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Author Karen Patterson poses with her book, Taking on China, How I Freed My Husband from Jail, outside her home on July 10, 2020. Brendan Miller/Postmedia
Karen Patterson and her daughter Hannah Wu with their dog Lucy Puppet in Calgary in April 2020. Courtesy, Jason Sweet.
It was 2012 when Karen Patterson first sat down at her kitchen table to write a memoir chronicling a harrowing ordeal in China.
At this point, she had safely been in Calgary with her daughter, Hannah, for more a year. She figured enough time had passed that she could revisit her experiences in Beijing attempting to free her Chinese husband, Wu Yuren, who was detained without charge, beaten by police and held for nearly a year in 2010.
By 2012, the anger was fading. Patterson felt she was psychologically prepared. She was wrong.
“I started getting flashbacks to what was happening to me during that time,” says Patterson, in an interview with Postmedia. “I didn’t know if I was in Calgary or Beijing. I hadn’t considered that I would have (post-traumatic stress disorder) when I got home. I didn’t think of it. I really thought PTSD was for people with more obvious trauma and situations like war. I didn’t look at my situation as being part of that. It wasn’t until I started getting these flashbacks. I was sitting at the table in my kitchen and writing and then all of a sudden I didn’t know where I was.”
The book was put on hold. Patterson went to counselling. Over time, the flashbacks faded. Still, when she decided to pick up the pen a little over a year ago to finish the memoir she was nervous that the horrors would come flooding back.
“Am I going to get flashbacks again?” she says. “What I discovered is that enough time and my own counselling and my own working through everything had kind of fixed my PTSD. But I pretty much had to go through everything to write the book thoroughly.”
Taking On China: How I Freed my Husband from Jail is Patterson’s self-published account of her fight to free Wu from the clutches of the Chinese government. He disappeared one day after accompanying a friend to a police station. It was only a few months after he organized a protest march to save an art colony from developers, which had attracted the attention of foreign media and apparently angered Chinese authorities.
In those first bewildering months after Wu was arrested, Patterson was at a loss. The police wouldn’t give her any information about her husband, or even reveal where he was. She spent nearly a year fighting to free him, eventually enlisting the help of foreign journalists, then Canadian ambassador David Mulroney and Amnesty International. Ai Weiwei, a contemporary artist and activist, helped Patterson secure a human-rights lawyer and connect with media. Back in Canada, a family friend began a letter-writing campaign. The pressure eventually worked and Wu was quietly released after nearly a year and put into house arrest. By that point, Patterson had returned to Canada with her daughter. Wu was held in house arrest for a year and not allowed to exhibit his art. The couple divorced in 2012 and Wu now lives and works in New York. He remains on good terms with his ex-wife and encouraged her to finish the memoir.
But Taking on China is really Patterson’s story. There are few details about Wu’s experiences during incarceration. While Patterson may not have expected to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder when she came home, it’s clear when listening to her describe her year-long battle that it took a tremendous toll. It was a period of fear, anger and hopelessness with Patterson herself often feeling at risk as she continued to apply pressure to Chinese officials.
“I realized the authorities were most likely tracking me or following me or bugging (my phone),” she says “There were situations where they would show up at my house unannounced, with no search warrants and wanted to come in and check out the house. I could tell I was being followed. Chinese artist friends of mine and my husband would warn me: ‘You should not go on the streets or to areas of the city that aren’t crowded.’ Journalists who had interviewed me or were working with me in Beijing would say ‘whenever you want to talk about your husband’s case, don’t use your cellphone.’ Some of it sounds very Orwellian, like paranoia. But now that I have been through what I’ve been through with the Chinese government, I know they do these things to people. They track, they bug, they intercept.”
At her husband’s urging, she left China with their then five-year-old daughter in July of 2011, three months after Wu had been released from jail and placed under house arrest. She returned to Beijing in 2012 to finalize the divorce.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Patterson, who is now a real estate agent in Calgary, had long harboured a “crush” on China before she went there to teach English in the 1990s. She hadn’t planned to stay. But she loved the country and fell in love with one of its countrymen. They married and had a child and built a life. She became part of China’s art community. Her marriage had been through some rough spots — the couple had even contemplated divorce in 2009 — but she loved her life. China was supposed to be her “forever home.”
“Sure, my husband and I were having a bad spell like many relationships do,” she says. “But regardless of whether we were going to live together or not, I was still trying to make good on my own business endeavours and friends and connections. I had spent 13 years there, I spoke the language, I had great friends. My daughter had friends and liked school. I was setting myself up to be there for the next 20 years.”
After the book came out, Patterson was contacted by media. Her story seems particularly timely given the plight of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China since December of 2018 and accused of spying. Patterson has urged the Trudeau government to take a more forceful stance with the Chinese government.
For her own case, Patterson acknowledges that things likely would have been worse had Wu not had a Canadian expat as a wife. Patterson was able to access the Canadian government and embassy to help with her cause. She says she hopes her book is an eyeopener for readers about the Chinese government.
“My book, hopefully, will bring an awareness that I don’t even think Trudeau has,” she says. “No soft gloves. Know who you’re dealing with. Even for people considering going to China. You get these starry-eyed entrepreneurs that have some widget they need made and are going to go to China and make a million dollars. But there is so much behind that and so much more going on and you really need to be prepared if you’re going to engage China.”
Taking On China: How I Freed my Husband from Jail is now available.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020