This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A prominent Chinese rights attorney who was banned from leaving the country earlier this year has arrived in the United States along with his family, where he is applying for political asylum.
Chen Jiangang, his wife, and two young sons arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 3 after a tortuous flight to freedom via Southeast Asia.
“Everything is fine, and there were basically no obstacles,” Chen told RFA shortly after landing. “We have been on the road for a great many days, but everything went well.”
He thanked the network of dozens of activists who helped him and his family flee, saying that they were “very dedicated.”
Chen said he had fled China in order to protect his wife and children rather than himself.
“I wasn’t very concerned about my own safety, but I am a father, and the Chinese government has been using threats to the safety of my wife and children to control me for the past few years,” he said. “This was unacceptable to me.”
Chen said China under President Xi Jinping increasingly resembles the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under late supreme leader Mao Zedong, and also drew parallels with the level of oppression in North Korea.
“The Chinese government wants to turn defense lawyers into a fake profession,” he said. “Now, you have to cooperate with them by acting a part in court, or you will be arrested, or have your license revoked.”
“This is a way of further persecuting those who have already been oppressed, the clients,” Chen said. “I didn’t want to go along with that, but I was under serious threat, so I decided to leave in this way.”
Chen said a key factor in the decision was the amount of political backlash that came from his representation of Huang Wan, daughter-in-law of jailed former security czar Zhou Yongkang.
Chen agreed to represent her in a politically motivated civil lawsuit involving a tenancy dispute that enabled the authorities to prevent Huang, a U.S. citizen, from leaving China.
“The whole thing was a form of political persecution right from the start,” he said. “Even Wang Qun of the Beijing municipal justice bureau said that it was straight-up political persecution.”
The same official warned Chen in a meeting on July 5 that any political cases linked to Zhou were political hot potatoes that should be left well alone by anyone, and that Chen would be in great danger of being “disappeared” if he took the case.
“He wasn’t talking about being arrested, or about being placed under residential surveillance at a designated location, which has an upper time limit of six months, after which time you get transferred to a detention center,” Chen said.
“He was talking about being disappeared indefinitely, so that nobody would know what had happened to me for eight or 10 years.”
Barred from travel
In April, border guards at Beijing’s International Airport prevented Chen from leaving China for the U.S., where he was due to take up the prestigious Humphrey Fellowship to study law and human rights.
He told RFA at the time that the ban was linked to his acting as defense attorney to fellow human rights lawyer Xie Yang, and also the fact that the fellowship is funded by the U.S. State Department.
Border guards also told him that his departure would “endanger national security.”
The Humphrey Fellowship Program was announced by then President Jimmy Carter in 1978 to finance studies at U.S. universities and institutions embodying the values of “democracy, social justice and a desire to assist the developing nations of the world,” according to the program’s official website.
More than 4,600 recipients have studied at more than 40 universities with funding by Congress, it said.
Chen has been banned from leaving China before: he, his wife, and the couple’s two children were all added to an exit ban “blacklist” in 2017 as part of a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and their families launched in July 2015.
The family was also detained and forcibly escorted back home from a vacation in the southwestern province of Yunnan in 2017.
Chen said he still hopes to take up his studies now that he has arrived in the U.S.
“I’m still trying to get in touch with the school, and I hope I’ll be able to study and carry out research there,” he said.
Dozens helped in escape
Chen and his family had a tortuous journey before they arrived in the U.S., passing through several countries in Southeast Asia, according to Bob Fu, founder and president of the Christian rights group ChinaAid.
Dozens of people were involved in helping them escape, before the family finally boarded a flight for the U.S. in Manila, alongside Fu and Yaxue Cao of the rights website China Change.
Chen was also instrumental in exposing the torture of Xie Yang, who was initially detained on July 11, 2015, then held under “residential surveillance at a designated location” in a government guesthouse belonging to the National University of Defense Technology in Hunan’s provincial capital, Changsha.
Subjected to abuse including deprivation of food and water, Xie was tortured again after being moved to the police-run Changsha No. 2 Detention Center following his formal arrest on Jan. 9, 2016.
Xie was subjected to confinement in a “hanging chair” made of plastic chairs stacked high above the ground for hours at a time, so that his legs swelled up and he was in excruciating pain, he told his lawyers.
He was also deprived of sleep and repeatedly beaten, humiliated, and taunted with death threats against his family, according to copious and detailed notes made public from meetings with his lawyers, including Chen.