Ti-Anna Wang is an articling student in Toronto
Last month, my husband, 11-month-old daughter and I boarded a flight from Seoul to Hangzhou. We were trying to get to Shaoguan, a small city in southern China, to visit my father, Dr. Wang Bingzhang. He is a Chinese political prisoner currently serving a life sentence for his pro-democracy activism.
For more than a decade, the Chinese government had refused to let me enter the country. I assumed that this was their way of punishing me for my own advocacy on my father’s behalf. But last fall, the Communist Party’s vindictiveness toward me seemed to have finally given way when they issued me a visa.
I was thrilled beyond belief. The last time I saw my father I was only 19. Now at 29, I wanted to show him that I’ve arrived at a good place in life, despite his absence and the hardship our family has endured. My own daughter had also just been born. This trip would be an opportunity to introduce them. At 71, my father is one of China’s oldest political prisoners and he has yet to meet any of his four grandchildren born during his 16 years of incarceration.
Then the diplomatic conflagration between Canada and China erupted. The Chinese government had already arrested two Canadians. Would they arrest us, too? But after the sudden deaths of several Chinese political prisoners in recent years, I did not want to regret postponing.
Alas, I never did see my father. At the Hangzhou airport, I was ushered into an inspection room. I was eventually told that I would not be allowed to enter the country following orders from the Ministry of State Security. There were no flights back to Seoul for that day, so we were deported to Jeju Island.
A week later, we tried to return home to Canada from Seoul. This time our flight back to Toronto transited through Beijing. But as soon as the plane landed, there was an announcement ordering all passengers to stay seated. Several public security officers boarded the plane and came to find me in my seat. I was escorted off, detained again, and finally told I was not allowed to board our plane to go home. We were forced on a flight to Seoul again.
I don’t know if the diplomatic crisis played a role in the Chinese government’s treatment of me, but it doesn’t matter. From the time in Geneva when they were caught spying on me while I was testifying at the United Nations; to the time at the Chinese embassy in London when they shoved me off the stairs; I have long known the pettiness of the Chinese Communist Party.
Behind the obvious disregard for human rights, such as the imprisonment of my father and the arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, there is a lesser known cost to the callousness of the Chinese government. In my case, it was the panic from being walked off a plane and detained by Chinese police; it was the stress of managing re-directed routes with a young baby, and the financial burden of changing itineraries. More significant was the crushing disappointment from not being able to see my father after so much anticipation, and the thought that my daughter may never be able to meet her grandfather.
Still, I know I am fortunate. Most families of political prisoners become broken after long periods of detention. Divorce is ubiquitous, and so is poverty. In vulnerable situations, these families can be taken advantage of and become victims of abuse. And many of my allies who are also advocating for human rights in China suffer from depression and other mental health problems.
One of the reasons this work is so painful is the fact that our adversary is a government that most countries want to woo. China is not just ruthless, but powerful. Our lobbying efforts are often met with government officials justifying a foreign affairs policy that puts profit over principles.
My heart is heavy when I think of the families of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor. But if there is any good that can come from this, it is that the Canadian government can no longer excuse the actions of the Chinese Communist Party and overlook its victims. Finally, Canadians must collectively deal with the truth that the Chinese government is a vindictive regime that abuses human rights and disregards the rule of law. For my family and friends who have been struggling to be heard, we hope it will be the catalyst for a shift in the way Canada and the world engage with China.