The tragic events of the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing hold special resonance for Ti-Anna Wang. Born the same year, she was named after the Tiananmen Square protests. Her father was an ardent pro-democracy campaigner living in exile in Montreal, Canada since the early 1980s.
Discussing politics and human rights was familiar for Ti-Anna. Her father, Wang Bingzhang, travelled the world advocating for human rights in China. And while the family lived secure in the knowledge that they were safe in Montreal, they did not realize how far the tentacles of the Chinese security services could reach.
In 2002, when she was only 13, Ti-Anna’s mother sat her and her two older brothers in the living room of their flat and broke the news that their father wasn’t coming home.
Wang Bingzhang had been on a trip to Viet Nam. Following a meeting with fellow activists, he was abducted by two men and smuggled across the border to China.
“At the time, I didn’t understand the severity of the situation. I thought it had been a big misunderstanding, that it would be just a matter of time before justice prevailed,” Ti-Anna said.
After being held for six months in incommunicado detention, Wang Bingzhang was charged with espionage and terrorism. The trial lasted one day and he was sentenced to life in prison.
More than a decade later, Ti-Anna’s father is still languishing in a Chinese jail.
“I really thought that maybe it was just a mistake, that they had the wrong person and that it wouldn’t be long before this blows over and that everything would be fine. I never thought it would drag on for over 10 years,” she explained.
As the years passed and the prospect of not seeing her father free again started to sink in, Ti-Anna decided to take matters into her own hands.
She first approached others who, like her, had their parents unfairly imprisoned in China. A pattern of abuse began to emerge: persecution of human rights activists, trumped up charges and unfair trials: the abuses that had taken place in Tiananmen many years before were not a thing of the past.
“I’ve always felt that if I can’t get him released the second best thing would be for him to know that his sacrifice had not been in vain. I feel it is my responsibility to keep sharing his story because in a sense I’m privileged to be able to do this,” the activist said.
Since his abduction in 2002, Ti-Anna has only been able to see her father in Shaoguan prison in a city near Hong Kong on three occasions. Separated by a glass wall – each meeting took place in rooms closely monitored by prison guards and lasted just 30 minutes.
“The last ten years have really taken a huge toll on his psychological wellbeing. He is kept in solitary confinement most of the time and he has very limited interaction with others. He is very fragile,” Ti-Anna explained.
And as if the meetings were not tough enough, even arranging a visit proves an immense challenge.
“The whole thing is very draining. Everything is very rushed because the prison guards give you specific dates when you can visit and usually by the time they tell you there isn’t much time to get ready. You have to apply for your visa, book your tickets, it’s all very rushed. Then you are there for a couple of days and you come back. But the most difficult part is leaving, because I know I’m going back home to my house in Montreal, but at the same time I’m leaving my father behind,” she said.
When Ti-Anna turned 19, she moved to Washington for a year to lobby congress members to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to review her father’s case.
But then, events took a turn for the worst. In what she believes is punishment for her outspoken activism in the USA, the limited visits came to a halt.
“That’s been really difficult because sometimes you ask yourself whether you are making things worse, it feels like the situation might be regressing and not progressing,” Ti-Anna said.
But despite all the hurdles over the years, Ti-Anna draws inspiration from her father and the activists who once stood defiant in Tiananmen. She refuses to lose hope.
“The last thing you want is for him to be forgotten together with the other thousands of political prisoners in China. With international attention at least hopefully he’ll be safe. I feel doing something is better than doing nothing at all.”