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Reluctant human rights defenders: The wives of those detained in China’s lawyer crackdown

Around a year ago, something unimaginable happened to Yuan Shanshan that changed her life completely: her husband disappeared. He had been taken away by Chinese national security forces and it would be another six months before she would be able to find him.

This is not something that happened to Yuan Shanshan alone. Across the country, lawyers, law firm staff, activists and their relatives were being taken away and detained in what became known as the 709 crackdown, named after July 9, 2015, when the first lawyer disappeared. The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group estimates that 319 lawyers, activists, and people associated with them were interrogated, taken into custody or “disappeared” in the crackdown. 23 people are still in detention.

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A protest in Hong Kong on the 709 anniversary. Photo: PH Yang.

“The current nationwide police action against lawyers is unprecedented in scale, far surpassing a similar crackdown following the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, when 24 lawyers were disappeared and 52 more were criminally detained,” said NGO Human Rights in China in a statement last year.

Since the roundup, some of the family members of detained lawyers and activists have become known as front-line human rights defenders themselves due to their activities, though they themselves would contest that label.

Yuan Shanshan

Yuan is the wife of human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, who is known for suing former Chinese president Jiang Zemin in 2003 for violating the constitution. The couple were used to him being summoned by national security officers for questioning, but when he didn’t come back on July 12, she was distraught.

“Who was he taken by? I went to the public security bureaus in Tianjin and Beijing and local police stations to look for him, but I couldn’t find him. I was particularly afraid then.”

When her husband was taken away, Yuan didn’t yet know that she was pregnant with a baby girl. She said she became severely depressed. “It was like I was numb and exhausted of everything in the outside world,” she said.

For the first period of their detention, many of the detained lawyers and activists were held without contact with the outside world, and families were not notified of their locations. Yuan Shanshan only found out where her husband was after his formal arrest notice was issued in January. Some families had their bank cards confiscated and their landlords were harassed by police, making it very difficult for them to get by.

Yuan Shanshan.

Yuan Shanshan with husband Xie Yanyi, their two girls and baby boy.

In the year since her husband was detained, Yuan Shanshan’s life was turned upside down. Her baby was born, and her husband Xie Yanyi’s mother passed away in August. The fact that he wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to his mother was the thing that caused her the most pain, she said. To this day, she’s not sure if her husband even knows that they have another child, a baby girl.

A turning point

Despite their suffering, the family members tried to keep moving forward. Wang Qiaoling and Yuan Shanshan would write about what they experienced while looking for their husbands and post their writing online, even though the posts usually got deleted, said Yuan.

The families made use of available legal channels in an effort to find justice. Yuan Shanshan and Wang Qiaoling, the wife of prominent human rights lawyer Li Heping, sued state media outlets like Xinhua and People’s Daily in August for defaming their husbands. After that, national security officers would go to the two women’s homes to talk to them. In February, they threatened Yuan and told her not to talk to the media.

It was not until six months later, when the families started getting formal notices of arrest from the authorities, that some of them found out what exactly had happened to their family members.

“In the first six months we all experienced suffering, because our family members had disappeared. After six months had passed and we all gradually started receiving our husbands’ arrest notices, we all felt it was ridiculous, because the charges were ridiculous,” said Wang Qiaoling.

Li Wenzu

Li Wenzu.

After Chinese New Year in February, Wang Qiaoling and Li Wenzu started visiting other families affected in the crackdown. “This brought a very big change to us. Because alone we were very lonely, and facing these circumstances we were very afraid. But together we can encourage each other. This was of great benefit to us,” said Li.

Li and Wang met Yuan Shanshan. They found her address on the outskirts of Beijing and knocked on her door, said Yuan.

They would go to Tianjin together, a half hour train ride from Beijing, where their husbands were being held to ask about them. They also started visiting the victims of the vaccine scandal in Shandong province.

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Li Wenzu and Wang Qiaoling with victims of the vaccine scandal in May. Photo: Twitter/Wang Qiaoling.

Creative protests

In June, Wang Qiaoling, Li Wenzu and Liu Ermin, wife of activist Zhai Yanmin, stood outside the Tianjin No. 2 Procuratorate with red buckets, on which were written words of support for their husbands.

