BEIJING — Moved by the plight and failing health of a Chinese dissident imprisoned for a few lines of poetry, a retired American doctor traveled from suburban Washington to the gates of his prison in eastern China on Saturday and asked to evaluate him.
Authorities at Prison No. 4 in Zhejiang province refused Devra Marcus’ request to see imprisoned activist Zhu Yufu. They also temporarily confiscated the cellphone of an accompanying interpreter and deleted images from it before brusquely escorting them out of the prison, said Marcus and others who were with her.
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.
During a visit last month, Zhu appeared severely depressed and at one point stopped talking, said Zhu’s sister. “We worry he is losing the will to live.”
Such accounts were hard to ignore, Marcus said.
For more than three decades, Marcus and her husband hosted dissidents from all over the world. During that time, Marcus ran a medical practice in Washington but at night and on weekends at their home hosted refugees her husband, Michael Horowitz, met through work.
They started with Czech and Bulgarian dissidents, then Ethiopians, Russian former prostitutes and even escapees from North Korea.
Chinese dissidents, however, were a relatively recent addition.
Marcus’ own family arrived in the United States in the 1900s after fleeing the persecution of the pogroms in then-Russian territories, she said, and she felt a connection with Zhu’s siblings.
As a doctor, she also grew concerned listening to their descriptions of his medical symptoms. The potential for cardiovascular problems was the most worrisome part to her. If someone could just get in to at least take his blood pressure, she thought.
Depression was also high on the list. “I’ve seen patients who just let go after they’ve been through a lot,” she said.
Working with China Aid, a Texas-based Christian human rights group, she and her husband began putting together a rough plan. She applied for a tourist visa, citing her interest in Chinese brush painting. She packed light — bringing a stethoscope, multivitamins, a blood-pressure pump as well as knitting needles to pass the time. If asked about the medical devices, she planned to say truthfully that she herself suffered from high blood pressure, she said.
On the long flight over Thursday, she couldn’t sleep, rehearsing responses to likely questions from prison authorities.
When she and an accompanying Chinese-speaking human rights advocate, Kody Kness, finally arrived by train in the city of Hangzhou, they met up with Zhu’s wife and set out the next day for the prison.
And at the unusual sight of a foreigner at the gate, the group was quickly ushered into the prison offices, according to Marcus and Zhu’s wife, Jiang Hangli. The main official they talked to — who refused to give his name — responded at first with smiles but became increasingly angry as they kept asking to see Zhu, Marcus said.
“He said foreigners don’t belong here,” she said. The group showed him a petition China Aid had filed with the United Nations on Zhu’s behalf. “The man said the U.N. doesn’t matter here.”
Officials answering the phone at the Zhejiang prison confirmed that Zhu’s wife visited him Saturday but said they were not authorized to answer questions on other topics.
Speaking by phone outside the prison gates shortly after they were kicked out, Marcus said she’s disappointed she wasn’t able to evaluate Zhu. But she believed the visit accomplished a small amount of good nonetheless.
“We wanted to let Zhu know and the government know that the outside world cares about what happens to him,” she said. “He needs medical attention. If anything happens, if he gets worse or dies in prison, there are people watching.”