By Wang Yu
Early in the morning of July 9, 2015, Beijing police broke into lawyer Wang Yu‘s apartment and took her to a hidden location. Wang, whose detention marked the beginning of the so-called 709 crackdown on rights activists, was detained for a year for “subversion of state power.” She tells the story of what happened to her in the first two months of the crackdown in her own words, translated by China Change. Her account is part of a new book entitled The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories From Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances.
The Break-in and the Abduction in the Morning of July 9, 2015
Shortly after 11pm on July 8 2015, I had just said goodbye to my son Bao Zhuoxuan, who was heading to Australia to study, and my husband, who was accompanying him. Initially I had planned to go with them to the airport, but since the flight was at midnight my husband worried about me returning home alone. They drove off in a taxi outside our apartment building without even waiting for me to come down to say goodbye. I called to ask them to phone again after they had passed security check. I couldn’t control my sadness and cried on the phone. Even though I was trying to comfort my 16-year-old son, I was the one choking. My husband couldn’t bear to hear our parting words, so he hung up. After the brief call, I went upstairs to prepare for a trial the following day. Later, after having changed into my pajamas and gotten into bed, I still couldn’t stop thinking about my son. I couldn’t fall asleep.
It was after 1am and I still hadn’t received a call saying that they had passed immigration. I tried reaching them but neither of their phones connected. At first, I thought it was because they didn’t have a signal, but I had called many times, up to and after their scheduled takeoff time, and it was the same. I was growing worried. I sent some messages to friends in WeChat and Telegram groups, hoping they could help with some ideas. I called the airline, but couldn’t get through.
Without warning, the lights in my house went out, along with the internet, and immediately I heard the sound of someone trying to force open the door. Frantically, I sent out a message on social media, and everyone expressed their deep concern. One person replied asking if my lock was strong. I said it was, that Bao Longjun had changed it recently, and selected the strongest available lock, worrying that I wasn’t safe alone at home. Another person replied suggesting that I put an obstacle in front of the door but I thought this wasn’t necessary. If they could get through the door, then any obstacle would be useless. However, thinking back, if I could have put an obstacle between them and me, then it might have delayed them entering the room, and given me more time to spread the information of my abduction on social media, or to contact trusted friends and alert them directly.
I walked to the door, demanding, who is it? The sound of forced entry stopped as suddenly as it had begun. There were no more noises for a while. I sent another message to the groups, telling them that whoever it was must have left. Maybe they had just wanted to scare me. This type of situation had happened to a friend of mine before; they had just come to harass and intimidate him. I told the people in the chat group to just go to sleep. It was already 3am. I was still worried that I hadn’t heard anything from my son and husband, and couldn’t sleep, so I continued trying to reach the airlines, but nobody answered.
An hour later, at around 4am, I was shocked by a piercing noise. It sounded like they were trying to force open the door with an electric drill. I shared this message to the Telegram group immediately, and jumped out of bed. I tried to phone for help, but before anyone could answer, someone had already broken through the door, and was instantly upon me. The light from his headlamp flashed into my face as he spoke, “Don’t move! We’re from Beijing Public Security Bureau.”
It had only taken a few seconds from the moment I heard the drill before they were inside.
“Who are you? How dare you break in? Show me your identification,” I demanded.
I hadn’t even finished speaking before more than a dozen people were inside, pushing me onto the bed, handcuffing me with my hands behind my back. In almost the same movement, someone was forcing a black hood over my head. He had a Tianjin accent.
Since I had already been illegally detained several times in the past by Public Security or court police during certain cases—you can imagine how much risk a lawyer with legal professional ethics faces in China—I wasn’t immediately too scared. I tried to struggle, but it was impossible to make any difference as a woman against such a large number of attackers.
Two women in the group dragged me out. I tried getting the neighbor’s attention, shouting loudly: “Don’t drag me. I can walk by myself!” After they had dragged me into the elevator, I started crying. I asked them to release my handcuffs, saying they hurt my wrists. I knew there was a camera in the elevator, and hoped my lawyer might later be able to get the video record of that day.
They dragged me downstairs and threw me into a van. From what I could see from under the hood, there was a person in the seat in front of me. He looked like a boss. I sat in the back seat, two women on either side of me. Another three or four sat behind us.
Soon, I heard the vehicle in front of us starting to move; we pulled out of the housing unit, and I heard a few more cars following behind.
I cried the whole way, repeating what I had said in the elevator. The handcuffs were too tight. I repeated that they were supposed to show me their identification. A woman behind me, growing irritated, told me to shut up. But as she spoke, I detected a sense of fear in her voice, as if she was even more nervous than I was. I replied that if she were bound in tight handcuffs, then she would also feel pain. She had a bad temper. Suddenly, she reached from behind me, pressed down on my head, and tried putting a gag in my mouth. But I shut my mouth tightly. Maybe because the car was moving and she didn’t have a good enough position to push me from behind, she gave up.
