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‘My son is everything to me’: how China forced lawyer Wang Yu to denounce her human rights award

Background: On July 9, 2015, Wang Yu (王宇) became the first target in a campaign of mass arrests against human rights lawyers in China. Over the next roughly two weeks, over 300 rights lawyers were arrested, interrogated, detained, and threatened — thus begetting the notorious ‘709 Incident.’

After over a month in secret detention at a black site in Beijing, Wang Yu was transferred to Tianjin for a continuation of her detention, then under so-called ‘residential surveillance at a designated place’ (指定居所監視居住). For over a year she was not allowed to see her lawyer, family, or communicate with the outside world.

Another 20 or so lawyers and activists, including Wang Yu’s husband Bao Longjun (包龍軍), were given similar treatment. During the secret detention and their time in detention centers, they were severely tortured, including by sleep deprivation, prolonged interrogation, forced-feeding with unidentified drugs, beatings, insults, being hand- and foot-cuffed, or having their family’s safety threatened.

Some were placed in cages submerged in water, so-called ‘water cage’ torture. Currently, three individuals are serving prison sentences, three were released on suspended sentences, and all others except one were released on a probationary form of ‘bail.’

Lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) has been detained for over 1,000 days, neither sentenced nor released, and no one even knows whether he is dead or alive.

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Wang Yu. Photo: China Change.

In August 2016, Wang Yu and her husband were released on a probationary form of bail (取保候審), whereupon they were forcibly taken to an apartment building in Ulanhot, Inner Mongolia. There they were reunited with their son, Bao Zhuoxuan (包卓轩), who had previously been coercively removed from Beijing and placed in Ulanhot to continue high-school.

In Ulanhot, their movements were closely monitored, they were followed wherever they went, and their apartment was fitted out with an extensive array of surveillance cameras that pointed to their doorway, stairs and in and out of the building entrance. Wang Yu believed that the apartment itself was bugged too.

Around a year later they were allowed to return to their own home in Beijing. Now, though they’re apparently ‘free,’ every move they make is still watched by the authorities, and Wang Yu has been unable to resume her profession as a lawyer.

Among China’s human rights lawyers, Wang Yu has been called the ‘Goddess of War.’ Prior to the 709 crackdown, she traveled the country taking on all manner of human rights cases. The image of Wang the lawyer in the ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ documentary, handing out fliers about the law under the beating sun in Hainan, left a deep impression of her commitment.

On July 8, 2016, the American Bar Association announced that it had selected Wang Yu to receive its inaugural ABA International Human Rights Award, “in recognition of her dedication to human rights, justice and the rule of law in China.” This news seemed to rattle the Communist Party.

The authorities knew perfectly well that the 709 crackdown was an illegal, politically motivated large-scale persecution of human rights lawyers, and that the cruelty of torture methods they used exceed what most people can conceive. They fear the moral support that the international community was extending to the targets of their attacks.

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Wang Yu taken to a studio for her TV denunciation of her ABA Award. Illustration based on her account, source: Safeguard Defenders.

In an attempt to sever such support, in the days leading up to the award ceremony, the authorities forced a detained Wang Yu to record at least two similar video statements castigating and rejecting the award.

In one news clip, broadcast on CCTV, China’s state-run central TV, she says: “I haven’t really done anything in terms of human rights, so this sort of award is using me to besmirch the reputation of the Chinese government and besmirch the image of China. Thus, I insist on not approving, acknowledging, or accepting it. Nor will I have any other individual or organization accept the award on my behalf. If, despite my explicit rejection, they force the award upon me, this will be a violation of my human rights, and I strongly protest.”

In another clip broadcast on Phoenix, a state-run TV station thinly-masked as commercial TV in Hong Kong, she sits outdoors with a grass lawn behind her. In front of her are a number of official journalists whose faces the audience couldn’t see. She says, her voice halting: “As far as I’m concerned, this award is using me as a tool to attack and denigrate the Chinese government. I’m a Chinese person; I only accept the leadership of the Chinese government. I don’t want this or similar awards, not now, nor in the future.”

