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Photo illustration of Hu Jia and Zheng JinyanThe Globe and Mail

To the world, Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan were partners – husband and wife, and two of China's most famous and most dedicated dissidents.

Together, they formed a battering ram to pound the walls built around them by the Communist Party of China. They challenged the authorities, won international accolades, got knocked down and helped each other back up.

Nothing, it seemed, could break the bond between them. And then, with a 140-character tweet in February, a relationship that had been forged in public came to a very public end. "The love has disappeared," Ms. Zeng wrote to her 21,000 Twitter followers. "Please understand."

"It is very clear," Mr. Hu now says, "that my wife loved me." The recipient of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union's top human-rights award, is fighting back tears. He is also certain that, outside the café where we've met, the undercover police who follow him everywhere are watching.

In another country, he and Ms. Zeng would have just been two do-gooders sharing their lives and a cause. But in China, trying to help the poor and the downtrodden can easily make someone an enemy of the rich, the powerful and the state.

Personal sacrifice has been a familiar refrain for those awarded the Sakharov: Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison in South Africa, only to see his marriage to fellow anti-apartheid icon Winnie Mandela explode soon after his release. Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to remain in Myanmar to fight for change meant she didn't see her British husband, Michael Aris, in the four years before he died of cancer in 1999.

But at least their sufferings helped to spur change in South Africa two decades ago and Myanmar today. There is little sense in today's China that an end to authoritarianism is around the corner. And that's part of the reason Ms. Zeng decided she had to move on.

No time for a honeymoon

Mr. Hu met his future wife a decade ago in the modest Beijing office of the Aizhixing Institute, a non-governmental organization dedicated to spreading awareness of China's growing HIV/AIDS problem. He was the agency's passionate and uncompromising executive director. She was a summer intern who, at 18, was 10 years his junior and keen to draw up an AIDS education program for her hometown in coastal Fujian province. Both were thin and slightly geeky-looking economics graduates with a desire to do more than just make as much money as they could.

The summer that Ms. Zeng arrived, the Aizhixing (which means "love, knowledge, action") fell afoul of the government by reporting that state blood banks had knowingly allowed the sale of HIV-infected blood.

When the Ministry of State Security launched an investigation – not into the report's findings, but into Aizhixing – Ms. Zeng and Mr. Hu were propelled on to what he calls "the battlefield." He ran to the fight, convinced that he was on the side of right. She followed him, full of admiration. In photographs from that time, the two are always smiling, constantly clutching each other.

The crusade to change China became their lives. In 2004, Mr. Hu broadened his activism beyond HIV/AIDS and environmental issues (another passion) into outright civil disobedience, making international headlines with his failed attempt to organize a candlelight vigil on Tiananmen Square to mark the 15th anniversary of the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

After being arrested three times, he was forced to leave Beijing until the anniversary had passed. When allowed to return, he began a new life with Ms. Zeng under near-constant police surveillance.

They married in January, 2006, but Mr. Hu's activism ensured that they had no time for a honeymoon. Within a month of their wedding, he had joined a hunger strike started by another human-rights activist, and then disappeared into police custody. For 41 days, Ms. Zeng had no idea where her new husband was, or if he was even alive.

After that separation ordeal came the opposite – enforced togetherness – when Mr. Hu spent a year and a half under house arrest in their apartment in southeast Beijing's ironically named "Freedom City" compound.

The scrutiny would have cracked many a happy marriage, but they turned the tables, filming Prisoners in Freedom City, a documentary that caught their captors as they slept on the job, smoked, slurped down lunch, played cards and tried to intimidate Ms. Zeng whenever she went out. Posted on YouTube, it was the defiant cry of a couple in love and unafraid.

Ms. Zeng also started a blog about their lives, quickly developing a wide following in China and beyond, and becoming a celebrity in her own right. As the face of the young, wired post-Tiananmen generation of Chinese dissidents, she was chosen in 2007 by Time as one of the magazine's 100 people "whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world."

They were terrifying, exhilarating times, capped by the arrival that fall of the couple's only child. The birth of daughter Qianci further convinced Mr. Hu of the necessity of his struggle: "I thought, 'For the sake of her, I must continue. So that she doesn't also have to suffer under a dictatorship.'"

'A person with a pure and simple heart'

As he and Ms. Zeng became more brazen in challenging the Communist regime, the world was welcoming China to the international stage, the crimes of Tiananmen Square seemingly forgotten. Mr. Hu had been appalled when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing – and said so when he was invited, while still under house arrest, to speak via webcam in November, 2007, to a European parliamentary commission.

"It is ironic that one of the people in charge of organizing the Olympic Games is the head of the Public Security Bureau, which is responsible for so many human-rights violations," he told the parliamentarians.

Within a month, he had been arrested and charged with "inciting subversion of state power." His daughter was just 45 days old.

While jailed, Mr. Hu was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and the European Union showed its indignation at his arrest by awarding him the prestigious Sakharov. He was represented at the ceremony by an empty chair, while his wife, also kept from attending, delivered the acceptance speech by webcam.

"Hu Jia is not a saint. He is just a person with the pure and simple heart – the honesty, caring and concern of a child. He is a person who will speak out truthfully about what he has seen and heard," she said, sitting in front of a white IKEA bookcase stuffed with books, photographs and Winnie the Pooh figurines. "In an empire of lies, to speak the truth loudly takes great courage. You will have to withstand pressures of unexpected magnitude and may have to pay a heavy price."

The 42-month jail term – during which Mr. Hu says he was housed with violent offenders who had been offered early release for passing on information about him – was harsh, given the nature of his offence, and meant to serve as a warning to others tempted to spoil Beijing's Olympic moment.

