FROM the founding of the People's Republic of China, public "struggle sessions," imprisonment, and internal exile were not the worst that those labeled "enemies of the state" had to endure. Frequently people condemned to censure or prison were abandoned by their closest family members. In a process known as "drawing a clear line of demarcation," wives divorced politically disgraced husbands, children rejected their "bourgeois" or "rightist" parents.
Even in China, where family loyalty has always been a cardinal value, a combination of fear and brainwashing by the Communist Party led many to join in the condemnation of relatives. Wei Jingshen, the dissident of Democracy Wall fame whose fate in prison remains a mystery, was deserted by his parents and fiance. Perhaps toothless from malnutrition, perhaps mad from isolation, he is rumored to be visited only by a sister.
Harry Wu, chronicler of the Chinese Gulag, considered himself forgotten by the world, a feeling said to make all other forms of torture unendurable: During 19 years of imprisonment, he was cut off by all family members except his mother, who committed suicide.
After the bloody ending to the massive peaceful demonstrations of spring 1989, many familiar with China's recent history expected the cycle of betrayal and rejection by family, friends, and neighbors to continue. The idea of a widespread "Chinese Underground" helping to hide dissidents and spirit them over the border into Hong Kong seemed impossibly idealistic. Particularly bitter in those days of the "White Terror" was the news of a student leader betrayed by his own sister and brother-in-law, in whose apartment he had been hiding.
That the popular movement crushed by tanks in June 1989 was not a failure can be seen by a letter from a woman named Wang Zhihong to her husband, imprisoned dissident Chen Ziming, on his 40th birthday in December 1991. It was published in the September issue of the overseas pro-democracy journal "China Spring."
Ms. Wang describes their childhoods and families, his years spent in Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, when young, educated people were sent to labor in remote, impoverished regions. Of her decision to marry a sloppy bookworm who would never make her rich, she says: "You can't choose perfection when you're not perfect yourself; you can only choose what matters."
Nor is Wang the only Chinese to openly express her loyalty to an imprisoned relative: Hou Xiaotian, wife of ailing political prisoner Wang Juntao, has struggled to focus public attention on his case and win him improved physical conditions.
Li Yixian, the mother of student activist Shen Tong, posted a "big-character" poster to protest his arrest during a trip back to China in August. In a letter to the authorities, she cites China's laws on arrest, detention, and family visitation rights to call for justice not only for her son but also for the two friends detained with him, Qi Dafeng and Qian Liyun. (Recently, Mr. Shen was expelled from China and Ms. Qian was released. As of this writing, the whereabouts of Mr. Qi remain unknown.)
These public protests are not without their dangers. The wife of activist Ren Wanding is unemployed because of the constant care needed by her teenage daughter, who had a nervous breakdown after Mr. Ren's arrest; mother and daughter have twice been evicted by authorities, and in a country where housing is controlled by the government, this makes them in effect homeless.
Wang Zhihong's letter contains no direct criticism of the government but it doesn't need to: She addresses Chen, that enemy of the state, by the affectionate and intimate diminutive Mingming, "Little Brightness," and similarly signs herself "Your beloved wife, Rainbow [Hong]." Her love for her husband clearly outweighs her loyalty to the state, and in the history of communist China, this spiritual dissidence and its public declaration are truly a sign of changing times.