Two Tianjin lawyers claiming to represent her sent a letter to the ABA, saying that the ABA award constituted an “infringement on the reputational rights of Ms. Wang Yu… Ms. Wang Yu reserves the right to pursue your organization as liable for such infringements.” The letter demanded that the ABA “cease and desist” from giving her the award.

On the basis that Wang Yu was in detention and could not speak of her own free will, the ABA dismissed the ploy and went ahead giving the award in Wang Yu’s absence on August 6, 2016, during its annual convention in San Francisco.

Two weeks after the award, a nationalistic website in China published an article by a “former NGO worker” who claimed to have worked at ABA’s office in Beijing. It described one boss as being lazy and incompetent, and another as rude and lecherous. It portrayed the ABA Beijing office as a place where Chinese employees were discriminated against and where “humanity and dignity…was worthless.” It insinuated, without clear factual statements, that ABA’s activities in China were political and ABA was a tool of the U.S. government being used to instigate a colour revolution.

Now we have come full circle: in the book “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from inside China’s system for enforced disappearances” published in November 2017 by Safeguard Defenders, Wang Yu for the first time reveals what she experienced under residential surveillance (China Change has an excerpt).

In a new report recently released by the same organization, Wang Yu revealed how she was forced to rebuke and reject the ABA’s award.

The following statement by Wang Yu about this incident is reproduced with permission.

It is difficult to explain, why I went on television, what kind of mental process I had gone through. And until now, I still feel it is difficult to describe, I don’t know how to talk about it. Actually, I do want to talk about it in detail, but I always feel sad. I am still struggling to get over the trauma. But I know I should speak out, even if just in this simple way.

It was about April 2016 and I had already been transferred to the Tianjin First Detention Centre. I had just finished my breast surgery at that time and the guards and interrogators were taking quite good care of me. My interrogator said if I cooperated then my case would be “dealt with leniently.” He meant I could be released soon. They also kept reminding me that my dream of sending my son overseas to study could happen only once I had been released from the detention centre.

How, then, did they want me to cooperate? They said all the 709 Crackdown people need to demonstrate a good attitude before they would be dealt with leniently. They said a PSB [Public Security Bureau] boss would come to the detention centre in a few days and they wanted me to say to him that: “I understand my mistake, I was tricked, and I was used. I denounce those overseas anti-China forces and I am grateful for how the PSB has helped and educated me.” After that, they stopped taking me to the interrogation room and moved me to a staff office where they fixed up space for me to eat and memorise the material my interrogator gave me.

Around about the end of April, the interrogator told me the boss was coming today and that we should make the video. He promised me the video would only be shown to that boss, and it would definitely not be shown to the public. He told me not to worry and just follow the script they had given to me. If I couldn’t memorize it all, then we could just re-record it. They also told me that everyone who was caught up in the 709 Crackdown had already made such videos. I kept asking them to confirm that it wouldn’t be shown in public and they promised it would not. Despite their assurances, I was still very unhappy about having to do the video.

In the afternoon, I was taken to the office again. A few minutes later, a man came in; he was in plainclothes and about 50 years old. A young man in his 20s followed with a camera. They both said something similar to me; something about how they would find a way out for me. I have suffered a lot of memory loss in the past few years so even if I try to remember exactly what happened, I can’t. But I do remember asking him who would see the video and he repeatedly said that it was only for their boss and not for television.

The young man finished setting up the camera, then the older one started asking questions. I don’t remember the exact questions, but it was basically the same as my interrogator had told me to study. I didn’t answer very well, because my memory was bad and also I didn’t want to make the video. I really messed up some of the questions and they had to ask me again and again. After three or four hours, they eventually left.

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Wang Yu passes out flyers to passersby in the film “Hooligan Sparrow.”

