“Arrested for 1,000 days.” That is the message written on Li Wenzu’s red coat. The four Chinese characters are embroidered onto the knee-length coat, which Li ordered online. The 33-year-old is the wife of the Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who has been detained since July 2015. She is walking from Beijing to Tianjin, a city 120 km away where she presumes her husband is being held in prison. But she doesn’t know, for sure.
“I haven’t been given any information about his whereabouts by the government,” she says.
Li is one of hundreds who have been alone for months, because their husbands are lawyers that have been taken away by the Chinese authorities. Human rights advocates believe those lawyers have been detained because they believe in the rule of law. They defended people challenging the powerful in the Chinese state: democracy activists, religious believers, Falun Gong practitioners, or petitioners whose land has been taken away by local governments. Since 2015, the police detained more than 250 lawyers and activists. Some of them stayed in prison for a few hours, some of them have stayed for years.
Human rights lawyering in China started in 2003, says Patrick Poon, a researcher with Amnesty International in Hong Kong. That year, a migrant worker, Sun Zhigang, died in police custody. Following this incident, three law graduates of Beijing University wrote to the National People’s Congress (NPC):
For years lawyers were able to help evicted farmers or members of underground churches. In 2008 this changed with the Charter 08, a manifesto signed by intellectuals and human rights lawyers demanding for a democratic change in China. “The crackdown on the signatories of the Charter 08 was the first mass-scale crackdown on activists,” Poon says.
In the following years a chill set in. After the Arab Jasmin Revolution in 2011, Chinese authorities detained human rights activists. This trend accelerated after Xi Jinping came to office in 2012. In the past five years, hundreds of lawyers and activists have been seized by the state. The biggest crackdown since took place on July 9, 2015. In Chinese it called the “709”-event.
Not every lawyer pursuing sensitive cases is being detained. A much more common method to silence critical lawyers is to revoke their licenses. No license, no cases, no trouble for the Chinese government. The reasons for the disbarment are questionable, Amnesty International researcher Poon charges.
Those not only being disbarred but also being detained face even worse consequences. The Chinese police usually first force them to stay in so-called “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location.” Critics call them secret prisons, beyond the reach of the law. Chinese security forces can hold lawyers or dissidents in hotels, former military barracks or detention centers for up to six months without any trial or access to a lawyer. Human rights groups cite frequent cases of torture.
“Xie Yang, we’ll torture you to death just like an ant,” one detained human rights lawyer recalls the threats by his tormentors.
More than ten lawyers and activists told their stories in a recently published book on Chinese secret prisons (available also in Chinese). Lawyer Xie was subject to a mixture of physical and psychological torture:
“For days, Xie was forced to sit on a ‘dangling chair,’ a crude torture device composed of plastic stools piled up on each other, where he was sometimes kept for up to 20 hours a day,” according to the book. “The stools have no backs and are stacked high to prevent the legs from reaching the ground. Hanging in this way slowly constrains the blood flow, and causes escalating pain and swelling in the legs and back. The swelling begins at the feet and slowly creeps upwards until the body is engulfed in pain. At other times, Xie was hung from the ceiling and beaten. He lost consciousness at one point.”
The Chinese state-media reject all accusations of physical and psychological torture. The state news agency, Xinhua, calls them “entirely fabricated”. An investigation group of the Hunan Provincial People’s Procuratorate, according to the Xinhua report, found that the “accusations were nothing but cleverly orchestrated lies (…) to pressure police and smear the Chinese government.”
The objective of the Chinese state security officers in most cases is to get a written confession of lawyers’ “crimes.”
“The purpose is to single out a certain group of lawyers and brand them as troublemakers, to discredit them in public,” Amnesty researcher Poon says.
To obtain these confessions the police also use psychological pressure. In the case of Xie, the officers directly threatened his family.
“Your wife and children need to pay attention to traffic safety when they’re out in the car,” they said according to the book. “There are a lot of traffic accidents these days.”
After the six months in secret prisons, most of the lawyers are officially arrested, often for charges such as the “subversion of state power” or for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Wang Quanzhang, who has not been heard from for more than 1,000 days, was arrested because of subversion. But, unlike other lawyers detained in 2015, he has not stood trial yet. Patrick Poon speculates that the reason might be because he resisted torture and refused to sign any confession, different from other lawyers:
Li Wenzu, his wife, shares this fear.
“I’m really worried about his general health condition – and his life,” she says.
Almost every week she goes to the Chinese supreme court in Beijing, to seek an answer to the question she has asked for almost three years: Where is Wang Quanzhang? Where is my husband?
Two weeks ago, she walked from Beijing to Tianjin, but didn’t reach her final destination. After arriving in the Tianjin suburbs and checking out of the hotel the next day, police entered the lobby. Li and her friends were detained and sent back to Beijing. House arrest followed. After pressure from a spokesperson of the U.S. State Department on Twitter, Li was allowed to leave her house again. She remains silent these days. But her message to the Chinese government and the whole world remains: “I will continue searching for my husband – until the day he returns home.”
A report by David Missal in the framework of a multimedia class at Tsinghua University.