The family of a prominent Chinese dissident has defected to America after a daring escape across south-east Asia. The wife of Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year, smuggled her two children to Thailand “over mountains and through rivers”.
Geng He acted after seeing her 15-year-old daughter mutilate herself and attempt suicide in despair at police harassment. “We were forced to escape from China because of oppression and assault by the Chinese Communist Party,” she said on Friday by telephone from Arisona.
“I couldn’t let it continue. I had to escape from China for the safety of my children.”
The family evaded police surveillance and, with the aid of Falun Gong and Christian activists, took a train on to the south-west province of Yunnan, where Geng paid people traffickers 40,000 yuan ( UK pound 4,200) to smuggle them across the border by motorcycle. They moved mostly at night, along winding mountain roads.
Geng could not say which countries she crossed to reach Thailand, but said she was handed “like a relay baton” from one set of helpers to another. “We climbed the mountains and crossed the rivers day and night, non-stop,” she said.
At one point, she was separated from her five-year-old son, Gao Tianyu, for 20 hours after they were split up at a police checkpoint.
The harrowing trip across Southeast Asia ended in Thailand on January 16. There, the family applied to the US as refugees. On Tuesday Geng and her children flew to Los Angeles.
Until five years ago, Gao was a highly-regarded lawyer and member of the Communist Party. But after taking on sensitive cases, representing householders suing the government over forced evictions, he began to advocate constitutional reform of the authoritarian government. He resigned his party membership in 2005 to protest against the repression of Falun Gong, the banned spiritual group which combines meditation with Buddhist-inspired teachings.
For more than three-years, his family has been under constant surveillance by police in Beijing. Last year authorities barred their 15-year-old daughter from going to school, leaving her depressed and suicidal, Geng said.
In a memoir published last year, Gao detailed his and his family’s harsh treatment by security forces. He described torture sessions that he said involved beatings, electric shocks to his genitals and cigarettes held to his eyes.
Geng and her children left Beijing on January 9 without saying goodbye to Gao, who away from home. Instead she left him a note, apologising.
“From a wife’s perspective, I really wish that I could stay and take care of him,” she said. “But I had no choice. For the children’s good, I had to take them away with me.”
Gao vanished last month and is believed to be in police detention. Geng said she did not know where her husband was and that she feared for his safety.