Afterward, I could feel that my hood was even tighter. I shouted: “I am suffocating. Someone give me some air!” A woman beside me adjusted my hood a little, and I could see a sliver of sky out of the side. The sky was just getting light.
Forced to Strip off in Front of Surveillance Cameras
This hidden location was where I would stay for the next month. Besides the roughly 20 girls who took turns monitoring me, and a few interrogators, I never saw another person.
They removed my black hood and handcuffs. I could see that we were in a cell built according to standard detention center layout. There was a long corridor, on the other side, another door, outside of which was the so-called exercise yard. Inside the room, on the right side, there were ten single beds close to each other, with a table beside the first bed. Bed sheets and pillows were stacked on several of the mattresses. There were two small plastic stools by one side. On the floor, a 40x40cm square was painted in red, and beside it another line painted in yellow; squares and lines presumably for controlling movement. A large sheet of glass separated the corridor from the bathroom, with a gap between for coming and going, but everything inside was clearly visible. There was a toilet, a sink, and a pipe with no nozzle for the shower. Three cameras lined the wall, with another camera in the bathroom. Later, I saw the label “207” written on a cup. I assumed that was my room number.
I asked if we were in a detention center and was there anyone else here. The room was so big for just one person, such a waste. They replied that I was the only one.
I was only allowed to sit in the square framed line they had painted on the floor. I wasn’t allowed to make any movement outside the red and yellow lines; otherwise the armed police had the right to take any action against me. Again, I was told I needed to ask for permission before doing anything.
Another girl came in and told me to remove all my clothes. She claimed it was a routine inspection. I pointed out that that morning they had provided the clothes I was now wearing, I had just arrived, and had been surrounded by their people the whole time. “What could you possibly want to check?” Looking at the mounted cameras in the room, I said we should at least go into the bathroom; otherwise it was just intentionally insulting me.
She said no.
I was told to take off all my clothes, stand in the middle of the room for inspection, and to turn my body three times. I objected to this insulting order. But these young girls didn’t care.
They rushed forward, pushed me against the floor, and stripped me. I was crying, and pleading with them at the same time. Why would they insult me like this? Why didn’t they have any compassion? Why were they so violent to a small woman like me?
Perhaps I am a very traditional woman. I think the violent stripping off my clothes was the cruelest torture I endured.
Iron Handcuffs and Shackles
I demanded to speak with their superiors, to address this violent insult. At first, I was ignored completely. Later on, a man came in; he looked brutal and tough. He introduced himself as the team leader in charge of the facility. I told him what I had just gone through, that the action they had taken was illegal, that there were rules about it in detention center regulations, that it clearly violated my rights, and that I wanted to issue a complaint with the procuratorate. As I spoke, he was observably angry. He left without saying anything or letting me finish what I had to say.
Moments later, he returned with an even meaner looking man following behind him. He looked like a monster, with big eyes that shined with a brutal and evil light, a dark face, and crew cut hair. He was holding handcuffs and shackles in his hand.
The team leader gave the order, “Put them on her!” That monster grabbed my hands and feet, and handcuffed and shackled me. The handcuffs were not the normal type, but designed specifically for torture, made of pure pig iron, with tough 1cm thick rings.
My wrists became swollen after wearing them for a day, and even more than one year later my wrists still look a little black.
The shackles were also made from pure pig iron, the two rings even thicker, and in between them was a long chain with more than a dozen flat round links.
After putting me in handcuffs and shackles, the team leader left with these harsh parting words: “Didn’t you want to meet the procuratorate? Don’t you want to follow the law? This is it! If you don’t behave well, we have something worse than this.”
The shackles were very heavy. I almost couldn’t walk as I was thin and small. The two guards appeared shocked. It seemed that they had never seen this kind of situation before. It was hard to accept the reality of my situation. I had acted calmly; reasonably pointing out their illegal behavior, and in exchange, I got this kind of torture.
Besides thinking about the heavy handcuffs and shackles, I was still reflecting on the moment that they had stripped me, and I still hadn’t slept properly. I felt dizzy; my stomach was brewing up a storm. I was going to vomit. I wanted to go to the bathroom, but I couldn’t move. The two girls helped me. These two were the most compassionate of the many who took turns guarding me, but unfortunately, I never saw them again after that day, perhaps because they showed their softness.
Sleep Deprivation and Psychological Torment
It went on like that. I was forced to stay inside the small painted square during the day, suffering at the hands of these young girls. If my leg or a foot were out of the square, even by just a tiny bit, they would warn me or slap me. Sometimes they didn’t allow me to drink anything at all, even if there was water in the room. I never had enough water. And after it got dark, the three interrogators would return, and initiate another kind of suffering.