Some 20 days later, I heard that the so-called PSB boss had said that last video was not good enough and that we had to record it again. So, we recorded it again, but two days later, my interrogator said it still wasn’t acceptable. The next time they came with a camera and a computer, with the script typed into the computer in a huge font size. They wanted me to read it from the screen and look into the camera. We recorded it like this many times and finally they left. But another two days later they came back and said it still wasn’t good enough, so we did it all again. But that didn’t pass either.

It was about the beginning of June, one day before the Dragon Boat festival, when my interrogator told me that another boss was coming and wanted to talk to me. If I behaved well I could get out of the detention centre. Not long after, two men in their 50s or 60s in plainclothes, came in. They surprised me by shaking my hand when they first arrived. Later, I learned they were the vice-director and division chief of the Tianjin PSB. They talked briefly about my health and my situation and then asked me to give a self-evaluation. I said: “Of course, I think that I am a good person and also a good lawyer. I believe in behaving with kindness and I am professional in my work and have always won my clients’ approval.”

After that they often took me to their office to talk with them. They kept trying to persuade me to do an interview on television, but I kept saying no.

In the beginning of July, my interrogator talked to me alone. He said, “Think carefully. If you don’t agree to go on television how will you be able to get out? How will your husband Bao Longjun be able to get out? How will your son ever be able to study abroad?”

I thought hard about it for a few nights. I thought, neither me nor my husband can communicate with anyone from outside. Who knows when it will all end. And my poor son was home without us. We didn’t know how he was doing. Although, my interrogator told me that he had been released and was living in Ulanhot, he might be under surveillance, he didn’t have his parents with him. What kind of future would he have?

I thought the two so-called “bosses” who had been talking with me looked like they would keep their word. After speaking with them for many days, I trusted them, and the people around me treated me much better. Much better than when I was in RSDL [residential surveillance at a designated location], where they were very cruel to me.

So, I decided to accept. I just wanted to see my son so much. I thought, if I couldn’t get out my son would never be able to study overseas. I might get out many years later, but by then what would have happened to my son? If he was harmed now, the trauma would stay with him his whole life. I needed to be with him during this stage of his life. I decided that I would do my best to help my son go to a free country and study. He would no longer live like a slave, suffering in this country. He has to leave, he must leave, I thought. That was the most urgent thing. So I had to do it, even if it meant doing something awful.

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The ABA Human Rights Award ceremony in San Francisco, August 2016.

I also considered the possibility that they might break their promise—and if they did I vowed to fight. So, I said yes to their request to go on television, but only if they released me first. I started practicing the script they prepared for me and we rehearsed it many times, almost every day before I left the detention center.

On 22 July 2016, they went through the formality of my “release on bail.” They took me from the Tianjin First Detention Centre to the Tianjin Police Training Base under Tianjin Panshan Mountain. I stayed there for about 10 days.

They transferred me to Tianjin Heping Hotel and for the next two days I was still under their control. I did the interview in a western-style building near the Heping Hotel a few days later. That afternoon, about 4 or 5pm I was reunited with my son. He hugged me and cried for a long time. I also quietly shed tears.

The next day, my son and I met his father Bao Longjun who had also just been released on bail.

After my release I became very depressed. We were kept under house arrest in Ulanhot. My son and his father often made fun of me because of what I had said on that television interview and I felt very hurt and under a lot of pressure. One time, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I asked my son, “Would you rather I suffered and went on television so I could be with you, or would you prefer that I didn’t go on television but then stayed in prison?” My son said emphatically: “I want my mum with me!”

Hearing my son say this, I believe that everything I suffered was worth it. This was the only way I could be reunited with my son, so I had to do it.

When I got back home, I gradually began to understand what kind of pain my son had been through over the past year. Such cruelty caused my son to suffer from severe depression and that made me even more determined to settle my son overseas so that he could heal both mentally and physically.

So, this is my story. I don’t expect everyone to understand. I just want to say that my son is everything to me. Perhaps, I had no other choice.

'My son is everything to me': how China forced lawyer Wang Yu to denounce her human rights award