, which left tens of thousands of homes reduced to rubble. "We want to make direct trade with our neighbors," Tahert al-Nunu, a spokesman for the Hamas government, told me in Gaza City. "No one chooses this way, and the government wants to collect taxes from real trade."

Nouno said that the joint Hamas-Fatah Palestinian delegation, which just returned from Egypt, had indeed discussed the border issue. "[The Egyptians] promised us ... the first thing is to make good progress for the movement in Rafah borders for Palestinians," he said. "Regarding the goods and all the materials, it needs a new agreement."

But the truth is that neither side really wants to open the Egyptian border to trade, for fear of easing pressure on Israel. "The Egyptians are still calculating things," Ahmed Yousef, Hamas's deputy foreign minister told me. "If you open it fully for trade, it means Gaza is not part of Palestine anymore which is under occupation," he said. "They know the traps: The Israelis try to make Gaza a burden on their shoulder." In other words, if Egypt opens the border, Gaza can no longer claim it's under a blockade. And economic integration with Egypt, even if desirable, cuts Gaza off even more from the West Bank.

The border isn't the only unknown of the new Egyptian-Palestinian relationship. Egypt was heavily involved in facilitating the negotiations that led to the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, and it is expected to send a permanent delegation to Gaza to monitor the reconciliation. The Hamas leaders I spoke with offered differing -- and at times contradictory -- descriptions of the Egyptians' future role, ranging from actively reviewing security files of government employees to see who was politically acceptable to acting as a sort of official arbiter between Hamas and Fatah.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, Hamas's foreign-policy chief and one of the group's top leaders, seemed less concerned about the details of the Egyptian role than with what Egypt's revolution -- and its newfound support for the reconciliation -- would mean for Palestinian leverage against Israel. "Our assessment is practical. In this coming year, Europe will gradually come closer to the Palestinians," he said, adding that the United States would be left on the sidelines. "The Arab countries are going to change," Zahar predicted. "By the end of this year, there will be a new Egypt."

This new Egypt, he said, would have no corruption, no cooperation with Israel, and would not bow to U.S. pressure. And it would have strong relationships with countries like Sudan, Iran, Kuwait, and the new government in Libya, if Qaddafi's regime falls. With the Arab revolutions, "a new map will be present," he said, "and the isolation of Israel will be much stronger."

The idea that Egypt-Gaza cooperation is less about opening the border and more about escalating pressure on Israel was confirmed on May 15, Nakba Day -- which laments the establishment of Israel and the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Israeli lands in 1948. Although it was originally announced that there would be huge demonstrations at the border with Egypt, Rafah turned out to be quiet; Egyptian authorities acted swiftly to intercept demonstrators entering the Sinai on their way to Rafah. Demonstrators descended instead on the Erez crossing, Israel's only pedestrian crossing with Gaza, forming what would be one of four major protests at Israel's borders that day.

It was clearly no accident that the Rafah border was quiet. The new Egypt-Gaza relationship, at least for Hamas, is less about easing the blockade than developing a united strategy toward Israel. "There is no telling what will happen in the future," said Zahar, the Hamas foreign-policy chief, when I asked him about the prospect of negotiating peace with Israel. "We failed to achieve anything by negotiation. By resistance in Gaza, we dismissed the Israelis from Gaza."

For the small number of people traveling to Egypt on official business, having the Rafah crossing open will make their lives easier. But for ordinary residents of Gaza, the new relationship with Egypt isn't likely to make much of a difference in their lives. Without official trade, the economy will remain stunted and the tunnel economy will continue to flourish. Gaza today remains, as it has been, stuck between a moribund peace process with Israel and Egyptian politics that dictate keeping pressure on Israel.

This dilemma was on display at the Erez crossing on Nakba Day, where the scene was part carnival, part emerging tragedy: Buses brought in hundreds of protesters, as roving vendors hawked flavored ice, Jordanian soft drinks, and cigarettes. The protesters, mostly young men carrying Palestinian flags, easily passed the first Hamas police checkpoint, which consisted of just two policemen armed with batons. The demonstrators surged past; by the time they reached the Hamas-controlled gate leading to the Erez terminal, the police didn't even seem interested in stopping them.

As hundreds of protesters closed in on the Erez terminal, the Israeli side gave two warning shots before firing live ammunition. Two Apache attack helicopters flew overhead. By the end of the day, dozens of unarmed protesters were reported injured.

As the ambulances raced back and forth carrying the wounded, I asked a Hamas policeman leaning against a car what he was supposed to be doing. He said they were just trying to keep the demonstrators "orderly." I asked whether they were instructed to keep protestors away from the Israeli crossing, which everyone knew was bound to spark an inevitable confrontation.

"No, no orders," said the police officer, who refused to give his name. "We were told just to let them through and send a message to Israel."

Photos by Sharon Weinberger