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“You disappeared?” A wife seeks her husband missing in China

June 8, 2017

GANZHOU, China (AP) — First they took her husband. Then they tried to silence her. But Deng Guilian, wife of one of three China Labor Watch activists arrested while investigating labor conditions in Ivanka Trump’s supply chain, has a lot to say about what life is like in China when you disobey the ruling Communist Party.

Deng, 36, has joined the swelling ranks of families on the wrong side of China’s economic and political miracle. In recent years, Beijing has detained hundreds of human rights lawyers and labor activists in a sweeping crackdown on perceived threats to the Communist Party. In many cases, families lose their primary — or only — source of income. But their struggles are more than just financial. The Chinese government wields great power over the lives of its citizens, which it can use to make things better, or infinitely worse.

Deng has faced multiple police interrogations, near daily phone calls or visits from local police and party officials, pressure from family members, shame before her neighbors, and repeated admonitions not to speak with the foreign media.

″‘Do not let your husband’s crime turn into something like leaking state secrets,’” Deng said she was told. “They spoke so seriously. Anyway, I don’t understand, but it was just terrifying.”

Still, she has kept talking, speaking with The Associated Press for hours about her family’s plight. Chinese authorities have alternated between threats and sweet enticements, offering to help her sick mother, connect her house to the municipal water supply, and support her financially, spilling out a vision of how good life could be if she would just stop talking and come back into the fold.

But she won’t.

She said she can’t understand what is so threatening about her story, or what her husband, who was only trying to make society better for everyone, had done wrong.

“I have an unknown tenacity,” she said.

Her husband, Hua Haifeng, and his colleagues, Li Zhao and Su Heng, worked with a New York nonprofit called China Labor Watch. They are being detained in Ganzhou, a city in southeastern China’s Jiangxi province, for allegedly using illegal recording devices and cameras to disrupt operations of the Huajian Group, which has made shoes for Ivanka Trump and other brands. When they were arrested, the men were finishing a report alleging low pay, excessive overtime, crude verbal abuse and possible misuse of student labor at Huajian factories.

Huajian denies those allegations. Ivanka Trump’s brand says no merchandise has been made there since March and that all suppliers must meet “strict social compliance regulations.”

Ivanka Trump herself, who stepped back from day-to-day operations of the brand but still retains ownership, has said nothing.

Deng wishes she would, and believes she could help.

“As a wife and mother of two children, I ask Ivanka Trump to release my husband,” she said.

Deng’s life as a wife and mother changed radically after police called her May 30 and said her husband had been arrested. He had disappeared two days earlier.

She was interrogated for more than three hours one night by four men who pulled their chairs in a tight circle around her. “Each one was like a wolf,” she said.

A second interrogation left Deng in tears, but also determined to help her husband. She got standing-room-only tickets for herself, her sister-in-law and her son on the next train to Ganzhou, a 12-hour ride from her home in Hubei province.

Huajian is a big commercial player in Ganzhou, a city better known for its oranges than its factories. The shoe factory sits in a complex of Huajian buildings, all painted the same pale blue, including rows of Huajian apartment towers, a Huajian innovation park and a Huajian school.

Deng was not allowed to see her husband but she found him a lawyer and bought meal cards and clothes for all three investigators, burning through half the money in her modest rainy-day fund.

She was living off loans from relatives, which she found humiliating. She wished she had never quit her job to take care of the family.

But she was unafraid as she boarded the train home Wednesday. China is a country of laws, she believed, and as long as she didn’t break them, nothing bad would happen.

Then again, there was her husband, who she thought had done nothing wrong and was at that very moment in jail, eating bad food and sleeping by a plastic bucket used as a toilet by 20 men who had been ordered not to speak to him. At least he hadn’t been beaten.

At 1:12 p.m., the green train to Xiangyang city eased forward, carrying Deng and her son off to an uncertain future.


Associated Press researcher Fu Ting contributed to this report.


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