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8 Years Since Crackdown, Persecution Persists for Rights Lawyers in China

FILE - Wang Quanzhang and his wife, Li Wenzu, look at their phone and laptop in the dark after power was cut off for their apartment in Beijing's Changping district, June 20, 2023.
FILE - Wang Quanzhang and his wife, Li Wenzu, look at their phone and laptop in the dark after power was cut off for their apartment in Beijing's Changping district, June 20, 2023.

TAIPEI - It has been eight years since China launched a sweeping crackdown on more than 300 lawyers and human rights defenders on July 9, 2015. For some, the persecution that began with the “709 Crackdown” persists to this day.

Over the past couple of months, Wang Quanzhang and his family have been forcefully evicted more than a dozen times from apartments they were trying to rent or from hotels in the Chinese capital, Beijing. In mid-April, police in Beijing arrested and detained prominent human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his wife, Xu Yan, after several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, visited China.

The couple were taken away by police after they were invited to meet European diplomats in mid-April, and in May, they were charged with picking quarrels and provoking trouble and inciting subversion of state power, charges that are often used against dissidents in China.

Sources who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject told VOA authorities have threatened lawyers not to take up Yu and Xu’s cases, and the detention center in Beijing has refused to let lawyers meet either of them. When VOA reached out to the detention facility where the two are being held, operators refused to answer questions about Yu and Xu’s status.

Utility cuts, forced relocation

As for Wang, who used to live in Beijing with his wife and son, he said he has been forcefully evicted by landlords or hotels at least 13 times since April.

Wang said local police first accused him and his family of illegally occupying someone else’s property. After Wang showed authorities their rental contracts, the power and water to his units were cut off.

“The forced evictions happened either because landlords were pressured by police or they worked with police to kick us out of the apartments,” Wang told VOA.

Doors to their apartments have been constantly blocked by unknown men. Wang’s wife posted a video on Twitter showing a lock being put on the apartment’s electricity meter during one of the power cuts they experienced. Police had pressured storage service providers to not let Wang and his family leave their daily necessities like furniture or winter clothes at warehouses. Because of the unusually high frequency of forced eviction that the family has faced since April, Wang said, they had to keep a lot of stuff in storage before they could properly settle down somewhere.

“While I’m still trying to push back against the latest wave of crackdown in Beijing, my wife and son have moved to another city,” he said.

Days before the latest crackdown began, two other Chinese activists, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for “subverting state power.” While Western governments have repeatedly condemned China’s persecution of activists, rights lawyers, and dissidents, Beijing has refuted the criticisms, stressing that it handles cases in accordance with the law and that the matters are China’s “internal affairs.”

'The crackdown never stopped'

Wang and Yu were both targeted during the “709 Crackdown” that took place in 2015, and the recent persecution against the community represents a larger trend that has intensified since Chinese leader Xi Jinping secured his third term in March. Other human rights lawyers have faced constant house arrests, deprivation of their freedom of movement, or repeated threats of forceful eviction.

“The latest wave of the crackdown, which has intensified in recent months, has seriously damaged our lives and ability to work,” said Wang, adding that his family has been so busy looking for their next apartment that they are unable to maintain a normal lifestyle.

Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, told VOA that the Chinese government is trying to limit international attention on the persecution of human rights lawyers by putting them in jail again or by forcing them out of Beijing, where they can easily meet foreign diplomats.

“Beijing is trying to reduce the voices of these human rights lawyers,” he said.

Others see the latest wave as an extension of the crackdown on rights lawyers that began in 2015 and an attempt to further isolate the community.

“While many lawyers imprisoned during the ‘709 Crackdown’ were released over the last few years, Chinese authorities have revoked the licenses of more than 80 lawyers since 2018, forcing them to lose the qualification to legally take on cases,” said Wang Yu, the first lawyer arrested during the “709 Crackdown” in 2015.

She said while human rights lawyers have mostly maintained a very low-key lifestyle since being released from prison, the government’s crackdown remains harsh and repressive.

“Most of us haven’t been making provocative public comments in recent years, but authorities continue to persecute us,” she told VOA, adding that Beijing’s ultimate goal is to create a chilling effect across the dissident community.

“In some ways, the government has achieved its goals, as some lawyers have stopped interacting with me and other lawyers (are) targeted by authorities,” Wang said. “They worry about becoming targets of the government’s crackdown.”

VOA reached out to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and China's embassy in the U.S. for comments on the recent crackdown but has yet to receive a response.

'They can’t completely wipe out dissent'

Both Wang Quanzhang and Wang Yu are pessimistic about the future for human rights lawyers in China.

“As the Chinese government becomes more familiar with repressive tactics, challenges faced by human rights lawyers will become more prevalent in China,” Wang Quanzhang said. It is getting so bad that he no longer knows where the government’s red line is.

However, Wang Yu believes the Chinese government can’t completely wipe out dissent in the country.

“Even when most human rights lawyers are no longer dared to criticize the government due to the constant repression we face, there are still other forms of opposition like the ‘White Paper Movement’ that led to the end of the zero-COVID strategy late last year,” she told VOA. “When the Chinese government’s repression becomes too cruel, some dissent may still emerge.”

Poon from the University of Tokyo told VOA that while some human rights lawyers still try to share personal stories of persecution with the outside world, but it is unknown how much longer they are able to tell the international community what is happening to them inside China.

“The only way to change the situation faced by human rights lawyers is for the international community to pay more attention to the ongoing persecution,” he said.