Voices of the Wives of China’s Prisoners of Conscience

This month, on the occasion of the Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year), the most important time for family reunion in China, Duting (杜婷) interviewed the wives of China’s prisoners of conscience. They are Liu Xia, Ceng Jinyan, Wang Qinghua and Ceng Li, respectively the wives of Liu Xiaobo, Hu Jia, Tan Zuoren and Huang Qi.

Liu Xiaobo, an intellectual known for initiating Charter 08, calling for greater freedom, human rights and elections, was sentenced to 11 years in December 2009. Hu Jia, whose work focused on China’s democratization, environmentalist movement and AIDS advocacy, was sentenced to 3.5 years in April 2008. Tan Zuoren, an environmentalist and writer known for his investigation into shoddy schools following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, was sentenced to 5 years in February 2010. Huang Qi, a webmaster and human rights activist known for setting up the Tianwang Center for Missing Persons, was most recently sentenced to 3 years in November 2009.

Below are translated extracts and quotes from Duting’s interview report.

Liu Xia: when the thought that I cannot touch him for 11 years strikes me, my heart collapses

This was her twitter comment after Liu Xiaobo’s trial of second instance, on charges of ‘inciting subversion of state power.’

A few days after the verdict, Duting tried to have a chat with Liu Xia, who agreed to do so but later prefer to write down her feelings:

两个人这些年风风雨雨走过来,那么多的事情一 时很难用语言表达清楚,与其有一句没一句地说,还不如我自己零敲碎打地写出来。我这个人嘴挺笨的,一向不善于口头表达,这也不是我的风格,还是文字比较适 合我。

The two of us came from these stormy years, and it’s difficult to express all these matters clearly in words. Rather than saying it sentence by sentence, I prefer to write it down, in piecemeal scripts. I am ineloquent, not good at expressing with my mouth, which is not my style. Written words suit me better.

Ceng Jinyan: there are just too few people at the reunion dinner. I look forward to preparing a real reunion dinner some day

She made this comment on the eve of the Chinese New Year while preparing the traditional family reunion dinner. Ceng was married to Hu Jia in 2006. Hu was detained since 2007, and sentenced to three and a half year in April 2008 on charges of ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ This is the third time Ceng spent the Spring Festival without her husband.

Taking care of their two-year old daughter was her major task. Hu was detained one month after the baby was born. Though it was painful and sad, Jinyan tried to control her emotion, creating a safe and warm home for their daughter:


I put my photo with Hu Jia on the bedside and tell the baby that this is his father. I will also bring her with me when visiting Hu Jia. She now knows which bus to take to go to the prison. Every time she sees her father, she would be very happy. She will jump and sing, and show the games that I play with her to Hu Jia.

When she was young, Jinyan had serious Myocarditis, which would have prevented her from taking the university entrance exam. But she took medicines to cover up the symptoms, and successfully entered the China Renmin University to study economics. Because of her first hand experience, she knows a person’s smallness and helplessness when facing sickness and death. She therefore became a volunteer for an NGO tackling AIDS problem, and met Hu Jia there. At the time, Hu Jia has long been involved in AIDS and environmental issues, and was a ‘politically sensitive person’ in the authority’s eyes. The public security told her to cut the relationship with Hu, but:

也许是因为身体的缘故所以我看得比较开吧。人总要经历各种苦,有些人终其一生都无法遇到自己爱的人,我很幸运遇到胡佳。虽然选择和他在一 起就注定不会有稳定的生活,但这是我必须承受的。

Perhaps it’s because of my experience of sickness, I’m not easily upset. People have to endure different kinds of pain. Some are destined not to find their other half, but I am lucky to meet Hu Jia. Although choosing him means that a stable life would be a luxury, I am prepared to endure it.

Jinyan said that 2005 and 2006 were the difficult years, when Hu Jia was always missing. When the 2008 verdict was out, she was angry and sad, but at least it was a certainty. Commenting on the fact that 26 June 2011 would be his day of release:

最糟的时候已经过去了,胡佳现在比较平静,我的焦虑感也就随之降低了。但我也知道他回来之后的生活会是一个巨大的挑战。之前胡佳每次 失踪回来后的头几天对我和他来讲都非常痛苦,他潜意识中会把对抗的情绪带回家,把我当做反抗的对象,虽然他并不想如此。阿兰牧师曾说过『对于一个囚犯而言,真正的监狱是在他走出监狱的那一天才开始的。』

The most difficult moment has passed. Hu Jia is now calmer, and I’m less worried. But I know that when he returns, there would be challenges for us. In the past, every time he returns after missing for a few days, he would tell me that he feels miserable, and he brings a sense of antagonism back home, treating me as a target, though this was not his intention. Pastor A Lan said, ‘to a prisoner, the real jail starts on the day he walks out of the prison.’

Wang Qinghua: I am his comrade. We are on the same boat

A few days before the Spring Festival, Wang’s husband Tan Zuoren was sentenced to five years. Wang said


This is the second Spring Festival that we could not be together. Last year he was in the [Sichuan] earthquake zone. Actually, I was more worried about his safety back then. Now, at least he is safe in the detention center.

