Peter Yang, son of Guo Feixiong, imprisoned Chinese “barefoot lawyer” and civil rights activist, addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for his remarks.
I am here today, speaking for my father, Yang Maodong, who is more known for his pen name, Guo Feixiong. He is a writer, a publisher, and a self-taught legal activist, or “barefoot lawyer,” who championed freedom and democratic values in China. But because China is not free, and because China is not democratic, he’s been in prison for the majority of my life; 12 out of the last 21 years. And just a few days ago, he was sentenced to another 8 years in prison. I haven’t seen him in person since I was 5 years old and I don’t know when or if I’m going to see him again. This is my story – our story – of how the CCP tore our family apart.
When I was young, I didn’t know him as a human rights activist. I only knew him as my dad. When my mother was out of town, he would take care of me. One day, he just stopped coming home. I found it strange that he would disappear like that.
When I was six, I was eager to go to elementary school with my friends – but my mom told me I was not allowed. I was sad and frustrated. A year later, I found out officials denied me education because of my father’s human rights activism.
As the Chinese government kept persecuting us, my father decided that we should move to the United States. I was only seven at the time, and I barely spoke a word of English, but I was able to pick up the language and adapt quickly. During that time, my father was serving a 5-year sentence after publishing a book about a recent Chinese political scandal. In prison, he was beaten, shocked, and deprived of sleep for over a week, and tortured repeatedly.
When he was released in 2011, we talked over the phone a lot. He encouraged me to exercise and to read about Chinese history and Chinese literature. Come August 2013, he stopped replying to our messages. We were worried he was detained again, but the Chinese authorities were completely silent until a month later when they announced he was imprisoned for gathering crowds to disrupt social order. This time he was sentenced to six years. His health deteriorated, he couldn’t trust the food he was given because he felt ill after eating. He began a hunger strike in protest. My mother was so worried that she reached out to American officials to send a request to the Chinese government for a prison transfer. It worked; he was transferred to another prison where he was treated better. His sentence ended three years later in 2019.
I was 18 then. I was much more interested in understanding his character, and his beliefs. I wondered how he stayed motivated to keep working even after he was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned without a fair trial. He told me he’s driven by his sense of duty, his honour, non-violence, and fairness. And even after everything the CCP has done to him, he is loyal to his Chinese identity. He’d constantly remind us that we might live in America for now, but we are Chinese. He is a Chinese activist who wants to reform China to make it a better place. He doesn’t just want to Westernize China.
In January 2021, I was 19 years old, my mother was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. My sister and I were shocked and devastated, especially because for the last 11 years in America, she’d effectively been a single mother raising us. My father was desperate to see her, so he sent a letter of request to the government to visit her. Of course, the Chinese government denied his request. But it did not deter him. He reached out to his contacts in the U.S. to get her into the best hospitals possible. He asked for donations and fundraised online to help us pay for her cancer treatments.
Chemotherapy was very hard on her, but she endured. She really wanted to see her husband again. She believed that with his tenacity and his connections, he’d make it happen. Just as she was starting her second round of chemo, he got his passport and a visa corrected to come to the U.S. It gave my mother so much hope. But when he got to the airport, they wouldn’t let him on the plane. He protested and he was arrested and put in jail for a few days. When my mother heard this, she was devastated.
As my mother’s condition worsened, my dad had to take more drastic measures. He started speaking to famous activists about being denied the right to visit his wife, but then, we stopped hearing from him. A month later, in January, she passed away, without ever getting to speak to him again or knowing his whereabouts. She spent the last month on Earth without her husband.
When my mother was alive, she’d always been his advocate. She was a doctor in China, but in the U.S. she worked minimum-wage jobs to feed and house us. And in her spare time, she’d do everything she could to get him out of jail. Now, with my mother gone, it’s up to me to fight for my father’s freedom.
Two months after her death, the government finally announced his imprisonment for inciting subversion to state power. Upon hearing of her death, he started a hunger strike to protest China’s refusal to let him see her. They force-fed him in prison. The only person he could see was his lawyer. He has lost a ton of weight. He’s a man of average height, but by August 2022, he was just down to 48 kilos or 105 pounds.
That same month, we contacted officials and diplomats from several countries. They recognized his innocence and pushed Chinese officials to release him from prison. China mostly ignored these demands. They say he is in prison for subverting state power. But the truth is, he is in prison because he spoke up about being denied the right to visit his dying wife. Think about how cruel and inhumane that is. Every day in prison he suffers. As a committee that values human rights, we must take action. Every time he’s been imprisoned, he’s been tortured so badly that he has no choice but to start a hunger strike. And just this week, he was sentenced to another eight years in prison, in a blatantly unfair trial. He is planning to appeal, but he needs international help. He needs your help.
So I ask you, to speak up, to take action, on behalf of my brave father, Guo Feixiong, and defend the rights of this human rights defender.
15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 16, 2023