BEIJING – Moved by the plight and failing health of a Chinese dissident imprisoned for a few lines of poetry, a retired American doctor traveled from her quiet life in suburban Washington to the gates of his eastern China prison on Saturday and asked she be allowed to give him a medical evaluation.
Authorities at Prison No. 4 in Zhejiang province refused Devra Marcus’ request to see imprisoned activist Zhu Yufu. They also temporarily confiscated the cellphone of an accompanying interpreter and deleted images from it before brusquely escorting them out of the prison, said Marcus and others who were at the prison with her.
Marcus — a 73-year-old, white-haired and bespectacled grandmother with 40-plus years as a Washington-area doctor — described the experience as surreal and at times frightening — from her surreptitious planning with a China-focused human rights group, paranoid measures to get through immigration to the tense 2½-hour standoff at the prison.
Explaining her decision to confront Chinese authorities known for cracking down on those who challenge them, she said, “I figured, ‘What are they possibly going to do to an old Jewish white lady from McLean?’ “
While human rights groups have tried various ways of assisting jailed dissidents over the years, a surprise visit by an elderly American woman to a dissident’s prison was an unorthodox and somewhat risky approach for her and for the 60-year-old Zhu, said some human rights experts.
Marcus first learned of Zhu’s imprisonment when Zhu’s siblings visited Washington to testify before Congress and needed a place to stay. Marcus’ husband — a former official in the administration of late President Ronald Reagan and a longtime human rights activist — offered up their house.
After hearing about Zhu’s worsening skin rashes of late and trouble walking, Marcus decided to do something about it. “That’s what doctors do when someone is sick, you try to help,” she said.
Zhu, the man she tried to visit, was sentenced to seven years after he wrote a poem in 2011 amid uprisings in the Middle East. He was charged with trying to subvert state power — the same charges under which Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and several other dissidents are being held.
The short poem — entitled “It’s Time” and 12 lines long — called for people “to voice the song in your heart” and concluded, “China belongs to everyone.” U.S. officials have called for his release.
Zhu had been imprisoned twice before for his democratic activism, said his sister, Zhu Xiaoyan, who lives in the U.S. “After the first time, friends tried to get him to leave China. After the second time, the family asked him to stop for the sake of his child, but he is a stubborn man,” she said.
She and other relatives worry, however, this latest stretch in prison is breaking him physically and mentally. When she last saw him in November, his whole body and face had swollen up. And according to accounts from more recent prison visits by Zhu’s wife, his body was covered in a red bloody rash this summer and he had trouble walking without leaning against the wall.
During a visit last month, Zhu appeared severely depressed and at one point stopped talking altogether, said Zhu’s sister. “We worry he is losing the will to live.”
Such accounts were hard to ignore, said Marcus.
As a doctor, she also grew concerned listening to their descriptions of his medical symptoms whether his condition could worsen dramatically or prove fatal if untreated or independently evaluated.
The potential for cardiovascular problems was the most worrisome part to her. If someone could just get in to at least take his blood pressure, she thought.
Depression was also high on the list. “I’ve seen patients who just let go after they’ve been through a lot,” she said.
Working with China Aid, a Texas-based Christian human rights group, she and her husband began putting together a rough plan. She applied for a tourist visa, citing her interest in Chinese brush painting. She packed light — bringing for Zhu a stethoscope, multivitamins, a blood-pressure pump as well as knitting needles to pass the time. If asked about the medical devices, she planned to say truthfully that she herself suffered from high blood pressure, she said.
On the long flight over Thursday, she could not sleep, rehearsing responses to likely questions from prison authorities.
When she and an accompanying Chinese-speaking American, Kody Kness, finally arrived by train in the city of Hangzhou, they met up with Zhu’s wife and set out the next day for the prison.
And at the unusual sight of a foreigner at the gate, the group was quickly ushered into the prison offices, according to Marcus and Zhu’s wife, Jiang Hangli. The main official they talked to — a short man who refused to give his name — responded at first with smiles, but became increasingly angry as they kept asking to see Zhu, Marcus said.
“He said foreigners don’t belong here,” Marcus said. The group took out a petition to the United Nations on Zhu’s behalf. “The man said the U.N. doesn’t matter here.”
Speaking by phone outside the prison gates shortly after they were kicked out, Marcus said she was disappointed she was not able to evaluate Zhu’s health. But she believed the visit accomplished a small amount of good nonetheless.
“We wanted to let Zhu know and the government know that the outside world cares about what happens to him,” she said. “He needs medical attention. If anything happens, if he gets worse or dies in prison, there are people watching.”