Guo Feixiong, the 2015 recipient of the Frontline Defenders human rights award, is the nom de plume of Yang Maodong, a jailed human rights activist, lawyer and writer in China. Given what he has endured in defence of his values and beliefs, it might be described more accurately as his nom de guerre.
For Mr Guo has been beaten, abused, denied basic rights of freedom of expression and assembly, and jailed on trumped up charges in what is in effect a war – a nonviolent war, which he and others are waging against the ruling dictatorship of China’s community party and military. His tools are those employed before him by Gandhi and Martin Luther King: argument and passive resistance, including, in his case, several hunger strikes.
“Guo is his mother’s name,” his daughter Sara said in an interview given alongside her mother, Zhang Qing. “Feixiong was the pen name of a particularly wise counsel and general to the emperor in the Zhou Dynasty [1050-771 BC].”
Both mother and daughter now live in Texas, where they have refugee status and attend the Stone Gate Church, a Baptist ministry, where Zhang, who has just qualified as an accountant, has found temporary employment. Sara is 18 years old and has a brother, Peter, who is 14. Growing up with her father frequently absent because of his campaigning and resultant jailings was not easy.
“It was pretty hard, I have to admit,” says Sara. “Before he was arrested, before I knew anything about what he was doing, he would always go out and I would cry when he was out . . .
“After he was arrested, I was very concerned; it was a big burn in my heart to feel so sorry about him. But right now, I understand him a lot. . . We are really strong. We can survive on our own. I fully support what he’s doing with his work.”
Her father’s initiation into activism was sparked by horror at what the Chinese authorities did in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In his speech from the dock last November (in a trial ended but still absent a verdict) he explained his motivation thus: “The massacre of students and other young people in Beijing who were protesting peacefully on the Boulevard of Everlasting Peace on June 4th, 1989, was one of the most grotesque events in human history. It cleaved Chinese society irreconcilably from its government.
“At that moment I decided never to compromise with the autocrats who had slaughtered innocent citizens and to throw myself into the work of bringing freedom and democracy to China to the full extent of my abilities and of the will of heaven.”
There followed a relentless campaign in defence of ordinary people’s efforts to hold the Chinese authorities to account, proselytise for democracy and freedom of expression.
In 2005, as a lawyer, he acted for villagers in Taishi, outraged at corrupt officials who sold their land and pocketed the proceeds.
In the campaign, Mr Guo used the media and the law to challenge the system by writing about the scandal and representing the villagers.
In the decade since, he has been arrested four times, always for allegedly “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order in a public place”.
He has been interrogated relentlessly (on one occasion for 13 days and nights straight) and staged several hunger strikes.
His current incarceration is his fourth jail term. Zhang has not seen her husband since 2008; Sara hasn’t seen her father since 2006. Zhang would like him to have a passport and come to the US to visit, but she knows that even if he could, he would want to return to China.
“I would like him to come but he wants to continue his dream [and] I can understand him. He did a lot of work for the human rights in China and he’s interested in this so I think I can understand him and support his dream.”
The Frontline award was recognition for her husband’s work and she hoped the Irish Government would add its voice to calls for his release.
“Irish Government should use its influence to speak out for the human rights situation in China, and I think not to stop the economic connections to China because that’s good for China, also good for Ireland people,” she said.
“But [the Irish Government] can also speak out for human rights in China.”