Relatives of China’s political prisoners spend festive season apart

The families of China’s political prisoners are struggling through the Lunar New Year festivities – a time of nationwide and international family reunions – without them, relatives told Radio Free Asia in recent interviews.

The Lunar New Year, known in mainland China as Spring Festival, is a festival of reunion, with families reunited, sometimes across continents, for a home cooked and lavish meal on New Year’s Eve by long standing tradition.

But as the rest of China ushers in the Year of the Dragon with new clothes, money-stuffed red envelopes and firecrackers, the families of prisoners of conscience have been left wondering how their loved ones are, and in some cases if they are even alive.

The Weiquanwang rights website estimated on Jan. 31, 2024, that there are currently around 1,682 political prisoners behind bars in China, at varying stages of the judicial process. RFA spoke recently with the relatives of three prominent political prisoners ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations, which are still ongoing.

“I feel devastated, and I can’t shake this feeling,” Geng He, wife of disappeared lawyer Gao Zhisheng told RFA by text message ahead of the New Year’s Eve dinner. Geng said she was feeling shaky and was unable to stop crying.

“This holiday is awful,” Geng said. 

Geng He with a portrait of her husband, the disappeared rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Geng He)

Gao disappeared on Aug. 13, 2017, from a remote cave dwelling in Shaanxi where he was being held under house arrest following his release from prison in August 2014. Local police denied holding him when contacted by the family.

Geng also released a message to her husband via the Weiquanwang rights website, which read: “All the hardship over the years have made us into the strongest family in the world. My children and I will be brave and strong until the day you come home.”

“Please hold on, no matter what difficulties you encounter,” the message read. “Please be sure to come back. We will always wait for you and always love you.”

‘A subject that can’t be mentioned’

On the other side of the United States, Luo Shengchun, wife of jailed human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, is also going through another Spring Festival without her husband.

Luo said she copes with the separation by suppression painful thoughts and distracting herself.

“I’ve come up with various ways to make myself less unhappy, whether it’s suppressing the feelings or distracting myself by spending time with friends,” Luo told RFA Mandarin.

“Jiaxi’s biggest wish was for [his situation] not to affect our daily lives, work, study, exercise,” Luo said. “So I try my hardest to make myself happy. I think this is a really big comfort to him.”

Apart from getting together with friends, Luo said she would treat the Lunar New Year as “just an ordinary day,” although she will be calling relatives from both sides of the family to catch up, particularly to offer New Year’s greetings to Ding’s elderly mother.

Luo Shengchun, left, wife of jailed rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, right, holds up a sign calling for her husband’s release in an undated photo. (@luoshch/X)

But many things are still left unsaid. “Ding Jiaxi is a subject that can’t be mentioned,” said Luo, who hasn’t seen Ding since he visited her in the United States seven years ago.

The Linshu County People’s Court in the eastern province of Shandong handed down a 14-year jail term to pro-democracy New Citizens’ Movement founder Xu Zhiyong and a 12-year sentence to Ding on April 12, 2023, after finding both men guilty of “subversion of state power” – a charge often used to target critics of the government – after they attended a 2019 dissident gathering.

Since he was detained, the couple have only been able to communicate through his lawyers, and the last news Luo had of Ding was in October 2023.

“I’ve had no news of him in four months,” she said.

Asked if she had a message, Luo thought for a minute, before replying: “If I were to boil 1,000 words into a single phrase, it would be ‘love you forever, my dear.’”

Ilham Tohti’s daughter

Lunar New Year isn’t such an emotional challenge for Jewher Ilham, the U.S.-based daughter of jailed Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti, but she will be going through something similar come the Muslim festival of Nawruz around March 21, she told RFA.

If she were able to spend the festival with her father, she would cook him a meal, she told RFA Mandarin.

“My father is very greedy and loves to eat,” she said. “At the time we were separated, I still couldn’t cook, so I have been learning how to cook a lot of different food, just so that I can make it for him one day.”

“He has always said he hopes one day to eat food cooked by his daughter,” she said, adding that she has added Uyghur, Turkish and even Japanese recipes to her repertoire since she last saw him at the age of 19.

She wants to have him eat that food, and then thank her for the hard work she put into it, said Jewher, who was left to travel alone to the United States at the age of 19 after Ilham Tohti was detained by Beijing police en route for the airport on Feb. 2, 2013.

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On Dec. 18, 2019, Jewher Ilham accepted the Sakharov Award on behalf of her father at the European Parliament Sakharov Award ceremony held in Strasbourg, France. (AP)

He was handed a life sentence for “secession” in September of the same year, and hasn’t been allowed any family visits in prison since 2017. 

In 2019, Jewher accepted the Sakharov Prize on her father’s behalf from the European Parliament, which said it was honoring his advocacy for the Uyghurs, who have been targeted with severe human rights violations that have amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity, according to the United Nations, the United States and other Western countries.

Jewher said her biggest worry is for her father’s health and safety, and the fact that she doesn’t even know if he is alive.

“I hope he is alive. I have been trying to believe that he is alive,” she said, adding that her family back home is under increasing pressure from the authorities over her public advocacy for Ilham Tohti and the Uyghur cause.

“Actually, the Chinese government recently went to my family and told them that they would only be allowed to visit my father again if they persuaded me to stop speaking out,” she said.

“But I don’t know if what they say is true – after all, [visits] are our legal right,” she said. “They would need to offer far more than that for me to even consider lowering the volume of my advocacy.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.