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Daughters of dissidents

For children of disappeared Chinese dissidents, advocating for their fathers’ plight comes with an emotional toll.

Daughters of dissidents

Angela Gui testifies before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (YouTube screen grab/Radio Free Asia)

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump arrived in Beijing for a “state visit–plus,” an upgraded experience including private talks with President Xi Jinping, a military honor guard, a formal banquet, and “special arrangements,” according to Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai.

Yet while Xi puts the full array of Chinese opulence on display, under the glimmering veneer is the ugly reality of human rights activists disappeared, imprisoned, or monitored, as well as the grief and worry experienced by their spouses, parents, and children. Currently two young women, 23-year-old Angela Gui and 24-year-old Grace Geng, are each still waiting for the Chinese government to free their fathers, who had both been imprisoned for criticizing the Communist Party.

Chinese authorities said they freed Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai on Oct. 17 after holding him for two years in prison. Yet a week later the government’s claim, Gui’s daughter Angela said in a press release that she hadn’t heard from her father and “it is still very unclear where he is.” A few days later, Bei Ling, a friend of Gui’s, said Gui was “half-free,” was currently staying in the city of Ningbo, and had met with his wife and mother.

Like other Chinese dissidents before him, Gui, though out of prison, is likely still under the constant surveillance of security agents. Chinese authorities kidnapped Gui from his apartment in Thailand in October 2015, whisking him off to the mainland along with four co-workers from his book publishing company. Gui made a televised, apparently forced confession of his involvement in a 2003 hit-and-run incident, and received a two-year prison sentence. The real reason for his incarceration: Gui was working on a gossipy book about President Xi’s love life.

The disappearance prompted Angela to become an advocate for her father’s release. She has testified before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the British House of Commons. As a result, Angela believes she’s being monitored: In 2016, two Chinese men approached her in Frankfurt, Germany, and took her photo with a large camera, according to the Taiwan Sentinel. “Even if I don’t constantly worry about my safety, the fear is always there subconsciously,” she told the Sentinel. “I avoid being alone in unfamiliar places, and have regular contact with friends and family when traveling.”

Last month at a London panel on China’s human rights abuses, Angela met another young woman who understood her situation: Grace Geng, the daughter of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was tortured and imprisoned in China for several years. In August, two fellow human rights activists snuck Gao out of the home where he was being held under house arrest. Gao had no teeth left and could not eat due to the pain and bleeding, a result of beatings and malnutrition. After 23 days, government officials found Gao, placing him back in secretive detention.

AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Grace Geng, daughter of Gao Zhisheng, holds up a book written by her father. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

A year ago, I met Geng at a boutique hotel in Taipei, where she shared about the toll her father’s imprisonment had taken on her. As she spent much of her childhood under constant surveillance, she struggled with depression and attempted suicide. She, her mother, and her brother fled to the United States in 2009, and she still doesn’t tell her friends who her father is.

“I always have trust issues with people that I just met,” she said. “I don’t know what their purpose is to get to know me.”

Have you eaten? This question may seem like an invitation to a meal, but in many parts of China, it is used a greeting—the same way Americans would ask “How are you?” Much of Chinese society revolves around food, so it’s no wonder this is how one shows concern for another’s well-being.