Cover Story

'I will obey and wait'

Gao Zhan gives WORLD the first behind-the-scenes account of her 51/2-month nightmare in a Chinese prison

Issue: "Trial and terror," Sept. 1, 2001

It was not the end to a family vacation that Gao Zhan had in mind. As she, her husband Xue Donghua, and 5-year-old son Andrew entered the Beijing airport Feb. 11, a dozen state security agents suddenly surrounded them, hustled them out a side door, and into three separate cars. That was the beginning of 5H months of interrogation and imprisonment for Ms. Gao, a teacher at American University in Washington, D.C., and a legal U.S. resident for more than a decade.

Not knowing what had happened to her husband and son, Ms. Gao was at the mercy of government interrogators who called her a document-stealing spy. That the documents were photocopies of already-published material-magazine articles, book excerpts, and speeches-given to Ms. Gao by a longtime friend and government media worker, Qu Wei, as a favor to a fellow scholar, made no difference. Eight female guards, working in shifts, watched her constantly. She could not go to the bathroom alone.

Such a routine has broken many a prisoner, but Ms. Gao had a strength in reserve of which her questioners were unaware. She and her husband had come to the United States following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Both atheists, they had joined a Chinese-student Bible study at Syracuse University merely for social interaction. Her husband came to belief in 1995 and she did also in 1999, after years of inner turmoil and "wrestling with God." So on her first day of detention, "I prayed hard," she told WORLD. "I was scared, I was angry, I was overwhelmed, and I knew I was innocent of any wrongdoing."

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To protest her detention, Ms. Gao at first refused to wash or change clothes. She thought she would be released within hours; the focal point of her trip to China had not even been research but a visit to her husband's family home in Xi'an and her own family home in Nanjing, where her father is a retired government official. But as hours turned into days and weeks, Ms. Gao settled into a routine. Upon waking each day, she said she would "cry out to God" to "help me survive today."

When Ms. Gao heard the interrogators walking down the hall to her room, she prayed for God's protection and direction in the upcoming session. On Sundays, she said she prayed for the week ahead and for the safety of her family. No one told her that her husband and son had been released on March 8 and allowed to fly home, where Mr. Xue launched an aggressive campaign to win his wife's release. With help from Congress he became a U.S. citizen, and also arranged for Andrew to be baptized. "Now they were holding the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of a baptized American child," Mr. Xue told WORLD with a chuckle. "She belonged to God."

In China, though, Ms. Gao's keepers rejected her requests to consult with an attorney. On April 2, one day after a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American surveillance plane off the China coast, the authorities moved Ms. Gao to a State Security Bureau detention center, where she was to await trial on spy charges. That move devastated her. "Where was God? I had prayed I could go home," she recalled. The food was "awful," she said, mostly stewed vegetables. Bed was a board with no padding or mat. State Security issued her a pillow and military-green quilt.

Ms. Gao's cellmate was a 21-year-old convicted thief named Hui. Ms. Gao suspected the girl was an informant, assigned to pump her for information. "We couldn't have been more different," Ms. Gao remarked. "I came from a privileged background. She came from poverty. Her mother abandoned the family, her father abused her, and she ran away from home at age 14 and became a thief in Beijing. She didn't know about God, she never saw a Bible."

Ms. Gao settled into the new rugged regimen. She arose every morning at 6:30, folded her bedding and tidied up the cell in accord with regulations. Authorities forced her to spend an hour each morning and afternoon in "reflection" or "board sitting"-sitting up straight, eyes fixed on the plain white walls ahead. Interrogations could and did occur at any time. "Education" sessions occupied some of the time, including two hours of viewing state television along with other inmates twice a week. An hour in the morning and another in the afternoon were devoted to "fresh-air" time in a high-walled exercise yard, six feet by six feet. Senior guards imposed "thought work" at their own discretion. They prohibited mail.

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