Lisa Wichser's Love Triumphs Over Politics and Prison Walls to Win Freedom for Yi Xigong

updated 04/15/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/15/1985 01:00AM

When Yi Xigong's plane touched down at San Francisco International Airport and he saw Lisa Wichser standing there, waiting for him, a powerful and uncharacteristic rage briefly welled up inside him. "Three years!" he said to her. "Why?"

For those three years the son of a Chinese government official and the petite woman from Indiana had endured a separation few lovers could bear. Imprisoned by his countrymen, Yi had lived on hope, while Wichser waged a campaign for his release. Thanks to the intercession of Secretary of State George Shultz, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, New York Congressman Stephen Solarz and President Reagan himself, the Chinese government freed Yi last December and, as a "humanitarian gesture," agreed to let him travel to the U.S. "I have thought of nothing else for three years," Lisa said. "I can't believe this day has arrived. I'm just thrilled and grateful." As for Yi, he said in simple, halting English, "I'm here with Lisa, where I belong."

Two days later, Yi, 33, and Wichser, 31, were married and settled in Santa Cruz, along the shores of the Pacific Ocean, which once kept them apart. Sipping cappuccino, browsing through bookstores and listening to street musicians, the two have begun a new life together a long way from that midnight in Peking when Lisa was arrested. Accused of stealing state secrets, the University of Denver graduate student, who had been teaching English while working on a thesis about China's economy, was thrown out of the country. Yi Xigong (pronounced Yee She Gong), the promising economics student to whom she had become engaged, was blamed for his role in Lisa's alleged crimes. He was placed in detention for three years. From that day Yi's freedom became Lisa's all-consuming goal. "My friends, my family—everyone told me to forget him," she recalls, "but I just felt I had no other choice."

Wichser met Yi in the summer of 1980, shortly after she arrived in Peking. He came by her room in the Friendship Hotel, where many "foreign experts" are quartered, to borrow some books. They arranged to trade English lessons for instruction in Chinese economics, Yi's major at the prestigious Peking Institute of Economics. "I remember feeling that I cared for him, but I was afraid to say so," says Lisa. "For three hours once or twice a week, we studied very well together, but neither of us wanted to rock the boat." The government disapproved of frequent contact between Chinese and foreigners, let alone a love affair. Meanwhile, Yi, the son of a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Foreign Trade, helped Lisa obtain papers on Chinese economic theory.

After 19 months the couple applied for permission to marry. "We had never even spent the night together," says Wichser. "Like most of my generation, I was scared to death to get married. But I knew I didn't want to part from him." Yi was out of town two months later when the Chinese police came for Lisa. She was whisked away to a prison, where she underwent six days of interrogation. Pointing to the documents found in her room, the authorities alleged she was a spy. Wichser held up under the questioning, and following a strong denial by the U.S. embassy that she had any connections to American intelligence agencies, she was expelled from China. Even as she left, she insisted, "I have always been a friend of the Chinese people."

Yi was sent to a labor camp, where he picked fruit and taught mathematics to other inmates. After 31 months on a diet lacking in protein, Yi, who is 6 feet tall, dropped 30 pounds to a lean 150. Friends and fellow inmates warned him, "She's an American woman and they are changeable, fickle." Yet he remained resolute, sending Lisa a message to "cheer up and live life as best you can. You shouldn't lose courage."

Lisa let Yi know that she had bought and was wearing an opal engagement ring similar to one they had been looking at before their arrest. But through the separation, Wichser also weathered guilt, depression and a series of physical illnesses. "People told me I wasn't facing reality," she says of her emotional state of siege. "It was painful for my parents to watch how unhappy I was. Even they thought, on occasion, I was chasing the impossible." By last Christmas Yi was free and the couple were talking joyfully over the phone.

The middle child of a purchasing agent and a school teacher from the Indianapolis suburb of Noblesville, Lisa discovered her love for Asia in 1970 when she spent two months as an American Field Service exchange student in Malaysia. In 1973 she returned to that country, then went to study Chinese in Taiwan in 1976. Returning home, she majored in Asian studies at Indiana's Earlham College and later earned an M.A. in international relations from the University of Denver before setting out for China.

Yi grew up in Peking as a member of China's "lost generation," which came of age during the violence and tumult of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1969. He was ordered to work in an iron mine for a year in 1969 before being sent to labor in one of China's largest steel mills for nine years.

"It is necessary to be objective, despite what happened to me," says Yi of his punishment and separation from Lisa. Indeed he praises the current Chinese regime with its market-style economic reforms as "the best government China has had since 1949." Meanwhile, Yi is easing into the California life-style, working out on weight machines and soaking in the Jacuzzi at the health club Lisa and he have joined. He is also eyeing Lincoln Continentals, which he refers to in Chinese political jargon as "big capitalist cars." Lisa works as an administrative manager for a small electronics firm and wants to parlay her fluent Chinese into a career in the booming U.S.-China trade. For the moment she must also interpret for Yi, who takes adult education classes in English with the aim of pursuing higher education in political economics. Their swift registry-office marriage was a compromise to solve a cultural clash. While Yi felt it wrong to live together without being married, Lisa was leery of getting married without living together. They plan a formal wedding in June in Indiana. "A fun wedding," says Lisa, "with lots of friends. There's been so little fun these past three years." From now on Lisa and Yi hope their life together will mean, as the Chinese say, double happiness.

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