One of China’s best-known imprisoned dissidents, Yang Maodong, is putting his already fragile health at risk after weeks on a hunger strike, his wife and sister said on Wednesday, after his sister said she had unsuccessfully asked the prison authorities to be allowed to see him and beg him to stop fasting.
Mr. Yang, better known by his pen name, Guo Feixiong, has been among China’s most persistent and combative campaigners for expanding democratic rights, and he has continued his resistance while confined in Guangdong Province in southern China. For more than a month, he has refrained from eating to protest his conditions, especially what he said was a humiliating rectal examination, and to demand sweeping political change, according to his family.
During a routine monthly visit from his brother last week, Mr. Yang, 49, appeared to have lost a great deal of weight, which may have exacerbated his chronic illnesses, his sister, Yang Maoping, said by telephone on Wednesday, as she waited at the prison in the hope of seeing him.
“I want to tell him to stop the hunger striking,” Ms. Yang said. “But they have said they have laws and regulations to follow, and this breaks the rule of a visit once a month. I want to beg him to stop before he really puts himself in danger.”
Mr. Yang’s wife, Zhang Qing, who lives in Midland, Tex., with their two children, said by telephone that her husband had declared on May 9 that he would refuse to eat. Although the family could not be sure if he had eaten occasionally or was being force-fed, his severe weight loss was alarming and she had written to him urging him to begin eating again, she said.
“Yesterday, the prison management said they would pass him my letter begging him to stop hunger striking,” Ms. Zhang said.
“He was not well when he saw his big brother last week, rambling and difficult to follow, and we’re worried about what will happen,” she said. “He can be very determined.”
Mr. Yang, formerly a stocky man of about 150 pounds, had recently shed about a third of that weight, said Ms. Zhang, citing estimates from her brother-in-law who had visited him. Officers who took calls at the Yangchun Prison in Guangdong, where Mr. Yang is being held, refused to answer questions or referred calls to another number.
Mr. Yang’s latest protest has prompted international concern, as well as fasting protests to support him in China and abroad. A spokesman for the United States Embassy in Beijing, Benjamin Weber, said on Wednesday, “We urge China to release him immediately on humanitarian grounds.”
The Chinese government appears extremely unlikely to do that. Under President Xi Jinping, the authorities have pursued an intense drive of detentions, trials and convictions to stifle political dissent.
Mr. Yang’s fasting is the latest episode in a career of dissent punctuated by run-ins with the government and a previous term in prison. He started as a publisher and writer before devoting himself to political activism.
He first won national prominence among rights advocates in 2005 for helping to organize villagers near Guangzhou to protest what they said were corrupt land seizures. While other advocates used court cases and lobbying as attempts at expanding citizens’ rights, Mr. Yang was among those who favored street action and public gestures.
He was convicted and imprisoned in 2007 on charges of illegal business activities because of his publishing. After his release in 2011, he resumed political agitation, and in January 2013, he was among the activists in Guangzhou who offered support to journalists there protesting what they called the heavy-handed censorship of an editorial in the newspaper Southern Weekend.
Mr. Yang was detained by the police in August 2013. In November 2015, he was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of disturbing public order and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a sweeping charge often leveled at dissidents, for his role in two peaceful protests in 2013. After his arrest in August that year, Mr. Yang also held a hunger strike, one of his lawyers said at the time.
Mr. Yang’s sister said she would continue waiting at the prison, hoping to be allowed to see him. Later on Wednesday, her phone was turned off.
“I totally understand why you would hunger strike in this extreme situation,” Ms. Zhang said in the letter to Mr. Yang that his sister handed to prison officials on Tuesday. “At the same time, I’m very worried about your health, worried that your life is in danger.”