In handling their husband’s cases, national security used illegal, “gangster-style” tactics, she said. “I know what they’re afraid of,” said Wang Qiaoling. “it’s because they’re wrongly accusing them. They have to provide an answer, but they don’t have any evidence.”

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Wang Qiaoling, Liu Ermin, and Li Wenzu with their red buckets. Photo: CHRLCG.

The attitude of the police filled her with hope, she said. “Since [our husbands] didn’t do anything wrong, and all they did was to help people who needed help, I was filled with pride. Because I felt this way, I didn’t feel like I should dress like the family members of other kinds of suspects, with grey, sad, tattered clothing. I said: we have to use our clothes to express our support for our husbands and our optimistic attitude towards life.”

In the last half of the past year, Wang said, they wore brighter clothes and went out and bought red accessories because it was a colour that they associated with happiness. That’s how the Tianjin red bucket protest was conceived. But it was not a protest in that it was not directly expressing an objection to anything, a far cry from waving banners and chanting slogans.

china human rights lawyers crackdownPhoto: The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.

“It’s a way to express ourselves to our husbands….How to express our love to our husbands? These feelings are in our hearts, nobody knows, so we wanted to express them,” said Liu Ermin.

The buckets did not mean anything in and of themselves. They bought them because they just liked the colour and because they would be useful household items afterwards, Wang Qiaoling claimed.

Liu ermin

Liu Ermin. Photo: Twitter/Wang Qiaoling.

Their stunt ended with the wives being detained. Liu Ermin received the worst treatment. She was transferred back to Beijing in the middle of the night and beaten while in custody. After that, she was even more afraid of the police. “Whenever I see them I hide because I think they’re going to beat me. I can’t get it out of my mind,” said Liu. They also showed up at her door to threaten her following the incident, she said.

A different role for wives and mothers

Facing suppression, harassment, and the threat of detainment, why would these women continue to speak to the media?

Wang Qiaoling, who is one of the most vocal family members, said she doesn’t understand why foreign reporters always ask her that question. “Why wouldn’t you speak out publicly?” she asked. “I’m speaking out for my husband… it’s instinct.” To her, this human instinct overrides the fear of being detained. “Nobody is not scared of that,” she said.

“Maybe other people think I’m some kind of a representative of 709 family members, or a human rights defender. But my starting point is simple: a wife looking for her husband.”

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Wang Qiaoling and Li Wenzu. Photo: RFA.

She said it was a role forced upon her. “Before 709 happened I always rejected my husband’s [human rights] work because I thought it was too dangerous… I just wanted us to live peacefully.”

“In 2008 we had a big fight about it and almost got divorced. After that I would often try to persuade him to tone down his work.”

Though Wang Qiaoling asserts that her rights work is just human instinct, the group of 709 wives show a degree of savviness in what they do. “We distributed some videos and found that we got more page views,” Li Wenzu said. “So we changed the way we distribute.”

On Monday, the wives tried to sue some Tianjin officers who had handled their husband’s cases. Wang Qiaoling, Liu Ermin, Li Wenzu and others went to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in Beijing accompanied by lawyers and foreign diplomats. The wives wore colourful dresses decorated with messages to their husbands like “waiting for you”. Police cars were lined up when they arrived and they were filmed by plain clothes officers.

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The wives of lawyers and activists outside the Tianjin Procuratorate on Monday. Photo: Activist.

“Before [the crackdown], I didn’t think I could do anything about the injustices in society,” said Li Wenzu. “But now I will actively try and do what I can.”

Yuan Shanshan said she wished to become a human rights defender in the sense that she can help those in need by comforting them. “I hope I can be there to comfort them, even if it’s just being with them, crying with them.. I think that’s helping.”

“We’re not very noble, very valiant people. We’re very weak people too,” said Wang Qiaoling.

“The things we do are already seen by others as human rights defence work, but our starting point is to protect our families. Defending the the rights that they’re legally entitled to…It’s just human instinct.”

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Reluctant human rights defenders: The wives of those detained in China's lawyer crackdown