Detained Chinese human rights lawyer allowed to meet his wife for the first time in three years

William Yang
6 min readJan 16, 2021

Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng met his wife for the first time in three years via videoconference on Thursday. His wife Xu Yan said it was hard for her to witness how different her husband has become over the last three years, and she worries that his health conditions might deteriorate if he can’t get medical care in time.

On Thursday, Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng met his wife Xu Yan for the first time in three years, even though it was done through videoconference. In that morning, Xu took out a court-issued document that informed her to apply for a meeting with her husband at the Xuzhou City Detention Center, demanding to schedule a meeting with her husband.

However, guards at the detention center claimed that due to the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that Yu would be transferred to a prison in 15 days, they couldn’t arrange a meeting for the couple.

Later, Xu warned that she would keep protesting outside the detention center until the guards arranged a meeting between her and her husband. A male guard came out to tell her that she could meet Yu Wensheng at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon.

“Since all my legal rights to visit him have been taken away from me over the last three years, I was very surprised when the guard told me that I could meet him that afternoon,” Xu said. “My mind basically went blank. When it was about time, I became more excited and I even put on some makeup for him.”

However, the detention center told Xu that she could only meet him for 20 minutes. To her, the time was too short and as she hasn’t been able to meet him for three years, she realized she needed to share a lot with her husband when they met.

“I was worried that the Chinese government may not allow me to meet him again, so I really wanted to cherish the 20 minutes that I had with him,” Xu explained. “I didn’t have time to cry and my experience over the last three years helped me realize that crying isn’t going to help. It would only waste more precious time.”

Yu’s dramatic change over the last three years

When the meeting began, Xu saw Yu sit on a chair and dressed in a blue jumpsuit. His head was shaved and he was handcuffed. His face is a little pale and he seemed a bit malnourished. Xu said the scene made her very “sad and angry,” because Yu’s current state is very different from his professional image in the past.

Xu walked Yu through all the attention that his case has been getting internationally over the last three years, and she kept telling Yu that she would continue to advocate for him and wait for him to come home.

“I told him I would continue to advocate for his rights and me and our son both miss him and love him very much,” she said. “Every time I said I love him, he would respond by telling me how grateful he was. In fact, I wished he had said he loved me, he missed me or he was sorry that I had to endure all the hardship. These were the things that he used to say to me.”

When Yu heard about all the attention that his case has been getting around the world, Xu said Yu seemed to have wiped off some tears. Yu also told Xu that when he was put under residential surveillance at a designated location, the police often threatened to harm Xu and their son.

“Yu said every time the police threatened to hurt me and our son, they would show my husband two piles of paperworks about us,” Xu said. “One was for him and one was for me. They would claim that they were going to arrest me.”

Yu also asked his wife about the situation facing other Chinese human rights lawyers since he was detained. Xu said apart from the ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers, one of Yu’s defense lawyer, Lu Siwei, also had his license revoked by the Sichuan Provincial Justice Department.

“When he heard the news, I could see my husband’s mood and facial expression became serious,” Xu recalled. “He felt a bit guilty regarding the fact that his lawyer has lost his license. I told him that Lu lost his license because he was handling many sensitive cases, and my husband’s case was only one of them. Lu also wanted me to tell my husband that he didn’t want my husband to feel guilty about it.”

Ongoing health concerns

Before Xu was able to meet Yu on Thursday, she already learned from his defense lawyers that Yu suffers from serious trembling on his right arm and the detention center also pulled out three of his teeth after they became loose inside the detention center.

During the meeting on Thursday, Yu told Xu that he could no longer write with his right hand and when the weather gets colder, the trembling on his right arm becomes more serious.

Xu also asked Yu if the detention center has implanted new tooth for him, and Yu said they hadn’t done that for him. Xu worries that his other teeth could also become loose if the detention center doesn’t perform dental implant for him soon. “I told him to choose a good dental treatment and if the government is unwilling to pay for the implant, I can pay for it,” Xu said.

Before the meeting was over, Xu gave Yu a thumbs up through the video and she also made a heart with her arms. Yu responded by forming a heart with his arms. “After I blew a kiss towards the video, the video froze while he tried to smile back at me,” Xu said. “Since I haven’t seen him in three years, I wasn’t able to hug him in person during this meeting. I will demand to meet him in person in the future.”

Since Yu will be sent to a jail within 15 days, Xu wants to ask the Chinese government to send Yu back to a prison in Beijing, making it easy for her to visit him in the future.

“These are the legal rights that he should enjoy, but the government has been taking away our rights over the last three years,” Xu said. “Over the last few years, I have to travel more than 1000 kilometers in order to meet him or advocate for him, which created huge financial burdens for our family.”

Yu was taken away by police after he published an open letter that recommended amendments to the Chinese constitution in January 2018. He has been detained ever since. In June last year, Yu was sentenced to four years for “subversion of state power” and the court also ruled that they would deprive him of public rights for three years.

He appealed the ruling in December last year, but his wife was informed by the People’s High Court in Jiangsu Province on December 26, 2020, that the court decided to maintain the original ruling. Xu said Yu has expressed his determination to keep appealing the court ruling.

“I’m very sad about the hardship that my husband is going through now,” Xu said. “It’s already so hard for him so whatever hardship that I might face, my situation won’t be worse than his. I will continue to advocate for him until he is reunited with me and our son in Beijing.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.



William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.