The wife of a Chinese dissident from the northwestern region of Xinjiang jailed for subversion after standing up for Uyghurs says she has received what could be a forcibly written letter from him, prompting fears of “extreme persecution” in prison.
Zhang Haitao, an outspoken critic of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, is serving a 19-year jail term at Xinjiang’s Shaya Prison for “incitement to subvert state power” and spying charges.
He was handed the sentence by the Intermediate People’s Court in Urumqi, regional capital of Xinjiang, on Jan. 15, 2016.
Even before the pandemic, which has led the authorities lock down prisons and ban face-to-face meetings, Zhang had only been allowed three family visits during the first five years of his sentence.
Since then, his wife Li Aijie, who fled China with her son after being harassed and threatened by local authorities, has only received a handful of letters from Zhang.
The most recent letter came after a gap of one year and eight months, and didn’t appear to be genuine, Li told RFA.
“The obvious difference this time is that he wrote in the letter that he was eating very well, and in very specific terms; he mentioned beef, lamb, chicken, milk and eggs, etc,” Li said.
“I don’t think a lot of ordinary people in China eat that well [outside of prison],” she said. “It was a bit hard to believe.”
“I think the prison authorities forced him to write those things,” Li said.
The letter, dated June 27, 2022, is only the fifth Zhang has sent to his family since his sentence began.
In it, Zhang also says he has good clothing, and tells his family not to try to visit.
“The letter I received said there was no need to visit him,” she said, adding that Zhang has spent time in solitary confinement.
“We have previously confirmed that he wasn’t even allowed outside for exercise,” Li said. “Why wouldn’t he want to see his family? At least his sister, and to find out how we’re doing in the U.S.”
The letter signs off with something even more unexpected, Li said.
“The weirdest things is that he writes: ‘Thanks to the party, to the government, and to the country’,” Li said. “That’s just not credible.”
“The whole reason he went to jail in the first place was for scolding and criticizing the country and its government,” she said. “He is an innocent man, [wrongfully] convicted: how could he be thanking them?”
“It was very painful and uncomfortable for me to read that line,” Li said. “The Zhang Haitao I know is a tough guy who doesn’t crack.”
“In the absence of extreme persecution, it would be unthinkable for him to write this kind of self-violation,” she said.
‘They don’t want him to come out alive’
Zhang’s sister Zhang Qingzhen last visited her brother in April 2018, she told RFA on Thursday. No visits from family members have been allowed since, despite several requests made by Zhang Qingzhen.
“I asked for a video call [after the pandemic], and they said there was no equipment for video calls between Xinjiang and Henan,” she said.
“So I said, ‘OK, I’ll come to Xinjiang for the video call’, but they said no, and told me not to come,” Zhang Qingzhen said. “Then I called the prison bureau and they told me I couldn’t have a video call.”
“It’s much harder now.”
Zhang Qingzhen fears that the reason for the denial of family visits is that Zhang has been tortured, and the authorities don’t want the news to get out.
She also fears they don’t plan on letting her brother out of prison alive.
“He has been held in solitary confinement … Now he’s in a state where he can’t die, but he’s not living either,” she said. “They don’t want him to come out alive.”
Repeated calls to Shaya Prison went unconnected on Thursday.
At Zhang’s trial, the prosecution cited 69 posts to the Chinese social media platform WeChat and 205 Twitter posts and retweets, as evidence of “incitement to subvert state power.”
Li, who gave birth to the couple’s son shortly after he was jailed, and was left with no income, was relying on relatives for financial support, she told RFA at the time.
But ChinaAid, which helped to organize her escape from China, said she had faced abuse within her family as well as threats from officials.
Zhang, 46, was initially detained on June 26, 2015 on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” but the charges against him were later changed to the more serious charges of subversion and spying.
The court said it had handed down a longer jail term because Zhang had “colluded” with overseas organizations.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.