For more than a year, Jiang Tianyong has been on the move, trying to escape the prying eyes of the police.

The lawyer from Beijing moves from one province to another, taking up human rights cases, and returns to the capital only once in a blue moon. When he is back, he says, he spends little time at home because, much as he loves his family, he doesn’t want to expose his wife and young daughter to more police harassment than they experience already.

When Jiang isn’t at home, police often contact his wife, Jin Bianling, to question her on his whereabouts. She has found her phone number posted on advertisements for flat rentals and tickets sales, and extra locks have been put on her bicycle: pranks played by the police, she suspects, aimed at upsetting her.

Two years ago, the couple’s then-nine-year-old daughter witnessed a police raid on the family home after her father had been taken away.

The year before, they had come to her school to interrogate her; now, whenever she steps out of the front door, she takes a look around to see if she can spot anyone who might be a secret policeman.

When Jiang does go home, things are worse. He is summoned to the local police station nearly every day and officers often guard his front door, preventing his family from going out, he says. They have, on occasion, found the keyhole to their home filled with glue.

Jiang is one of many human rights advocates on the mainland who are widely respected for their work but who have paid a heavy price for their endeavours to push for social justice and democracy: the loss of their family lives.

In most cases in which an activist’s family falls apart, the spouses and children find it hard to cope with police harassment and the social isolation they face. They are followed by security men when they go out and the authorities sometimes pressure employers or schools into discriminating against them. Police have even been known to follow the children of activists to school.

Zhang Lin, for example, a veteran pro-democracy activist who has served many prison and re-education-through-labour sentences, and his writer wife, Fang Cao, divorced two years after his 2009 release because, he said, she could no longer stand the police harassment. Zhang is now under detention on a public disorder charge, months after he protested against his 10-year-old daughter being barred from a school in Hefei, Anhui province.

The wife and children of imprisoned rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng fled to the United Sates in 2009, unable to live with a constant police presence. Gao had been periodically detained by police for long periods before his official imprisonment in 2011, and his family had been under 24-hour surveillance since 2005.

Parents and members of activists’ extended families are also leant on by the authorities, who want them to bring whatever pressure they can to bear on stopping the activism. Some activists say neighbours and friends have been approached by security police to act as informants, and many relationships have broken down as a result.

The Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request made for comment.

“In China’s current environment, there is only one way for our family to stay together: that’s for me to completely abandon my rights activism,” says Jiang, but that is an option he has ruled out. “If you want to do something, you have to pay a price.”

Hu Jia, one of the most high-profile rights activists on the mainland, knows full well the pain of separation from loved ones. When he was taken away by the police in December 2007, his daughter was just 44 days old. Four months later, he was jailed for “inciting subversion of state power”. The child and her mother, Zeng Jinyan, lived under heavy police surveillance for most of the time he was in jail.

When Hu was released, little Baobao (not her real name) was three and a half. Now five, Baobao spent her earliest years without having a father in her life, to Hu’s lasting regret.

“For three and a half years, I wasn’t there. When I came home [after release] she said she didn’t want to live with papa,” he says, ruefully.

“When I see children younger than three, I really want to hug them.

Nothing in the world can ever make up for that lost time.”

Hu’s movements and communications continue to be heavily monitored by police because he refuses to scale down his activism, as requested by the authorities.

Eight months after his release from prison, his wife, also a vocal activist, announced on Twitter that she and Hu had separated. Now, Hu’s contact with his daughter amounts to a daily bedtime story read through a video link on Skype.

Having endured years of harassment and heavy surveillance, Zeng brought their daughter to Hong Kong and is now studying for a master’s degree here. Hu has been forbidden from visiting the city, so the only time he spends with his daughter is during school holidays, when the family meet up on the mainland.

Harassment and political pressure are not the only forces tearing activists’ families apart. Spouses often resent the fact that their partner’s devotion to their cause takes up so much time and energy.

Zeng declines to discuss her relationship with Hu, but he admits that activism consumed so much of his time that he neglected his family. He says that he often became so incensed over rights abuses and social injustice that he brought his anger into the family.

The first thing he does after he gets up, he says, is to turn on his computer, to answer correspondence and read about rights infringements across the country, and he often forgets about eating until mid-afternoon.

Hu often gives advice to petitioners and speaks out on behalf of fellow activists when they are detained or jailed.

“My energy is completely used up [in activism] and I’m always in a state of war. My wife wants to feel my love but my feelings towards the Communist Party have polluted our family atmosphere,” he says.

Jin, although used to her husband’s long absences, says she feels exhausted by having to live under round-the-clock surveillance and raise a child alone. She says constant worry about her husband getting arrested – Jiang disappeared for two months after being taken away by police in the wake of 2011’s short-lived “Jasmine revolution” on the mainland – results in her having a fragile temper. She would like to see her husband spend more time with his daughter, who adores him, and balance his work and home lives.

“Sometimes I say to him, can you switch off your mobile phone for just half a day? But he says he can’t,” she says. “Sometimes I think, if I went and lived another kind of life, I would feel better. But then, when he disappeared during the Jasmine crackdown, I gave up that idea and came out to support him. I felt sorry for him.”

Dr Eric Chui, of the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, says the stress brought on by long-term political pressure has a devastating effect on close relationships and the mental health of family members. “When someone is consumed by fear, has been mentally tortured for prolonged periods and they can’t see any reward, they question themselves,” he says.

Even when activists’ spouses are initially supportive, their patience and tolerance eventually wear thin under constant fear, Chui says. Many choose to leave simply because they cannot cope.

“Under those circumstances, separation is just the best solution. Only when they separate will the harassment lessen,” he adds.