Ms. Zeng was among those who didn't take the hint. Although just 24 and a new mother, she refused to be cowed, using her blog and later her Twitter account to keep Mr. Hu's case in the spotlight. Able (unlike him) to speak English, she was willing to defy official orders and take calls from foreign journalists to discuss how he was being treated, and her belief that, without proper care, the liver problems brought on by his chronic hepatitis B were worsening.

And yet, after 3½ years, the stresses began to show. Days before her husband's release, Ms. Zeng moved south to Shenzhen, next door to Hong Kong, hoping the family could start a new life away from the antagonistic Beijing police. But she and little Qianci were evicted soon after they arrived – the landlady had been advised against giving dissidents a home – and her Google e-mail account was hacked.

'I disappointed her'

When she returned to Beijing, it was clear that she had had enough of the dissident's life. "My situation is not very good. I'm watched and harassed, but allowed to go out. I can't tell you all the details," she wrote to me (we had exchanged occasional e-mails for three years) just before Mr. Hu was released.

She dreamed of being happy, but had begun to realize that they could never lead a normal life while locked in a constant battle against a huge and repressive system.

"The couple suffered a lot, from the moment they met," says Wan Yanhai, who founded the Aizhixing Institute and has known the two since the beginning of their relationship. "They loved each other, they supported each other, they admired each other, … [but]I don't know if they ever had a vacation together."

And what did Ms. Zeng hope would happen after her husband came home from prison? That he would be willing "to take care of his sick mother, to learn how to be together with his daughter, to recover his health," she wrote.

Mr. Hu was well aware of how his wife felt. "During these 3½ years of living alone, she developed high expectations of me. She hoped that, when I was released, I would be able to make my family a priority," he says, his voice wavering.

He now regrets turning his home into a front in his war on Communist rule. "Some dissidents do it well: When they close the door of their house, they have a good family life," he says quietly. "I think in the past I was always on the battlefield, or on the way to the battlefield. It really hurt our family life. We weren't a normal husband and wife – I treated [her]as a friend in the fight, not as a lover."

He couldn't change. "Soon after my release, I started my work again. I disappointed her."

The breaking point came this January when the police raided their home, took the family's two computers and questioned Mr. Hu for seven hours. They also made it clear to Ms. Zeng that such disruptions would continue as long as he remained politically active. By then, she also knew that he always would – that whatever motivates her husband is not something he can switch on and off.

Shortly afterward, Ms. Zeng announced on Twitter: "I have to bother the public with a private issue. Mr. Hu Jia and I have encountered some problems that we temporarily can't get past. ...

"Although the love has disappeared, he is still a respectful friend of mine and the father of my child. We will do our best to love and protect everyone, and try not to have our life kidnapped by the politics."

With that, she left Beijing, heading south again in search of a break from the battlefield.

Today, Mr. Hu presses on without her, even though he has been warned that he may lose whatever freedom he still enjoys.

"Lots of people, including me, go quiet when the police come. We make compromises," says the Aizhixing's Mr. Wan, who fled last year after the institute was forced to close its Beijing office, and now lives in Vancouver. "Hu Jia is unique. He keeps fighting."

Principles before family?

Some may say he put his principles ahead of his family, but Mr. Hu argues that he was left no choice. "It depends how you define 'normal.' If normal family life means not being involved in society, not caring about human rights, then I've never wanted this kind of normal life."

And there is nothing normal about his life. Just to meet in a coffee shop in Tongzhou in southeast Beijing, the only area in which he can travel without police permission (he is also not allowed to leave the city), he has to take extreme measures, zigzagging through traffic on his bicycle to elude the two cars of plainclothes police that follow wherever he goes.

He appears to enjoy the fight, or at least find humour in it. On the way to school, his daughter often helps him spot the police. "The 'uncles' are following us again, Daddy," she says, using a Chinese nickname for men older than her. For now, it's a game, like a scene out of Life is Beautiful – she doesn't know who they really are, and he doesn't explain.

"Sometimes it's like in the movies – people with earpieces following you everywhere," Mr. Hu says, recounting how plainclothes police trail him in Beijing's subway system, using headsets to advise cars above of his movements. "Sometimes the only way to test how powerful you are is to see the power of those opposed to you."

But he sees no strength in a system that deploys 16 people – eight at the gates of Freedom City, eight more who wait 24 hours a day in two unmarked cars – to guard a lone, wispy activist. He sees weakness and fear in an overreaction that motivates him to keep pressing on.

For the time being, he cares for his daughter with the help of his 75-year-old parents. If Ms. Zeng decides to leave Beijing for good, he expects Qianci will join her.

The raid in January burst the bubble the couple had tried to maintain around their daughter. "The first time our home was searched, she was too little – she has no memory of it – but this time, she noticed everything," Mr. Hu says. "I'm worried that it's all going to shatter her heart."

He also says he has known since his release that "the prison gates didn't close behind me." He doesn't want to go back – "no one who has been there would" – but it could well happen.

Until then, he is searching for a way to put his family back together without compromising his principles. Ms. Zeng, meanwhile, will say only that it's not "the right time to talk about my life," but she is "hoping that we will find a way."

As does her husband. "Outsiders only see how bravely you stand up to the pressure – they don't see that you're on the edge of collapse," he says, looking out the café window at skies grey with smog.

He doesn't finish the thought, but it's clear that he doesn't feel nearly as brave and strong without Ms. Zeng by his side.

"Whatever is happening now," he finally adds, "I experienced during those 3½ years how important love is to the fight for social justice."

Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Beijing, has been nominated for two 2011 National Newspaper Awards, which are to be presented on April 27.

Editor's Note: The print and previous web version of this story incorrectly spelt Zeng Jinyan's name.