After three days passed like this, the interrogators changed their attitude. They no longer insulted or admonished me; instead they poured me a bottle of warm water as soon as they arrived.
Then, during breakfast and lunch on the fourth day, after having just had a few bites of my food, the two young guards told me that mealtime was over. I tried explaining that I had just started eating. They repeated that mealtime was over. I quietly put down my chopsticks. I am not allowed to eat, I thought. Okay then! I won’t eat. I would see what new tricks they were up to.
I was also considering another problem. Although they were all working together to hurt me, I was too weak to take them all on. I didn’t have enough energy to argue with them about their illegal behavior. This place was totally isolated: any law, report, accusation, procuratorate were all so far away.
That evening, I couldn’t stand it anymore. While they were still trying to persuade me to speak with them, I slowly felt my heart constrict, my breath became short, I felt dizzy. My body couldn’t hold out any more. It was so painful I felt like I was going to die. My consciousness was slowly slipping away. My body fell from the chair. The interrogator dragged me back onto the chair. To prevent me from slipping out again, he restrained my chin and shackled my legs. They called in a woman who looked like a doctor. She opened my eyes, said I was okay, and then walked out.
At that point, Chief Wang [the chief interrogator] said: “If you die here, you will just become another Cao Shunli.”
Indeed, I felt that I was dying. I had entered an empty state; a pain that is hard to describe. I couldn’t breathe. I felt pain in every part of my body. I felt that my soul had already drifted away. That day, I thought, I really was like a dead person. I spent another sleepless night strapped in the chair.
On the fifth night, three interrogators came to speak with me again. They were still trying to persuade me to speak with them. They mentioned my son, but in a way that they were obviously holding back some information. I asked them harshly, “What have you done to my son? He is just a kid. It is too shameless of you to threaten me by using my son!”
“We didn’t do anything to your son. He is good, just under our control. He didn’t make it abroad, but that’s okay. Once you get back, he can still go.” Maybe because I am so close to him, I couldn’t conceal my concern. This divulged a weakness for them to exploit. From that moment on, over the following year, they would often mention my son. When I did finally get back home after a year, I learned he had been under house arrest; that he had been prohibited from studying abroad; and had been monitored by more than a dozen guards every day.
He was so young. At just 16 years old, he had also become a victim of the regime. My heart was devastated. A regime that uses a mother’s son to threaten her is shameless to the extreme.
It was around 4 or 5 in the morning, nearly dawn, when I fell unconsciousness again. There were countless golden sparks flashing in front of my eyes, every time I opened them. I saw the vague outline of three deformed interrogators. I felt that my life was fading away little by little. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I told them, I would talk, but I needed to have a rest first, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to stay alive.
I would only talk about myself. I would not answer any questions about other people.
At that, they finally left, and allowed me to sleep.
On the morning of the sixth day, the three interrogators came back. They didn’t wait until evening this time. Chief Wang looked very happy and smug. He told me, “I will ask them to undo your handcuffs so that you can have a good shower.”
After that my daily schedule started to improve a little. I was almost permitted enough sleep. But since I hadn’t slept at all for five days and nights, my sunken eyes and dark bags under my eyes never recovered. I still have heart problems now.
Chief Wang went out for a while and then came back with the team leader and the “monster” to remove my handcuffs. The team leader pretended to look very sorry for me, like he was doing me such a big favor.
“Normally, in here, once we put handcuffs and shackles on someone, we keep them on for at least 15 days. Today Chief Wang asked us to remove them for you, so we will remove your handcuffs first, and only keep the shackles on you for two more days.”
They took my handcuffs away. My wrists had become seriously swollen from the friction. If they hadn’t taken them off, my hands would have been ruined.
When they removed my shackles on the seventh or eighth day, all of a sudden I felt my body was much lighter, just like the Chinese idiom, as light as a swallow.
When I reflect back on those days, I think perhaps God was protecting me. Somehow I didn’t get sick. Normally, I easily catch cold and or otherwise get sick, but in the early days of my detention my vitality and resistance were so strong. When I reflect on Chief Wang’s words, “If you die here, you will just become another Cao Shunli,” it really makes me reflect on Cao’s death all over again. [Wang Yu was Cao Shunli’s lawyer]
Over the following 10 days or so, they interrogated me three times a day. The sessions would end only when the meal arrived, but the night interrogation lasted longer and later.
