GANZHOU, China (AP) — When the police called, Deng Guilian was at an indoor playground watching her 3-year-old. It was 2:19 p.m., Tuesday, May 30.
The man on the phone said her husband had been picked up on suspicion of making illegal recordings and taking illegal photographs. He told her she didn’t need to know the details, he just needed her address so he could send a formal notification.
“Could you please say that again?” Deng asked.
Her husband, Hua Haifeng, was a thousand kilometers (620 miles) away from her, in Ganzhou, a city in southeastern China where he had been investigating working conditions at factories that until at least March made shoes for Ivanka Trump’s brand. He and his colleagues at China Labor Watch, a New York nonprofit, were preparing to publish a report alleging low pay, excessive overtime, crude verbal abuse and possible misuse of student labor at Huajian Group factories. The company denies the allegations.
Deng grew furious at the man on the phone.
“I have to take care of old people and children. All the money comes from him,” she spat. “You tell me what I should do.”
There was a pause. “I don’t know,” the voice answered.
She hung up without giving her address.
Deng, 36, had entered the swelling ranks of relatives swept up in Beijing’s crackdown on human rights lawyers and labor activists. Hundreds have been detained, leaving many of their extended families with no source of income. Beyond financial suffering, the Chinese government wields great power over the lives of its citizens, which it can use to make things better — or infinitely worse — for those left behind. Wives, husbands, children and grandparents look on as their lives are systematically dismantled until all that remains are the bones of fear: How will I feed my children? Will we keep our house? When will we see each other again?
Deng was terrified. Standing at the playground, watching children try to catch goldfish, she felt like she might fall down. She didn’t know whom to talk to. Her husband’s ailing parents didn’t know what kind of work Hua did. They just knew he made money for everybody.
Above all, she had to protect her children, from sadness and fear and whatever else lay ahead. She would tell them lies and buy them chocolate late at night when they cried for a father they weren’t supposed to know was missing. It would be days before Deng herself could eat.
“PAPA WAS TAKEN AWAY BY A MONSTER”
Rewind. Back to when idealism didn’t seem to cost so much.
Deng met her husband in 2006 on an online chat group for people from their county, Nanzhang. A petite woman with a quick, wide smile, Deng liked Hua because he made her laugh. Deng began working in factories after high school, helping to churn out clothes, toys and electronics across Guangdong province, the heartland of China’s manufacturing boom. She sat in on information sessions Hua organized to teach workers their legal rights, and fell in love with both the man — though she thought he was kind of short — and his ideas.
She wore a white Western gown when they married in 2010. It was a simple ceremony, at home, with no rings or fancy jewelry. She believed they were on the right side of things, working to make society better for everyone, not just the rich and the lucky.
Hua’s latest investigation had taken him inside the Huajian Group. For Ivanka Trump and other brands, the company has pumped out millions of pairs of shoes a year from factories in China and Ethiopia. In May, Hua went undercover as a worker at one of its factories in Dongguan.
When he tried to travel to Hong Kong, he was blocked and taken out to lunch by the police, who warned him to stop the investigation. China Labor Watch, which has been exposing labor abuses for 17 years, says authorities had never made such a move before.
Hua and his colleagues Li Zhao and Su Heng were not deterred. They turned their attention to Huajian’s factory in Ganzhou.
Right up until Sunday afternoon, Deng and Hua chatted and exchanged photos by phone: Their 7-year-old daughter, Chen Chen, in a new dress; their 3-year-old son, Bo Bo, in mirrored sunglasses that made him look like a little bug.
Then Hua went silent.
“You disappeared?” Deng texted Monday afternoon.
That night, Bo Bo inexplicably burst into tears. “Papa was taken away by a monster,” the boy said. He told his mother he wanted a weapon so he could transform himself into the superhero Ultraman and save his dad.
“You do not have a weapon to transform yourself,” Deng told her child. “And you are not Ultraman.”
“EACH ONE WAS LIKE A WOLF”
A housewife who had stopped working to raise her children and care for the grandparents, Deng had only 400 yuan ($59) in spending money. She took loans from family members to pay the bills. The days were anxious. The nights worse. She went to bed with her phone clutched in her hand.
She scrambled to learn about lawyers and fielded so many calls from foreign journalists she didn’t have time to brush her teeth.
“I was a blank sheet of paper before,” she said. “Now I have no choice, I have to get to know this circle. It is hard.”
She said she never wanted to get involved with the police or the Chinese government or, most unimaginable of all, the U.S. president and his daughter.
Ivanka Trump has not commented on the arrests. Deng wishes she would, and believes she could help. “As a wife and mother of two children, I ask Ivanka Trump to release my husband,” she said.
Deng struggled to help her husband while caring for her children and ailing mother. She sent the kids off to their aunt’s house for two days, without explaining why. The children kept calling to say they missed her cooking and their toys.
Three days after the first phone call, police began searching for Deng. They knocked on the doors of family members in town. Deng had been trying to keep the news from her family and neighbors, and she was humiliated.
“People here may think as long as someone is being taken away, this person must be evil,” she said.
They eventually tracked her down at her mother’s house and drove her to the station around 9 p.m. that Friday.
Four men took her into a small room and pulled their chairs in a tight circle around her.
“Each one was like a wolf,” she said.
One man stared at her. Another wrote down everything she said. A third examined her phone, scrolling through her exchanges with foreign journalists. “You don’t know these people but you told them how old your children are and where you live,” a fourth man said. “Do you think that’s safe?”
