Chen Guiqiu fled China on foot with her two daughters, only to end up in a Thai prison until US officials helped them sneak out dramatically through a back door.
Now Chen is safe in Texas with her daughters, hoping to obtain US asylum after her extraordinary caper across the world.
But her husband, prominent human rights lawyer Xie Yang, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to inciting subversion during a one-day trial in central China this week.
While US President Donald Trump has been accused of glossing over human rights abuses in certain countries, Chen’s account shows US officials went to great lengths to help her escape China’s clutches.
Chen had been a vocal defender of her husband, whose case drew international concern after he accused the police of torturing him.
She said that because of her activism authorities interrogated her repeatedly, harassed her family members and threatened to evict her and get her fired from her job as professor of environmental engineering at Hunan University.
She and her daughters, who are aged four and 15, first tried to take a train to Hong Kong from southern Guangdong province earlier this year.
“That’s when I realised we were on a travel blacklist. At the train station, they prevented us from boarding then separated me from my older daughter and detained her somewhere I couldn’t see. My heart hurt, not knowing what she was feeling,” Chen told AFP.
They left their home in central China again in mid-February with only bare essentials in their backpacks.
They spent four days walking long distances to evade border guards.
On their way to Thailand, supporters escorted them on different legs of the journey, travelling by foot and car, until they arrived in a safe house in Bangkok.
But Thai officials took them to an immigration court, which ordered them to leave the country.
Chen was not worried because they had permits to travel to the US. But while they were in the immigration detention centre, Chinese agents showed up to take them away, Chen said.
“I was in shock and my daughters were terrified. Inside the immigration prison, my phone was taken away and I was not expecting any rescue… I really can’t thank the Americans enough,” she said.
The US diplomats convinced Thai officials to let the family leave the facility.
But the Chinese agents pursued them to the Bangkok airport, where the three countries’ representatives engaged in a noisy argument.
The incident happened on March 3 — weeks before Trump met Xi at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where their conversations seemingly had little to do with human rights.
Chen said she can’t say what happened after the airport standoff, because of “diplomatic sensitivities”, but confirmed they arrived safely in Texas on March 17.
Now, Chen and her older daughter have started the process to seek asylum in America.
“We have a lawyer. … We met with staff from the Trump administration, who were very supportive,” Chen said.
Chen’s four-year-old daughter is an American citizen by birth. Her nationality meant the US was exercising a legitimate consular role in staging the dramatic intervention.
“It’s a problem only if the Chinese government chooses to see it that way. It’s normal and indeed obligatory for the US and other governments to assist citizens in distress,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Bob Fu, an American activist who planned the daring escape, said: “It was the most challenging rescue I have ever done. Indeed a miracle.”
Asked about Chen’s escape, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said authorities had already released information on Xie’s case, adding: “If you are interested in that, you can check it on the internet. I have no more information to offer.”
A ‘sham’ trial
Xie had worked on numerous politically sensitive cases, such as defending mainland supporters of Hong Kong democracy activists.
He pleaded guilty on Monday to charges of inciting subversion of state power after telling the court he had been brainwashed while receiving training in Hong Kong and South Korea to “overthrow” China’s system.
Xie also told the court he had not been tortured by Chinese authorities. Amnesty International called the trial a “sham.”
Chen has not seen her husband since his arrest in 2015.
“Even if he is released from jail, as long as he is in China, he will never be free,” she sighed.
Her daughters “like it a lot in Texas because there are no police following them anymore,” she said.