The birth of Lea Zhou coincided with the launch of the Cultural Revolution in China. As countless members of the newly formed Red Guard stormed every corner of the country to wipe out customs, culture, habits and ideas (the 'Four Old Things') that were outdated under an official decree, Zhou's mother clasped her only child closer to her bosom.
She closed her eyes to the public burning of literature, paintings, the smashing of antiquities and to the ransacking of ancient temples. The only thought on her mind was to prevent the family from being tortured and killed like other intellectuals.
"My mother tried to protect me from the politics of the day; not because she thinks politics is unimportant but because it is dangerous for ordinary Chinese to be interested in it," says Zhou, 39, who despite her mother's best efforts finds herself very involved in political matters today. As editor-in-chief, European edition, of the newspaper The Epoch Times - which has been covering international news with a special focus on China for over a decade - she also travels around the world talking about the human rights situation in China.
Zhou recalls her mother comparing politics in China to an emperor's daughter where people are allowed to look at the princess but forbidden to touch, or to talk to her. In her own quiet way, Zhou's mother protested - by not watching television and not reading the newspaper. Not because she considers the media unimportant but because it was, like it still is, under the strict control of the State. Instead, the family read books on art, culture and literature.
"My dancer mother and musician father did not want me to be brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that uses the national media merely for
propaganda." When scores of schools were closed and the Red Guards ordered bureaucrats to bar everything that they thought was bourgeois, Zhou's parents moved from Beijing to Tibet. "Culturally that was a very enriching experience for us although it was still tough having to constantly live with the thought that one wrong move could land us at a Laogai (labor camp). My parents were forced to toe the party line in Lhasa as well and they did so but without sacrificing their independent way of thinking," Zhou says.
At a seminar organized recently by the Austrian Journalists Club in Vienna, Zhou added that ordinary Chinese have now begun to openly renounce their affiliation with the CCP. And as more and more people distance themselves from the CCP, the less they will have to fear - an emotion that Zhou says has haunted the country since 1949, the year the CCP came to power.
According to The Epoch Times, since last November, about five million Chinese have already withdrawn their support from the CCP to protest the murder of 80 million Chinese - equal to the population of Germany - in the last 56 years by the authorities.
The Chinese language Epoch Times was first published in 2000, from New York to cover events in China without censorship, and the English edition was launched in 2003. Local editions published at regional bureaus across the world (but not in China) along with online editions make The Epoch Times the largest Chinese language newspaper outside Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
At the age of 12 years, the already outspoken Zhou was encouraged to specialize in economics and language studies because her parents felt these were 'safe' subjects. In the English language class, the first sentence that Zhou was taught was 'Long live Mao!' She recalls: "I thought that was stupid, so sycophantic! I would have liked to learn to say 'good day', 'hello' or 'how are you?'"
Zhou did join a financial firm after graduation only to find that women were little more than wallflowers at work in 1980s China. She was frustrated at having to smile constantly and to speak softly at receptions. She had wanted to learn computer skills instead, to toy with ideas and to laugh loudly whenever she wanted to.
So she left for Berlin in 1989 after the tragic end of the student protest movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Although she lives in Europe now, often she receives rude reminders that, perhaps, big brother continues to watch over her. After a trip to Geneva to report on a meeting of the Human Rights Commission, she returned to Berlin to find that her car tyres had been slashed. To date, she is clueless about who was responsible for the vandalism, but the incident did shock her.
Zhou is most bothered by the fact that the people in power are destroying the moral foundation of the nation. "Very powerful men are bent upon disturbing the very balance between yin and yang. Women are forced into hard labor, to live and look like men, to sacrifice all that is refined, strong and feminine about them or they are being brainwashed into using their womanhood to make material gains. All spiritual activities are punished. This is dangerous. It is against Nature," she says.
Her reaction is to contribute her bit by providing fair, objective and reliable reportage on China. "I have to tell my readers certain things. In the end, people must choose whether they want to live this way or that. If they decide to be communists, it is okay. But it is most important that they do have a choice."
After her father died, all Zhou wanted to do was to get her mother to join her in Europe. Zhou worried about her mother's safety in China. Her mother was part of the Falun Gong (Practice of the Wheel of Law), a spiritual movement started in 1992 that involves exercises and meditation. Watching the swelling number of people who collected to practice Falung Gong, the CCP banned the group as an evil cult in 1999.
Today, both women live in Berlin, feeding often on nostalgia for their homeland - a return to which is not an option for either.