She said they let her go after midnight, with a warning: “Do not let your husband’s crime turn into something like leaking state secrets.”
They “spoke so seriously,” Deng said. “Anyway, I don’t understand, but it was just terrifying.”
The following afternoon, the post office called to say it had a letter for her. She raced over on her bicycle, took the envelope home and tore it open with a knife. It was, as expected, the official police notice of her husband’s arrest.
Finally, she knew for sure what had happened to Hua. And finally, she was hungry and could eat.
The police called again and came by to take her to the village committee office. The Communist Party secretary of the village, a local official and a policeman asked about her family. They took photographs of the texts she exchanged with The Associated Press. They told her Hua was in serious trouble and advised her to make smart decisions.
They offered to help her financially, and to provide good care to her mother, who suffers from serious diabetes. They said her home would finally get the running water her family had long sought, which would mean Deng could stop hauling well water upstairs in buckets.
The more these men talked, the more she grieved, until she burst. The men watched as she cried — for her sick mother, her children, her isolation, her sudden poverty, her lost husband.
She went home calm and determined.
Her husband needed clothing and food. She would deliver them.
“I will not be afraid,” she said, using a Chinese expression, “I dare to climb a mountain of swords or plunge into a sea of flames.”
BUYING UNDERWEAR FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S HUSBANDS
Carrying a single black backpack, Deng boarded a standing-room-only train the next morning with her son and sister-in-law for the 12-hour journey to Ganzhou (GAN-joe). There, her husband and his two colleagues were being held on allegations of using secret recording devices to disrupt Huajian’s business.
It was folly making a 3-year-old stand through the night, but she figured they could camp out in the canteen car and pick on fried cucumber with pork while the child slept. His sister stayed with Hua’s parents.
Eight days after Hua’s disappearance, Deng arrived in Ganzhou, a relatively poor Chinese city better known for oranges than factories. One of its biggest corporate players is Huajian, the company that Hua, Li and Su had been investigating.
The shoe factory where the labor violations are alleged to have occurred sits in a growing complex of Huajian buildings, all painted the same pale blue, including rows of Huajian apartment towers, a Huajian innovation park, a Huajian school and a Huajian swimming pool.
Deng installed her son and sister-in-law in a small hotel room with cheery yellow walls. Then she hired a lawyer. Then she went shopping.
She figured Hua’s colleagues could also use a few things, but she agonized over what sizes to buy for the men. Li Zhao was so big she worried even extra large wouldn’t fit. Su Heng, she’d never set eyes on. Medium seemed like a safe bet.
“I’ve never bought underwear for other people’s husbands,” Deng said, laughing.
Two hours later, she stumbled out in her high wedge sandals, carrying three pairs of slippers, six pairs of shorts, six T-shirts, three towels and nine pairs of underwear. It all cost 450 yuan ($66), nearly half of her rainy day fund.
She brought everything back to the detention center. She didn’t know the center’s rules and came at the wrong time, and she didn’t know she had to label everything. Worse, they forbade rope and made her pull the string out of the waistband of all the men’s shorts. She worried they would all fall down. She put money on meal cards for the three men.
Summer rains washed across Ganzhou, leaving the air hot and heavy. There was no air conditioning at the detention center. When the lawyer Deng had hired, Wen Yu, came out, his hair was wet with sweat. He’d been waiting since 9 a.m. to meet Hua and sometime after 5 p.m. was finally permitted to see him for one minute, just long enough to introduce himself. Deng was not allowed to visit her husband.
“We need to try again tomorrow,” Wen said.
Chinese state-run media began publishing photos of evidence collected against Hua and his colleagues, claiming they had all confessed.
Police from her hometown, Deng learned, had visited Hua in jail, urging him to write a letter telling his wife to stop talking with the foreign media. Police also threatened her brother-in-law, she said. Wen was ordered not to speak with foreign reporters; he stopped granting interviews. (Police in Ganzhou and Jiangxi, as well as in Deng’s hometown could not be reached for comment.)
But Deng still talked. The more they tried to stop her, the more she wanted to speak.
She talked so much her mouth dried out and her voice grew raspy.
What, she wondered, was so threatening about her story?
“I have an unknown tenacity,” she said.
Lawyer hired, underwear delivered, by Wednesday it was time to go home
“I want to stay here,” Bo Bo said. “I don’t want to go home.”
“Here, I bought you snacks, chips and chicken,” Deng said. “Come on, put your shoes on.”
A 10-minute taxi ride later, Deng hoisted Bo Bo to her hip and stepped through a metal gate into the cool of the train station.
Deng hoped to rest at home, but expected the police would be there in the morning and maybe the afternoon, too, reminding her they were there, watching. She was not afraid. China is a country of laws, she believed, and as long as she didn’t break them, nothing bad would happen.
Then again, there was her husband, who she believed had done nothing wrong and was at that very moment in jail, eating bad food and sleeping by a plastic bucket used as a toilet by 20 men who had been ordered not to speak to him. At least he hadn’t been beaten.
At 1:12 p.m., the green train to Xiangyang City eased forward, carrying Deng and her son off to an uncertain future.
I am the Shanghai correspondent for the Associated Press. I write mostly about transnational criminal networks thiving in the shadows of China's rise, with specific attention to the opioid trade, counterfeiting and money laundering.