Olympics: Dissidents’ spouses face great strain

Amid the fanfare of the Olympic opening ceremony today, a press release from Human Rights in China highlights pressure on dissidents and their families as Chinese authorities try to quash anything that threatens to disturb the long-awaited Games. Police are watching jailed journalist Lu Gengsong’s wife and daughter, and they told the wife of recently detained online activist Du Daobin to change her cell phone number and refuse calls, HRIC said. When CPJ called Du’s home the day after he was detained, we were told the household had been warned not to talk to the foreign press.

Pressure on these families makes the cases difficult to report. CPJ has been warned that for ethnic Tibetans, for example, the potential repercussions of contact from abroad could outweigh the usefulness of publicizing incidents where they are harassed for reporting.

In many cases, spouses are clearly aware of the ramifications of their loved one’s work. Some are plugged into a network of writers and civil society activists and have a support network, either informally or through organizations such as the Independent Chinese PEN Center.

Activist and online commentator Hu Jia’s wife Zeng “Tiananmen 2.0” Jinyan has been active publicizing the persecution she and her partner have faced in their Beijing neighborhood. While police have severely restricted her movements since her husband’s arrest in December 2008, she continues to update her blog (which was not one of the ones recently unblocked in China for the Olympics) and communicates with Twitter updates. She has become a kind of Holy Grail for overseas journalists seeking interviews. Local bloggers and freedom of speech activists try to deliver baby formula to her in guerrilla-style raids on her housing compound.

In other cases, spouses are taken by surprise when punitive measures are taken. Imprisoned journalist Qi Chonghuai’s wife, Jiao Xia, was distraught about his situation when she gave an interview to CPJ on the day of his recent trial. But during the proceedings, The Associated Press reported, she appeared angry and shouted at her husband.

Her reactions suggest the great emotional toll of the surveillance and privation that face these women face while their husbands are snatched away on vague charges such as endangering the Chinese state.