When Wang met Tan, he was working as an anesthetist in a hospital.

他当时在华西医科大学附属医院,是成都很好的一家医院。后来离开是因为六四。六四时他去了北京,回来后知道 肯定没办法再在医院工作下去,就辞职了。

At the time, he was working at the Western China Medical University Affiliated Hospital, a very good hospital in Chengdu. He left because of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident. He went to Beijing during the incident, and knew afterwards that it would be impossible to continue his career there.

He ran a business for several years in Shenzhen. A friend of his persuaded him to get involved in environmental protection, which was his interest. Tan then returned to Chengdu, setting up the NGO ‘Green Rivers’, ‘visiting every corner of Chengdu’s countryside, writing articles and providing suggestions to the government whenever he sees a problem.’ These years, Tan did not have a stable income, and the family’s livelihood depended on Wang:

他总和朋友们说对不起我,我就很生气。我和他讲『这个家也是我的家,我不觉得一定要男人来 养家。我们分工不同,你做的事情我做不了,那我来养家好了。

He always told friends that he did not treat me well. I would be very angry. I told him, ‘this family is also mine; I don’t think that a family must be supported by a man. We do different things. I cannot do what you do, so let me support the family.

Though Tan thinks that his works are not risky, he had a premonition of what eventually happened:

国保经常找他谈话,软的硬的,那时候他就感觉到可能要出事。他和我谈过几次,当时他就说 如果做这些事都能被抓那就让他们抓吧。所以那时开始我们就常和两个女儿讲,爸爸做的事情是对的,但可能会有危险,让她们也有个心理准备。我是没什麽想不开 的,我一直是个挺洒脱的人。之前他正常做事的时候我是他的妻子,我支持他。他一旦有了危险,那我就是他的战友,我们早就在一条船上了。

The state security always had discussions, hard and soft, with him. This made him felt that something might happen. He talked to me several times, and said that if doing only these things would still result in an arrest, so be it. From that time onwards, we told our two daughters that their father’s works are correct, but dangerous. This prepared them psychologically. I’m not easily upset by minor things. When he did these things, I was his wife and I supported him. When he is in danger, I’m his comrade, and we are on the same boat.


In the past, I did not care that much what he did. We are only of similar personalities, speaking up against unfairness. Now that he is arrested, I will continue his works, and wait for his release.

Ceng Li: I am only doing what I think is right. I though it was correct. I now still think it is correct.

Ceng said she is already used to Spring Festivals without her husband. In 2000, Huang Qi was arrested on charge of ‘inciting subversion of state power’, and, 3 years later, was sentenced to a 5-year term. He was released in 2005, but was arrested again in 2008 on charge of ‘illegally possessing state secret documents.’


In the past, he was a businessman and I worked in the government. I did not need to worry about anything. These years, it is totally different. I have to endure everything by myself. When Huang was released in 2005, he asked me, ‘why have you become a totally different person?’ He still hoped that I was the carefree little woman of the past.

In 1998, Ceng and Wang used their fortunes from business to start the ‘Tianwang Center for Missing Persons’, helping parents to find their lost children.


With official support and propaganda, everything went smoothly. Later on, we got in touch with some petitioners and disadvantaged groups, and wanted to help them. In 1999, we started a website and hoped to provide a platform for them.

Apart from people search contents, there were some political commentaries on the website concerning Falun Gong and Rabiye [Xinjiang businesswoman and dissident], which got them into troubles.

最初完全没有想到做这个会有风险,只是觉得顶多是往里贴钱,偶尔也会因为经济上的问题和黄琦抱怨。但那种不快很快就会被看到父母找到失踪儿童后一家人团聚的 喜悦所取代,那种幸福感和满足感很难用语言去表达,就是你实实在在帮到了别人,别人从中受益,这是一种很难得的体验。

At the beginning, we don’t think that it is risky at all, at most needing to pour some money into it. We argued a little bit on economic issues. But when seeing parents finding their lost children, complaints would be washed away by happiness which could not be described in words. This is helping people realistically, which is a very precious experience.

After Wang was released in 2005, he restarted the website, this time turning it into a human rights website.


He was more determined, and without previous worries. What else can happen? The worst is to be imprisoned again. But he did not allow me to participate this time. He knew it is risky. After all, one person needs to earn a living to pay for children’s education and feed the adults.

After Wang’s second arrest, Ceng resigned from her job in Beijing to take care of their parents and children.


It is difficult, but I’m undisturbed. I am only doing what I think is right. I though it was correct. I now still think it is correct.

Reading these stories of wives, mothers and freedom, and of resistance, wait and hope, Lan Xiaohuan (兰小欢) quoted Pulitzer-winning American author Annie Dillard on what could possibly keep them going:

Dedicate (donate, give all) your life to something larger than yourself and pleasure to the largest thing you can: to God, to relieving suffering, to contributing to knowledge, to adding to literature, or something else. Happiness lies this way, and it beats pleasure hollow.


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