Guilty by Association
For Foreign Policy, Rachel Beitarie writes about family members of dissidents who have also been targeted in the ongoing crackdown on free expression. She writes about Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been under house arrest since soon after her husband won the award:
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.
See also “The Other Billion,” a travelogue through China’s rural areas written by Rachel Beitarie for CDT.