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‘Blacklisted’ — Family fights to meet China democracy activist in jail for 20 years

Wang Bingzhang, convicted on charges of terrorism in a closed trial, has been living in solitary confinement for the past two decades without access to the internet or a telephone.

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New Delhi: Family members of Wang Bingzhang — one of China’s oldest political prisoners — claim that they have been “unofficially banned” from entering China to visit him. Chinese authorities, they say, have also denied Wang access to reading material and “better food”.

A doctor, Wang (74) has been in prison in China’s Guangdong on charges of terrorism and espionage since 2002. A prominent advocate for democracy in China, Wang gained prominence in the 1970s and ’80s for co-founding the first overseas organisation dedicated to establishing democracy in China, the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, along with China Spring, a magazine dedicated to the cause.

Last month marked 20 years since Wang, a permanent resident of the US, was detained.

On 27 June 2002, while in Vietnam to meet Chinese labour activists when he was allegedly abducted by Chinese secret police and taken to China where he faced a closed trial. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison; the United Nations (UN) has repeatedly termed his detention as arbitrary“.

Wang has been living in solitary confinement for the past two decades without access to the internet or a telephone. His only ties to the outside world are through letters to his immediate family (spouse, siblings, children) and visits by them, whenever allowed.

But Chinese authorities have routinely rejected his aunt and sister’s visa applications in recent years, Wang’s son, Times (37), told ThePrint in an exclusive interview.

“The Chinese government would never tell anybody officially that they are banned, but there are lots of people who are effectively blacklisted from entering the country, like our family,” said Times, a US-based lawyer.

Wang’s daughter, 33-year-old Ti-Anna, who was named after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, says her visa applications have been rejected several times since 2009 when she began advocating for her father’s release at global forums like the UN. The few times Ti-Anna managed to get a visa, she was denied entry into the country.

She added that her father’s cause is relevant even today, noting how pro-democracy protests swept Hong Kong — which Beijing claims is part of China — in 2019. Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were eventually quelled after China introduced a controversial national security law in the city in 2020.

“My father was one of the founders of the overseas pro-democracy movement. The Hong Kong protests seemed to have emerged through the same vein. My father, who has access to television, surely knows about the movement. It’s obviously been fed to him, and the rest of the Chinese population, through the lens of propaganda, but he is smart enough not to buy into that,” she told ThePrint. 

Alka Acharya, Professor of Chinese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), told ThePrint that Wang’s case could be a reflection of heightened state vigilance by Beijing, even when it comes to jailed dissidents and their families.

“The Chinese government’s approach to clamping down on political dissent has no doubt become harsher since Xi Jinping came into power. But I think taking further action against political prisoners like Wang, like not giving him access to reading material, is a reflection of the increase in state vigilance as Xi Jinping prepares to secure his third term.

“The 20th National Congress (of the Chinese Communist Party) will be held in October or November this year, and while Xi is most likely to be re-elected, he will obviously be taking no chances; especially from political dissidents of any hue,” Acharya said.

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‘Unofficially banned’

Wang’s family say they continue to face obstacles in trying to visit him.

“For example, in the early 2000s, the Dalai Lama visited Vancouver and my aunt got involved in organising the event. She was unable to obtain a Chinese visa after that,” recalled Times, who last visited his father in 2019. 

Ti-Anna, meanwhile, hasn’t seen her father since 2008.

“On the rare occasions that I did secure a visa, with the help of the Canadian government, I was later rejected at the immigration office in China upon arrival. I have, in the past, tried to secure a one-day tourist visa into China through Hong Kong but these were also rejected,” Ti-Anna told ThePrint.

In January 2019, Ti-Anna, her husband and her infant daughter were granted visas to China but weren’t allowed to enter the country upon arrival in Hangzhou.

A report by The Globe and Mail had quoted Ti-Anna as saying that the airport authorities told her that they, too, “didn’t know the reason” for why she was stopped from entering China, adding that they had received “orders from above”.

Wang’s children also claim that in recent years, security and surveillance has been ramped up at the prison, where he is being kept in detention. They added that visitors are strip-searched before entering, no recording devices are allowed inside, including pen and paper, and visits can last for a maximum of 30 minutes and are video-recorded.

“I remember when I first started visiting in the 2000s, the guards used to film our visits on hand-held video cameras,” Times told ThePrint.

‘Access to reading material denied’

Wang has access to television but finds more pleasure in reading books — a luxury he no longer has. 

Wang’s family used to deliver him money whenever they would visit him, but since 2019, the last time that Times visited the prison, they have been unable to send any money which he could use to buy “better food” and reading material such as historical texts, books on Chinese etymology, Confucian classics and others. 

Times claims that in December 2021, the family tried to wire money to a distant cousin in China who had agreed to deliver it to Wang in prison.

“I wired it to his bank account, but a few days later he was visited by security agents who discouraged him from delivering the money,” said Times, adding that they told the cousin “not to get involved”.

(This report has been updated with additional information)

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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