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."
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.
Always, she prayed: upon arising, before every meal, before going to sleep. She prayed for her husband and son. She prayed for her plight. She prayed for a miracle. Some days she was more frustrated and upset than others. "I argued and fought with God," she said. "Why was He allowing this to happen? Why me? Why didn't He intervene and get me out of here?"
Guards "tore apart" her cell once a month, looking for contraband. Forced to clean up their wreckage, she complained bitterly. The guards rebuked her and threatened her with solitary confinement. She said she sensed God was trying to teach her obedience and patience. "Lord," she prayed, "I received Your message. I will obey and wait."
One day Ms. Gao guardedly told Hui that she was praying for a miracle. "What is a miracle?" Hui asked. Ms. Gao explained her faith in Jesus Christ and basic teachings from Scripture over the next weeks. Hui took special interest in the Ten Commandments, especially the ban on stealing. Hui asked Ms. Gao to teach her how to pray.
On July 24, just days before a visit to China by Secretary of State Colin Powell, guards took Ms. Gao to a closed-door courtroom with a population of 10: three judges, two prosecutors, two perfunctory "defense lawyers," two guards, and Ms. Gao. She spoke several times, maintaining her innocence, but to no avail. Family members, outside attorneys, and U.S. officials were banned from the courtroom. The judges convicted Ms. Gao of "collecting intelligence for spy agencies in Taiwan" and sentenced her to 10 years in prison.
Other trials of scholars that month illuminated Beijing's "send a message" judicial strategy. A court convicted two other scholars of spying, ordering one deported and another sentenced to 10 years. Judges convicted Qu Wei, who had assisted Ms. Gao, of leaking "national secrets and intelligence," and gave him a 13-year sentence. The Communist government's message: Do not make copies of any document, already published or not, that was once marked Neibu ("Internal").
Sinologists speculated that the government's fear of losing control rose particularly after the publication in January of The Tiananmen Papers, a collection of highly classified internal documents released in the United States by three eminent American scholars together with an anonymous high-level Chinese government official. In standard dictatorial overreaction, material such as Ms. Gao had collected also became taboo, much as the Soviet government once considered the Moscow telephone directory to be top-secret stuff.
The day following Ms. Gao's court appearance, her Chinese attorney said officials had approved her application for "medical parole": She would be going home. "I thanked the Lord immediately upon hearing the news," Ms. Gao said. Then came a tearful parting with Hui. "I told her, 'Why don't you become a Christian so that we can be together in spirit and prayer?'" Ms. Gao said. Hui nodded agreement and said, "There was a reason for us to meet in this place."
Guards escorted Ms. Gao from the detention center and a doctor examined her briefly at the airport. State Security barred U.S. officials and any others from seeing her off. Free, she was soon able to stand before her church, St. Paul's Lutheran (Missouri Synod) in Falls Church, Va., and declare to congregants, "God is the one who saved my life, who brought me back."
Sitting now with her husband on a sofa in a quiet corner of the recreation center at their apartment complex, Ms. Gao and her husband agree that the ordeal has changed their lives forever. Besides reconsidering their views of China, both are reexamining their careers. Some people are urging Ms. Gao to become a professional human-rights advocate. Others say she should keep her options open for possible ministry in China. Mr. Xue may enroll in seminary.
Although Chinese authorities warned Ms. Gao not to talk about her detention, the couple say they want to write a book about their experiences. Ms. Gao's U.S. citizenship is pending. She told WORLD two people weigh heavily on her heart: Qu Wei and Hui. Ms. Gao is hoping that many will pray for Qu Wei's release, and she reports that Hui is due to be released this month. "What will happen to her? What kind of life will she have?" Ms. Gao asked. "Who will guide her deeper into faith?"
Ms. Gao said that during one interrogation session her questioner asked what she had been doing in her cell. "Praying," she told him. He chided her: "No matter how hard you pray, your God cannot save you. You are in our hands." She replied, "No, I strongly believe my God will save me."