They began by asking about the cases I had represented, six in particular. They asked who had requested me to do the cases; how they had found me; who had introduced me; about the signing of the powers of attorney; and who had paid my lawyer’s fee; etc. I replied that the cases they were asking about were definitely the more important cases I had done but that I had posted all the details on my Weibo and Wechat, and that they could get the information they wanted from those platforms. I explained that because my Weibo had been blocked, they would need special access. I pointed out that there was nothing illegal about those cases because I had already made them public.
They asked about my few trips abroad. They asked who had invited me; how they had contacted me; how I had traveled; who had bought my tickets; how many days I had been away; who had gone with me; and what kind of activities I had done there; etc.
They also asked about the workshops and gatherings I had attended a few times inside China. I told them that normally I was busy with my cases, although I participated a few times in a workshop or rights defense gathering, but not often. I was always busy, so I didn’t have the brain capacity to remember these kinds of things.
Later on, they asked me to talk about my impressions of many people, such as Zhou Shifeng, Wang Quanzhang, Liu Sixin, Wu Gan, Huang Liqun, Xie Yuandong, Li Heping, Xie Yanyi, Zhang Junjie, and Hu Guiyun [mostly 709 lawyers and activists]. I told them I was a very typical feminist and didn’t have much contact with these male lawyers, explaining that I didn’t know them well and so I had no comment. In an attempt to sow discord, they often told me things such as: “Zhou Shifeng already said others use you like a gun. There is someone behind you. Zhou also said that you are stupid and will do any case.”
They sometimes brought notes from Zhou Shifeng to show me, but I was not sure if they were real or not. Each time I told them that he had the freedom to say what he wanted, and that as a lawyer I would not allow others to tell me what to do. No one else has the right to tell me what to do. I take full responsibility for my own actions.
Toward the end of July, they tried persuading me to write a so-called confession letter and to deliver it on television. I refused without a second’s thought. I would not write anything and would never go on their TV to confess.
Transfer to Tianjian
On the morning of August 7, the team leader took me to the so-called “Beijing Tongda Hostel”. We could hear the sound of an airplane circling in the sky overhead every day. At first, I thought we were near one of the airports, but afterwards I learned from a base manager that it was the same location as my previous detention facility, on the edge of Beijing, inside a military base, in a small town in Hebei Province.
That day, Chief Wang came to tell me that the crime I was officially now suspected of was “inciting subversion of state power” and so they had changed my coercive measure to Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location.
I was speechless.
Into September, they almost didn’t come at all any more. Before, there were five teams of guards, with two-hour shifts. Now I had three teams per day, with three hours per shift. Those girls worked constantly. Their faces looked sallow.
On the afternoon of September 8, Chief Wang appeared out of nowhere. He hadn’t come for a long time. The Tianjin interrogator was with him. He said that there was good news. He would not be in charge of my case anymore. The Tianjin interrogator was taking over. He told me to get ready. They would come back to pick me up and take me to Tianjin. I thought, how is this good news?
After I had had dinner, the team leader came in and told me to be ready to go once he came back. He took out his gun and waved it around. I didn’t know what he meant.
They put me in a black hood and two girls took me away from this so-called “Beijing Tongda Hostel” where I had lived for the past month. They handed me over to some Tianjin girls, who took me into a vehicle. We waited in the car for more than an hour. Then I heard many cars leaving one after another. After more than two hours, we arrived at the “Tianjin Jinan Hostel.” What fate awaited me there?
Since being “released on bail,” I have often wanted to write about my experiences. But so often, after picking up my pen, I found myself just putting it down again. I always felt that they were memories hard to look back upon, but that if I didn’t record them in time, eventually they would fade away. So I forced myself to write this time.
I became stuck many times in the process and couldn’t continue. I often had to stop and take a few deep breaths; otherwise I would become depressed. It is a scar that has not healed for my family and I, even until today.
After I finished writing the story above, my spirits almost collapsed. Reliving these episodes was even harder than the moments I was actually there. I don’t know why. While I was experiencing it, I didn’t feel scared. Sometimes I had even adopted a “play” attitude in order to face it. It was almost fun to engage in a “battle of wits” with my captors and interrogators. But when I reflect back on these experiences now, it’s hard, and I can’t imagine how I was able to handle it. Sometimes, if I think about if it were to happen a second time, I ask myself: would I be able to handle it again? Perhaps this is what is meant by “secondary trauma.”
This is an excerpt of Wang Yu’s account of her first two months in Beijing from July to September, 2015. She is currently writing the second part of her 709 ordeal in Tianjin. Her account is part of a new book entitled The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories From Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances. While the book’s focus is on China’s practice of secret detention known as “residential surveillance at a designated location,” China Change adds Wang Yu’s account to that of Xie Yang and Xie Yanyi, expanding its translation about the 709 crackdown. Section titles are added, minor edits made by China Change for clarity. Find out more about Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location at RSDL Monitor.