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The wife and two children of one of China's most prominent dissidents are seeking asylum in the United States after a dramatic escape through Southeast Asia. They say years of constant surveillance by Chinese police made their lives unbearable. NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Shanghai.

LOUISA LIM: In early January, Geng He wrote a note to her husband, Gao Zhisheng, a crusading lawyer who's one of China's best-known dissidents. It said: I've taken the children so they can get schooling. And then she fled, taking their 15-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.

The authorities had forbidden the family from applying for passports. So she traveled to the southern province of Yunnan, where she paid human traffickers, known as snakeheads, almost $6,000 to smuggle her family over the border. Then it was an exhausting eight-day journey that ended in Thailand.

Ms. GENG HE: (Through Translator) We traveled by night. Friends took us, and we didn't really talk. Sometimes we were traveling by motorbike, and we had to get off to walk across mountain passes. We were scared and it was hard, but we had to keep going forward.

LIM: The family was helped by a network of people, many of whom took enormous personal risks. The U.S.-based Christian NGO China Aid helped the family coordinate with U.S. agencies.

Founder Bob Fu says at one point in the journey, the family was separated, and the five-year-old boy was captured by local government officials in a third country. He says it was a miracle that he was released and allowed to continue on the journey.

In Thailand, the family was granted refugee status by the U.S. in just 10 days. They arrived last week in Los Angeles.

Geng He says the family could no longer live under constant surveillance. Her husband, Gao Zhisheng, had been convicted of inciting subversion in 2006, but was released from prison. She says their children had been deeply traumatized, especially their 15-year-old daughter, Geng Ge.

Ms. HE: (Through Translator) Our daughter was not allowed to go to school. Her mood was unstable. She tried to commit suicide and talked about it. She cut her arms with a knife and slashed an artery. She still has scars today.

LIM: This is a chilling recording of her daughter, Geng Ge, phoning another Chinese dissident, Hu Jia, in desperation.

Ms. GENG GE: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I really want to go to the U.S. Embassy, she says, but I know I can't.

She complains of harassment by plainclothes policewomen, and, her voice quavering, she tells of how they insult her father.

Now, there are fears for Gao Zhisheng's safety. He hasn't been seen since February the 4th, when he was bundled away by police. In 2007, he was detained by the authorities for 13 days. He later made public detailed allegations of torture during that time. These are his words.

Unidentified Man: Every time I was tortured, I was repeatedly threatened that if I told people what had happened to me, I would be tortured again. But they said this time it will happen in front of your wife and children. The tall, strong man repeated over and over, your death is sure if you share this with the outside world.

LIM: Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, says this case shows a new, trend of prison at home, and inflicting collective punishment on a dissident's entire family. He fears the worst.

Professor JAMES COHEN (Chinese Law Expert, New York University): In light of the terrible, obscene tortures to which he was previously subjected, I think there's a reasonable question whether he's still alive. And I think the Chinese authorities ought to be called upon to produce him.

LIM: He says Gao's current detention is a total violation of China's own legal system, and the country's leaders should be held to account.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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