Friday 16 February 2001

ShuMei Zhang - a former Montrealer whose husband, KunLun, was released from a Chinese labour camp in January after a high-profile campaign for his freedom - has also been permitted to leave China and was scheduled to arrive in Ottawa late last night.

The Zhangs, arrested in the city of Jinan last summer after performing meditation exercises in a public park, have helped galvanize international opinion against China's 18-month crackdown on practitioners of the popular spiritual movement Falun Gong.

The campaign to secure the couple's release was spearheaded by their daughter, University of Ottawa student LingDi Zhang. And yesterday she credited Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley - and the Team Canada trade mission to China led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien - with playing key roles in helping her mother escape persecution and safely reuniting her family.

"Foreign Affairs called me this morning to say my mother was on her way to Canada, and I just feel great," said Ms. Zhang. "I think it helped that Team Canada was in China because the Chinese government didn't want bad publicity during the trade mission."

Mr. Zhang, 60, a prominent sculptor in China, lived with his wife and two daughters in Montreal from 1989 to 1996. The couple then returned to Jinan to look after Mrs. Zhang's ailing mother while LingDi and her sister JenWei remained in Canada.

But last year, Mr. and Mrs. Zhang were caught in a nation-wide sweep of arrests aimed at wiping out Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that has hundreds of thousands of followers but is viewed by the Chinese government as a [Chinese government's slanderous word] and a threat to Communist rule.

Last fall, Mr. Zhang was sent to a labour camp in northeastern China while Mrs. Zhang, 60, lived under house arrest and continued caring for her elderly mother.

In November, LingDi Zhang appealed to the Canadian government for her father's release.

Mr. Zhang, who had obtained Canadian citizenship during his years in Montreal, was freed last month and flown to Ottawa after Liberal MP and human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler championed his cause with the Canadian government and Amnesty International highlighted the case.

But the fate of Mrs. Zhang remained uncertain. She was under constant police surveillance and suffered "harassment" by Chinese authorities, says her daughter.

Finally, in late January, she was arrested by a state security officer but managed to escape custody. A cousin had offered to care for her mother so Mrs. Zhang fled Jinan and went into hiding with other relatives, says LingDi Zhang.

Mr. Cotler said he spoke with Mr. Manley this week to see what Canada could do to help Mrs. Zhang - who holds only landed-immigrant status - leave China.

"I think Mr. Manley made a timely intervention," said Mr. Cotler.

"After Mr. Zhang was released, it was not in China's interests to appear in the press to be harassing his wife. And I think China wants this trade mission to go smoothly. This situation with Mrs. Zhang would have made a mockery of China's own claims" to be improving its human rights record.

Foreign Affairs spokesman Reynald Doiron said the Canadian embassy in Beijing "was instrumental" in negotiating Mrs. Zhang's safe departure from China and hastily issued her a Canadian residency permit.

LingDi Zhang praised the efforts of Mr. Cotler and officials from Foreign Affairs, as well as Montreal-area Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde for her outspoken support for imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners in China.

Mrs. Zhang is scheduled to speak about her ordeal at a press conference today in Ottawa.