October 17, 2019
How the Spouses of Lawyers Arrested in the 709 Crackdown Became Activists
In June, Li Wenzu, the wife of jailed Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, was able to make her first visit to her husband since his imprisonment in 2015 as part of what was called the “709 crackdown.” Afterward, Li wrote a public statement about the visit, describing her husband’s precarious mental and physical health and the heartbreak of seeing him so diminished. “It has been four years, he looks like a programmed dull stick, he didn’t even turn around and look at us again.”
The following story, written by longtime legal affairs journalist Jiang Xue, describes the quest of Li and other family members of imprisoned Chinese lawyers to advocate on behalf of their husbands. Jiang reported it over half a year, extensively interviewing Li and other family members of detained lawyers, including Li’s close friend Wang Qiaoling. The story first appeared in Chinese in the Hong Kong-based publication Initium in December 2018. It has been adapted for ChinaFile and was translated by Eleanor Goodman.
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This is a story about fear and the attempt to conquer fear. The wives of some of the lawyers who disappeared in China’s “709” crackdown have suffered house arrest, threats, and suppression. In their search to find their husbands, they hope no longer to be mere “political dissidents,” and instead to mature into self-aware women and citizens.
In 2018, China’s national holiday occurred during the week of October 1 to 7. Li Wenzu had just finished watching a season of the very popular television historical drama Story of Yanxi Palace. Her husband had been arrested three years before, and this was the first time she had sat down and watched the drama like an ordinary housewife might. “My son and I just enjoyed ourselves, which is what Quanzhang would have wanted,” she told me.
Her husband, Wang Quanzhang, a human rights lawyer born in 1976 in Shandong, was arrested by Chinese authorities on July 10, 2015. He had been imprisoned for three years and three months without his case going to trial. (Only on December 26, 2018 was his case finally heard in a Tianjin court.) In January, he was convicted of subversion of state power and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
Before July 12, 2018, Li often worried that her husband was no longer alive. After his arrest in July 2015, she had heard no news at all of him, aside from government-appointed lawyer Chen Youxi’s claim to have seen him.