Wang Qiaoling and Li Wenzu first met at a detention center in Beijing, China in the summer of 2015. They were both in a desperate search for their husbands – Li Heping and Wang Quanzhang, renowned Chinese human rights lawyers and activists who were arrested during the “709 crackdown” and subsequently held incommunicado in prison.

Li Wenzu (left), Wang Qiaoling, Li Heping, and Wang Quanzhang. Photo: Gloria Guo

Sisters in the Fight for Justice: The 709 Crackdown and Its Immediate Consequences

On July 9th, 2015, Chinese authorities began its nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists. Known as the “709 crackdown”, the notorious incident saw more than 300 human rights defenders in law firms unjustly disbarred, arrested, interrogated, imprisoned, and disappeared by Chinese security forces (国保) under national security charges such as “subverting state power” and “picking quarrels”. The crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was a strategic campaign aimed at silencing and intimidating human rights lawyers, particularly those involved in sensitive cases such as defending practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and victims of prison abuse. The crackdown is remarkably influential in China’s human rights history, characterized by its extensive scale, arbitrary nature, sophisticated tactics, and pervasive torture in custody. The profession of human rights lawyers has been criminalized in mainland China since then. 

Wang Qiaoling, Li Wenzu, and other families of the human rights lawyers arrested during the 709 crackdown (also known as “709 lawyers”) have been advocating for the release and decriminalization of human rights lawyers since 2015. United by a common cause, Wang Qiaoling and Li Wenzu have forged an unbreakable bond and offered mutual support on their journey for justice not only as families of the 709 lawyers but also Chinese citizens with political rights. In October 2021, Wang Qiaoling, Li Wenzu, and 14 other individuals issued a “Joint Declaration”, announcing their decision to participate as candidates in the upcoming elections for district and county-level People’s Congress representatives in Beijing. In an interview with USCT, Wang recalled feeling powerless in the face of the formidable government machinery, emphasizing the importance of their collective solidarity. “My husband Li Heping returned home in 2017, but we continued to protest for Wang Quanzhang’s release. While we may not have known Wang Quanzhang well at the time, we knew Li Wenzu, his wife. She is our sister – she supported us, and now it’s our turn to support her,” said Wang Qiaoling. 

Their efforts yielded some results amidst immense adversity. Despite enduring torture and being deprived of their due process rights in prison, Li Heping was released on May 10th, 2017, and Wang Quanzhang was released on April 5th, 2020. However, the crackdown did not just end after their release. The term “release” in China’s context is unlike what the Western democratic societies assume. Coined by Chinese law scholar Jerome A. Cohen, the term “non-release release” refers to the state of (human rights lawyers) being arbitrarily detained at a location (whether it’s their own home, a hotel, or a secret location), forcibly returned to their hometown, or restrictions of movement after they are freed from jail. 8 years after the 709 crackdown, human rights lawyers and their families are still in the state of “non-release release”: they experience harassment, intimidation, and even re-arrest from Chinese authorities. Beijing-based lawyers are forced to relocate to their hometowns hundreds of miles away, while families of human rights lawyers are subjected to surveillance by security forces on a daily basis: their residential buildings are equipped with cameras at the entrances and exits, their electronic devices are subjected to covert monitoring, and security guards are assigned to accompany them even for mundane errands. Oral and physical threats are also common practices. 

