Ding Jiaxi, a leader in the pro-democracy China Citizens Movement, believed it was possible to work inside China to convince people to push back against the government. But in December, as he was having dinner at a friend’s home, authorities burst in and arrested him and the others there.
“I didn't know how to react. Somehow, I think we kind of knew that with what he was doing, that something like this was going to happen at some point.”
“I didn't know how to react,” said Ding Jiaxi’s 18-year-old daughter, Caroline Ding, who at the time was a freshman at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “Somehow, I think we kind of knew that with what he was doing, that something like this was going to happen at some point.”
Ding Jiaxi had been on a collision course with the Chinese government perhaps ever since 1989 when he was a college junior in Beijing. He spent three days and nights in Tiananmen Square as student protesters faced off against troops. But at the university, he also met his wife, Sophie Luo.
“I think of the story that she used to tell us, like, it was love at first sight. My dad walked into the room and she was like, ‘Oh, that's the one,’” Caroline Ding said.
They married and had two kids. Ding Jiaxi put his activism aside and became a successful business lawyer in Beijing. But around 2010, Luo said he began reaching out to human rights activists.
“So, he always [had] this thinking to bring change to China,” she said.
Ding Jiaxi helped organize the first small meetings of the China Citizens Movement. Members were encouraged to use their rights as a citizen, as laid out in China’s constitution, to advocate for change within the existing political system. Ding Jiaxi collected 7,000 signatures for a petition that sought to reveal corruption. It called on top officials to disclose their family’s finances and assets. Luo said that’s when the government sent plainclothes officers to watch their house.
“At that time, I realized our life was really unsafe,” Luo said.
Caroline Ding remembers it, too.
“There would just be [police] sitting outside of our house. Every day I went to school, I would see him sitting there. I really trusted my dad and I thought he knew what he was doing, so I didn't think it was that big of a problem.”
“There would just be [police] sitting outside of our house. Every day I went to school, I would see him sitting there,” she said. “I really trusted my dad and I thought he knew what he was doing, so I didn't think it was that big of a problem.”
Her dad, though, knew that it was. Luo said Ding Jiaxi asked her to leave the country with the kids, so they wouldn’t get caught up in his battle with the government. Luo works for a global corporation that was able to relocate her to the US. She went to the US Embassy to get a visa.
“Then the next day, the policeman [came] to take him away from our house,” Luo said.
In 2013, Ding Jiaxi was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for his work with the Citizens Movement. Luo knew she’d have more freedom to speak outside China, so she and the kids followed through with the plan to settle in the small town of Alfred, New York. Ding Jiaxi sent them letters.
“In those days, a letter from him was my nutrition for life,” she said.
Ding Jiaxi’s arrest and jailing was just the beginning of a widespread crackdown that drew international attention. In July 2015, hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists were detained and tortured in China. Still, somehow, Ding Jiaxi was released in 2016 and got a visa to visit his family in the US.
“I can see that in the two months he did all the chores at home and [wanted] to compensate what [had been] missing for the family, but I [could] see he still wants to go back,” she said.
Luo begged him to stay. But Ding Jiaxi said the US was too comfortable — and he felt restless. This is what people have a hard time understanding, why her husband would return to a place that is so dangerous for him, Luo said.
“It’s not [everyone who] can understand. It took us, the family, a long time also to understand him. I just feel he was chosen by God to do something for China. So, although I feel painful, I still [sent] him back.”
“It’s not [everyone who] can understand. It took us, the family, a long time also to understand him,” she said. “I just feel he was chosen by God to do something for China. So, although I feel painful, I still [sent] him back.”
Ding Jiaxi returned to China in 2017 and continued his work with the Citizens Movement until December of 2019, when authorities picked him up again. Several of the activists he was arrested with have been released, but not Ding Jiaxi. His lawyer has been denied access to him. Luo hasn’t gotten any letters. They don’t know where he’s being held.
“Lack of human rights in China — it’s a threat to the whole international society,” Luo said. “This kind of dictatorship is a kind of disease to society, to the whole international world.”
Luo said her goal is to free all those unlawfully detained in China, including her husband. She spends hours on the phone at night, talking to lawyers and calling Chinese authorities to try to get information.
Luo’s reached out to US congressmen, senators and the State Department for help, and said they’ve all been supportive — but the growing divide between the US and China makes Luo wonder what they can really do. Members of their local church in New York made videos to send a direct message to the Chinese government.
“We are angry in the United States about this, and we will stay angry,” one church member said in the video.
“No one should be detained or kept secretly hidden when they have done nothing wrong,” another commented.
A third added, “This is an absolutely unacceptable way for a government to treat one of its citizens.”
This week, Caroline Ding wrote an op-ed about her dad for the Tufts student newspaper. Unlike her mom and sister, who have green cards, Caroline Ding is a citizen, born when Luo was a graduate student in the US. So, she feels safe to speak out. But Luo doesn’t want to express the immense frustration of living a privileged American life while her father likely sits in prison.
“If we show our weakness, then the Communist Party is winning in a way because they want to see us crushed and sad, so we wouldn't be able to do anything,” she said. “But I think the best thing we can do is just enjoy our lives here. Joy is the ultimate rebellion.”
And this is what her dad wanted — for them to be safe, so he could make the choice to fight.