Early last week, three Chinese women held a protest outside a police station in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing. They carried placards proclaiming support for their jailed husbands – human rights lawyers detained incommunicado for nearly a year.
Police quickly detained the three women, before releasing them the next day. Their husbands? Still in jail – presumably in Tianjin –conditions unknown.
“There is no way to know the physical situation of my husband,” said Wang Qiaoling, wife of one of the lawyers, Li Heping, in an interview this week. “I have not seen him since they took him away July 10.”
A year ago, Chinese authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on lawyers and rights advocates, detaining more than 200 of them. Some 25 are still in detention or missing, according to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a Hong Kong-based organization that advocates for their release.
The crackdown shows no sign of letting up. Family and friends learned recently that prosecutors will try Zhou Shifeng, another detained lawyer, on subversion charges that could send him to prison for a decade or more. Xia Lin, a lawyer who has represented artist Ai Weiwei and other dissidents, went on trial today in Beijing. Authorities detained Mr. Xia in November of 2014 and accused him of fraud. Friends say the charges are trumped up, aimed at silencing him and sending a warning to other lawyers.
Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, says the persecution of lawyers is part of a broader campaign by Chinese President Xi Jinping to muzzle labor activists, journalists, artists, and other independent thinkers. Yet lawyers have suffered some of the harshest treatment.
“The purpose is to send a message out to civil society,” said Wang. “The message is that the party is in control and no one will be allowed to subvert the state by championing their own version of China’s future.”
President Xi has talked frequently about the need to strengthen the "rule of law" in China. But his plans clearly do not include the elements of a Western understanding of that concept, such as an independent judiciary or any real checks on the party's control. Many experts now say his rhetoric is in fact aimed at underlining the party's supreme power, which supersedes any constitutional guarantees, such as freedom of speech.
To this end, Chinese state media regularly run commentaries justifying the extended detention and prosecution of rights lawyers. On July 12 last year, People's Daily devoted extra space to an expose of a "plot" involving such lawyers, accusing them of colluding with petitioners, hyping cases on the internet, attempting to enhance their personal fame and participating in a "criminal syndicate."
As Wang notes, Zhou and some other lawyers are facing subversion accusations, which carry much stiffer penalties than the usual charge against dissidents – “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Many of these lawyers have been held without access to family or lawyers for nearly a year, putting them at risk of torture, she said.
That threat is real. This week, a renowned Chinese lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, revealed that he has written a book recounting the torture he endured during numerous detentions, including three years in solitary confinement. He was released in 2014 and has been under house arrest since.
Titled “Stand Up China 2017 — China’s Hope: What I Learned During Five Years as a Political Prisoner,” the book was the focus of an event Tuesday in Hong Kong attended by Gao’s daughter, who hasn’t seen him for seven years. Written in Chinese, it is being published in Taiwan, and will not be available for sale in Hong Kong or on the mainland.
“This book is my way of posing resistance,” Gao said in a messaging app interview Monday with the Associated Press. “I wrote it secretly because I had to hide from the minders who watch me around the clock.”
As the crackdown continues, some lawyers and their families are increasingly taking personal risks to denounce what they call unlawful persecutions. Last month, Wang and the wives of two other detained lawyers – Li Wenzu, wife of Wang Quanzhang, and Yuan Shanshan, wife of Xie Yanyi – produced a video that was presented before a May 24 hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington.
In the video, Wang urges US officials to raise the fate of the detained lawyers in upcoming meetings with their Chinese counterparts, including the G-20 summit scheduled for early September in Hangzhou, China.
“We hope our American friends in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ will give helping hands to rescue all the Chinese citizens and human rights lawyers that were detained,” Wang is shown saying during the video.
A lawyer herself, Wang and her family have suffered years of recrimination because of her husband’s work as a “weiquan,” or rights defender. Before his latest detention, Li Heping represented such dissidents as Gao Zhisheng, the lawyer released from prison in 2014.
A Christian, Li also represented Chen Guangcheng, the blind Christian activist who fled to the US Embassy in 2012 and is now in exile in the United States.
For publicly protesting her husband’s treatment, Wang said she continues to face police harassment and surveillance.
“Right now they are in the parking lot near my house. There is a camera facing my car,” she said in a telephone interview, which kept cutting in and out. “If I go out, people will follow me. It used to be just one person following me. Now there are many people.”
Yet Wang said she has little choice but to speak out, given that her husband faces subversion charges that she says are ludicrous.
“If authorities had evidence that my husband did something wrong, I could accept the results,” she said. “But they don’t have any evidence.”
Before Xi became president in 2013, human rights lawyers had become influential political players in China, even earning praise from state-run media. They successfully campaigned for a 2011 restriction on urban property seizures and a 2013 decision to dismantle China’s much-criticized practice of “reeducation through labor” in extra-judicial detention camps.
Yet since Xi’s ascension, one prominent lawyer after another has been arrested, charged and sent to jail. One of these is Xu Zhiyong, a founder of China’s “New Citizens Movement” who represented migrants and victims of the country’s tainted milk scandal, in which hundreds of thousands of children were sickened. In 2014, Xu was put on trial for “gathering crowds to disturb public order” and later sentenced to four years in jail.
More recently, Chinese security services have been going after relatively low-profile lawyers who’ve chosen to provide legal services to more outspoken rights activists. Lawyer Xia Lin, whose trial was scheduled to start Friday, last represented Guo Yushan, co-founder of a non-government organization call the Transition Institute.
While many rights lawyers are continuing to work in China, some have fled, taking their families with them. Teng Biao, a friend of several of the lawyers recently arrested and jailed, now lives in exile in the United States, where he works as a researcher at New York University and continues to speak out.
In April, Mr. Teng testified before a US congressional committee about the treatment he suffered in China. In 2011, he said, security services kidnapped him and held him in a secret location for 70 days, kicking and punching him and depriving him of sleep.
“While the secret police used violence against me, they frankly declared, ‘Don’t talk to us about the law. No one can help you now,’” he recalled.
During his testimony, Teng acknowledged the situation was grim for lawyers and rights activists in China, but said he hasn’t given up hope.
“I firmly believe that our numbers will grow,” he said, “and that our calls for freedom will ultimately stun this savage totalitarian regime to its core.”
Qiang Xiaoji contributed to this report.