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 to the tense two-and-half-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?”
Human rights groups have tried other ways of assisting jailed Chinese dissidents over the years, but human rights experts said Marcus’ approach was fairly unusual and somewhat risky for her and Zhu. Marcus said she knew her chances of getting to see Zhu were slim but that it was important to try.
Marcus first learned of Zhu’s imprisonment when his siblings visited Washington to meet with members of Congress and needed a place to stay. Marcus’ husband — a former Reagan administration official and longtime human rights activist — offered up their house.
After hearing about Zhu’s worsening skin rashes 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 was sentenced to seven years in prison 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 have been held. U.S. officials have called for Zhu’s release.
The short poem — titled “It’s Time” and 12-lines long — called for people “to voice the song in your heart.”
“It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
The Square belongs to everyone.
With your own two feet
It’s time to head to the Square and make your choice.”
Zhu had been imprisoned twice before for his activism, said his sister, Zhu Xiaoyan, who lives in the United States. “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, that this latest stretch in prison is breaking him physically and mentally. When she last saw him in November, his body and face were swollen, she said. 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.