Veteran dissident Huang Qi and his wife, Zeng Li, divorced last year, after having spent 23 years together. The breakdown of their relationship shocked many as Zeng Li was well known for supporting her husband.

When he was in jail, she ran his rights-activities website, 64 Tianwang.

Huang, who has spent a total of eight years in jail, over two terms, says that when he was released in 2011, his wife asked him to give up his activism to devote more time to his family, but he felt he could not. He says that when scores of migrant workers thronged to see him after he was released, “I was touched and felt I couldn’t give up.” But, he adds, his wife became tired of being followed around by the secret police and their son was being affected: three years ago, aged 18, he was taken off a plane bound for the United States, where he intended to study. According to a friend who had accompanied Huang’s son to the airport, officials told the youngster his ejection was for “reasons you yourself are very clear about”.

Huang, who spends most of his time helping petitioners, says a great deal of his time is taken up online or on the phone talking to the aggrieved, and that he often spends days in the countryside, working with the rural poor.

“One time [Zeng Li] said to me, angrily: ‘You have not spoken to me for a week … if this goes on, don’t be part of this family,’” he says. “I don’t blame her. I did not fulfil a husband’s responsibility. I’m solely responsible for the breakdown of what used to be a happy family.”

Huang says that even though it has cost him his marriage, his human rights work gives him “tremendous fulfilment”. He says his work is an important part of the push for democracy and, in two years, he and his volunteers have handled thousands of cases and seen many victims of disputes receive compensation.

Jiang says that even though it is painful for him to be separated from his wife and daughter, he must continue the fight because he doesn’t want the next generation to live in fear and injustice.

“I long to live in freedom, but I am adamant that my child should not live the same life as me,” he says. “[If we don’t change things] we’ll still be slaves, and our future generations will repeat this. And there will be no escape.”

Hu says he has a strong sense of duty towards people who are suffering injustice and need help.

“People are arrested every day; there is no way I can stop.”

Even as his daughter suffers, he is thinking of other children, he says. “You have to look at everything from a long-term perspective – you don’t want some child to be living in fear somewhere.”

Chui says the family relationships of activists who value their mission above all else tend to be the most vulnerable.

“There are many competing interests in one’s life. These people’s priorities are not so connected with their significant other, so their relationships are prone to high risk,” he says. “And when there are children involved, the risks are even bigger.”

Zeng Jinyan says the “martyr mentality” – that one must sacrifice one’s personal life for the greater good of the country – is deep-rooted among activists.

“They think you must shed blood and lose your head,” she says. “And society at large looks down on family values: people have this idea that you should sacrifice the small family for the ‘big family’.”

Hu says his activism will probably land him in jail again, and for much longer than his initial three and a half years, but he is undeterred: “In this day and age, we need people who go to prison. For society to change, we need people to pay a price and, in the words of Buddhism, someone with mercy to take on other people’s pain.”

Zeng Jinyan, who has effectively been an only parent since her daughter was born, says she has conflicting feelings about her estranged husband’s stance.

“We face kind of a dilemma,” she says. “If I were an outsider, I would very much appreciate his approach because we need more people in our society to voice their opinion openly and directly – this is the way to change China. But, we are not outsiders and we [the family] have practical things to deal with.”

Zeng experienced extensive social isolation for years – even before Hu was jailed, the couple were often put under house arrest and followed wherever they went. She was even followed when she went to prenatal checks and to give birth at the hospital.

The authorities, she says, pressured potential employers into not hiring her and prevented her from setting up a nursery for her own and friends’ children.

“Society has lost its normal functions thanks to the Communist Party’s way of ruling and its deep influence on society,” she says, but if society could ignore the pressure from on high and give the families of activists moral and psychological support, it would help them tremendously.

“If you don’t feel isolated,” says Zeng Jinyan, “if you have a job and have ways to survive, if you can meet friends and have a social life, then you feel supported.”

Dissident writer Su Xiaokang, who fled the mainland in 1989 after the authorities blamed a documentary of his, River Elegy, for inspiring the pro-democracy movement, says the punishment of dissidents’ families is a “replica of the ancient political tradition of zhulian”: the guilt by association of family members of political criminals in ancient China.

Says Su, whose wife and family were often visited by police after he escaped: “What is ludicrous isn’t (activists’) idealism or their spouses’ rights, but the backwardness and barbarism of Chinese politics.”






Schoolgirl power

Most mainland political activists are grizzled lawyers, scholars and artists, one-time insiders who have been cast loose. Zhan Haite doesn't exactly fit the mould.

Last winter, Zhan, an ambitious 15-year-old school pupil in Shanghai, became an unlikely crusader against the country's draconian residence registration system, the hukou, a bureaucratic knot tying hundreds of millions of migrant workers to their rural hometowns.

Although Zhan attended primary and middle school in Shanghai - she moved there with her family in 2002 - she didn't have the right residence permit, precluding her from taking the city's high school entrance examination. Zhan was told she had two options: attend a vocational school or return to her ancestral village, where opportunities are scarce.

Instead, Zhan decided to speak out. She organised a protest in front of Shanghai's education bureau and posted a flurry of dissenting messages online. The backlash was severe, at first. Her family was briefly evicted; local authorities threw her father in jail.

Yet Zhan's message was well-timed - hukou reform had recently risen to the top of the national agenda - and state-run media outlets began to take notice. Zhan was allowed to pen an op-ed in the China Daily newspaper, which ran under the headline "Teen Girl Makes Case for Change".

In an interview in December, Zhan listed her heroes as Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi and Hu Shi, a prominent Chinese essayist who died in 1962.

"Hu Shi once said that fighting for your rights is fighting for the nation's rights, and fighting for your freedom is fighting for the nation's freedom," she said. "A free and democratic country cannot be made up of slaves." 

Jonathan Kaiman, Guardian News and Media