Around the time of the crackdown on the Feminist Five, Zhao’s then husband, rights lawyer Liu Jianshu, was detained by the government following accusations of his involvement with the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong.
Liu was employed by a legal aid organisation that was being investigated by the government for inciting and spreading ideas related to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement due to an incident involving a former employee and his girlfriend.
Following his arrest, Zhao suspended her work with Feminist Voices in order to concentrate all her efforts and use all possible means to free her husband. She gave interviews to the media and hired lawyers to ensure Liu’s safety. This brought her into conflict with Liu’s parents who were opposed to such a high-profile defence.
Liu was released within a month but the marriage did not survive the ongoing conflict with Liu’s parents. “I had nothing at all. I lost my family, my job, my advocacy work, my income. I had nothing left,” Zhao says reflecting on the events.
She says Occupy Central and the Communist Party destroyed her life. “The most intense feeling is that these things were unavoidable and that I cannot go back.”
Zhao threw herself back into journalism, working as a freelancer for the Hong Kong-based online news site Initium. In her article, The Fate of Chinese Rights NGOs, Zhao relates the experiences of her now ex-husband and her own work in rights advocacy. In it, she interviews people with similar experiences and backgrounds and sets out the everyday struggle between conformity and freedom.
She describes herself as being almost cold-blooded when conducting interviews in order to tap into interviewees’ emotions and stories.
“It’s not that I don’t have emotions, but I suppress them when I am writing. Then when I am finished, I release them,” says Zhao. “It’s like I’ve peeled off a layer of skin after I finish an article.”
Every story is hard to write; she jokes she wants to retire every time she completes one, but Zhao is determined to soldier on. She says that with freedom of speech and expression coming under threat in Hong Kong she feels a sense of responsibility to continue writing. But she is also keenly aware that with the rising trend of localism in Hong Kong, there is a falling demand for stories related to advocacy and human rights in China.
Ironically, it is her activist side that drives her to continue her journalism despite all the challenges she may face. “I think that if you don’t do it [report on the issues] then no one will do it, and then it may disappear altogether,” she says.
Edited by Zoe Lai