Escalating Repression: Harassment and Intimidation in 2023

Wang Qiaoling revealed an escalation in security forces monitoring her family since April 16th, 2023. Following her husband Li Heping’s release in 2017, online surveillance had been the primary form of monitoring. However, the situation intensified this year when they were forced to leave their home and relocated to a remote area in Tongzhou, a suburban area in Beijing. On the 11th day in their new residence, the landlord attempted to evict them by planning renovations. When the forced conviction was met with Wang Qiaoling and Li Heping’s resistance, the landlord returned with individuals who deliberately broke a window in their daughter’s room. Although they were not present during the incident, the impact on their 13-year-old daughter was profound. “Since that day, my daughter couldn’t eat, and whenever she tried to eat, she would vomit. This lasted for a week, and she could only drink a bowl of porridge each day, hardly eating anything.” Wang Qiaoling said in an extremely disheartening tone. Later, They realized that the traumatizing environment their daughter was forced into had deeply affected the little girl. They later reported subsequent threats and the removal of the iron gate from their yard to the police, but the police took no action and refused to give them a case receipt. Wang Qiaoling had to hang a curtain on the front door as a means of concealment, as there were numerous police vehicles and plainclothes officers outside their residence. “It was no different from being in jail”, Wang added.

During the interview with USCT, Li Wenzu also shared that her family has been facing adversities. Since Wang Quanzhang’s release, they have been pressured to leave their home multiple times by landlords but were all lucky enough to find new places to stay. However, this year’s challenges have been like a fierce storm, battering them with a continuing series of forced evictions that have pushed them to their limits. Li Wenzu explained that their search for new accommodations has been relentless since April, constantly met with interference from security forces. Tactics employed against them include “cutting off water and electricity” and “threats of violence.” Li Wenzu specifically recounted a distressing incident where the landlord and police forcefully entered their residence, shouting at them, breaking their belongings, and threatening the infliction of physical harm if they refused to leave. This traumatic experience left her 10-year-old son in a state of constant fear and physical exhaustion, leading Li Wenzu to send him to live with her sister in Wuhan. 

Unidentified man hanging out in front of Wang Quanzhang’s door. Photo: Gloria Guo

The Chinese government has intensified its pressure on human rights lawyers in recent years, adopting more direct, administrative, and draconian tactics. Wang Qiaoling confirmed, “my husband Li Heping is basically retired, but this doesn’t stop them from harassing us.” They were even told to leave Beijing temporarily, citing orders from “higher authorities”. In the past, the pressure mainly came from the police itself, but now all administrative agencies in China are interconnected and assume different roles. For example, the landlord can request the power supply bureau to cut off electricity despite its essential nature and government protocols. Security forces would even hire delinquents to steal their deliveries.

Lasting Political Implications: a Dooming Future  

On the 8th Anniversary of the 709 crackdown, the future of China’s human rights lawyers remains unknown. The new wave of harassment and intimidation in 2023 can be attributed to China’s current societal problems, which carry significant political implications. USCT interviewed Professor Tomoko Ako, co-founder/board member of Asian Lawyers Network and Professor in Sociology/China Studies at the University of Tokyo. Professor Ako underscored Chinese people’s dissatisfaction with the government stemming from the Zero-COVID Policy and the white paper movement.

When asking about the future of human rights lawyers in China, Professor Ako expressed deep pessimism. She noted that, although understandably, there has been a drastic decline of individuals willing to take personal risks in joining the profession of human rights lawyers, as Chinese authorities have exerted immense pressure on both lawyers and their families.

Additionally, external support from human rights activists and organizations outside China for human rights lawyers and their families on social media platforms like Twitter has caused concern within the Chinese government, prompting increased harassment. By compelling lawyers to leave Beijing, the government aims to hinder their access to valuable resources and their ability to maintain communication with foreign embassies and international organizations in the capital city. More importantly, intensified crackdown would effectively marginalize the role of human rights lawyers in dealing with human rights violations such as the Xinjiang genocide. By impeding collaborations between domestic human rights defenders and international communities, the Chinese government aims to obscure its human rights violations. 

Professor Ako also stressed the importance of democratic countries, like Japan, to exert pressure on the Chinese government through measures such as sanctions. With China’s growing influence as an authoritarian regime, resistance to its influence becomes crucial to preserving judicial freedom and democratic systems elsewhere. 

2023 marks the 8th anniversary of the 709 crackdown. As the plight of China’s human rights lawyers and their families persists, their resilience and solidarity with supporters offer a glimmer of hope. The indomitable quest for freedom and justice continues, and embracing this mission holds immense power, regardless of the moment we embrace it.