On June 28, 2019, Li Wenzu was finally able to meet her husband, Wang Quanzhang, after being separated from him for 1,413 days. She says she found her husband, once reserved and calm, agitated and anxious. He sounded emotionless when he saw his wife and son. He had lost a great deal of weight but told her he put on a few pounds because the prison was treating him well. He told them not to visit him in the coming months, despite the long period of separation.
After having fought hard for the past four years just to see her husband in person, the meeting was far from what Li expected.
Wang Quanzhang is a human rights lawyer who worked on issues considered sensitive by the Chinese government. He is the last lawyer imprisoned in connection with the lawyers crackdown that started exactly four years ago on July 9, 2015. Nearly 250 human rights lawyers and activists were targeted in the so-called “709” crackdown.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Li and her son Quanquan received no news about Wang for more than three years after he was taken into custody. The only exceptions were an arrest notice that came in January 2016 and a notice of the sham trial in December 2018, which she was barred from attending. Wang was sentenced to four years imprisonment for “subverting state power.” Even now, no one in his family has seen the verdict.
Li and the lawyers she hired made countless requests to meet Wang in the detention center. It was only last month that any of them could even see him once.
“At the beginning of his arrest I did not even know if he was alive or dead,” Li says. “I had not even seen a photo of him taken after he went missing.”
Li says she used to live an “ordinary” life – she was a stay-at-home mom, taking care of the home she built with Wang and raising their son, Quanquan.
“Although my husband is a lawyer, I did not pay much attention to human rights-related issues. But now my husband is persecuted by the authorities,” she says. “I cannot give up on my family.”
Since 2016, she and other family members of detained lawyers have used different tactics to stand up for her husband and other detainees. At the beginning, these actions were creative and humorous. They made satirical videos, held eye-catching red buckets outside the detention center to catch media attention, and wrote their husbands’ names on their outfits. When they realized the authorities were completely nonresponsive, they took bolder actions. Li Wenzu, together with Wang Qiaoling, Liu Ermin, and Yuan Shanshan, shaved their heads in the cold winter of 2018 to complain about the inaction of the prosecutors and the court.
“I am grateful that I am connected with the wives of other human rights lawyers and activists who were also persecuted,” says Li. “We met each other because of the lawyers crackdown. We faced similar challenges and had a common goal. We felt desperate when legal remedies were not available and our husbands had not returned home. However, we would encourage each other no matter what happened. We supported each other. Together, we thought about what we should do to make changes.
“Now that the others’ husbands have come home, they are still fighting for my husband’s freedom along with me.”
Li has used every ounce of her strength to keep the family together. It has not been easy, as Wang’s arrest and the constant harassment broke the family apart and disrupted her son’s childhood. She kept looking for her husband while also trying to keep her son safe.
“My son Quanquan is very young. He is now six years old,” Li explains. “In late 2016, when I started to be more vocal about my husband’s situation, secret police were everywhere in my neighborhood. We used to live on the fifth floor. These officers would stay on the second floor day and night. They even followed us when I took Quanquan to the park.”
The presence of the plainclothes officers has had a huge impact on her son. According to Li, “Quanquan used to run around a lot. One day, when he was running ahead of me and passed the second floor, where the police officers were stationed, he held my hand tight as he sensed danger. He started to have nightmares. He still has them now, sometimes. Once, he dreamed that I was taken away, so he was very scared the following morning.”
Li said that, for a long time, she and Quanquan had difficulty finding a place to live because police threatened landlords not to sign leases with her. Quanquan could not go to school, as police threatened the schools. The principal of one nursery told Li that Quanquan could not attend because “the very special situation” of her family could “bring danger to the school.”
Yet, Li has tried her best to explain to Quanquan this heart-wrenching separation from his father. She tells Quanquan that his father is away fighting giant monsters: “We have to go rescue Daddy and help him defeat the monsters.”
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Li says her son is one of the biggest reasons she keeps going: “Quanquan’s support means a lot to me. He gives me strength when my energy is low. Home is a very private space. When I am at home, often I think about what happened to my husband, it is excruciating. On many occasions my son comforted me when I was sad. I always call him my ‘happy nut’ and ‘power bank.’ He gives me happiness and energy.”
Apart from her son and family members of other human rights lawyers, Li is thankful to have the international community walking with her: “Without people on the internet and attention from the international community, I would never have been able to do so much for my husband.”
Her perseverance has also inspired many, even those who did not support her at the beginning.
“Some thought all my efforts would be futile,” she recalls. “Some thought I was facing something too big, troublesome, and political. At first, some friends did not want to be in close contact with me. However, when they read what I have done online, they started to think about what I had been through from a different perspective. They started to question the authorities’ actions – why didn’t they allow my son to go to school? Why did they force our landlord to kick us out of our home? They saw the authorities’ unlawful behaviour and started to think differently about what I do. Some of my friends now admire and encourage me. They also send me supportive messages.”
Wang Quanzhang still faces imminent risk of torture and other ill-treatment in prison. Confronted with prolonged and gross injustice, Li Wenzu and Quanquan have been bravely standing up for Wang. We all can play our part to give them strength. We must continue to keep the pressure on authorities and call for Wang’s immediate and unconditional release.
Doriane Lau is a China researcher for Amnesty International.