Family members of detained Chinese human rights lawyers express concerns about indefinite detention two years after their arrests

December 26 marks the two-year anniversary of the “Xiamen Meeting” case, where more than a dozen human rights lawyers and dissidents were arrested across China after a private gathering in Xiamen in Dec. 2019. At least three defendants have yet to receive their official sentence, family members worry they will be detained indefinitely.

For Sophie Luo, the wife of Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, she can barely focus on this year’s Christmas holiday, as she doesn’t know whether authorities in China would hand down the official sentence for her husband and Chinese dissident Xu Zhiyong in a secret trial over the holiday.

Two years since the “1226 mass arrest,” during which more than a dozen Chinese dissidents were arrested across China, there is no clear progress in Ding and Xu’s cases.

Traditionally, China will often choose to hand down sentences for sensitive cases in secret trials during the Christmas holiday. In 2020, 12 Hong Kong people who tried to flee to Taiwan by a speed boat were put on trial on Dec. 28. In 2019, Chinese pastor Wang Yi also went through a secret trial on Dec. 26.

“If they don’t put Ding and Xu through a secret trial during this holiday season, the authorities could potentially drag on their cases indefinitely,” Luo said. “I and other family members have been making demands to the Chinese authorities, including holding open court sessions, summoning witnesses to court, combining the cases, and allowing lawyers to make copies of the files. All of our requests are legal and reasonable, so I think the possibility of them sentencing Ding and Xu in secret trials during the holiday season is not high.”

According to Luo, the detention center’s condition remains very bad, and she worries that if authorities drag the cases on indefinitely, situations could get worse for both Ding and Xu.

“The conditions in the detention center are still very poor, and the food and nutrition are very bad. Ding Jiaxi’s illnesses remain persistent, which include diarrhea, arthritis, swollen calves, and he has recently had symptoms of skin disease on his head,” she said.

“They don’t have hot water in the winter either. He is suffering from arthritis, which worries me a lot. Their quilts and toothbrushes are of very poor quality,” Luo added.

Luo says Chinese authorities’ behaviors have clearly violated China’s constitution, the criminal law, and other regulations related to how to run detention centers and prisons. “Our conclusion is they are law-abiding citizens who did things according to the Chinese laws, but they were detained illegally,” she said.

“Authorities detain them at their own will, limit lawyers’ rights, and conduct illegal trials and detention. Nothing they’ve done is legal,” Luo added.

On Dec. 26, 2019, Chinese state security arrested more than a dozen human rights lawyers and dissidents across China for participating in a private meeting in Xiamen City earlier that month. So far, Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi and Chang Weiping have all been arrested and detained under the charge of “subversion of state power” but none of them have been officially sentenced.

Family members can’t get details of the case

Chinese human rights lawyer Chang Weiping also took part in the private meeting and he was arrested for the second time in Oct. 2020. Even though his wife Chen Zijuan continues to advocate for her husband in China, she also faced a lot of obstacles.

According to Chen, the case is now returned to the prosecutor’s office, and Chang’s lawyer has yet been able to access files related to the case. Authorities even asked Chang’s lawyer to sign a confidentiality agreement before letting him access the files. This means that the lawyer won’t be able to let family members or the outside world know what evidence did the authorities use to charge Chang for “subversion of state power.”

“Until now, I still don’t know what is the evidence that authorities used to charge my husband, and all my applications to visit him have been denied,” she said. “I tried to apply for visitation in July and September but authorities at the detention center haven’t approved my application yet.”

Over the last year, police from China’s Shaanxi Province have gone to her workplace or her home to threaten her several times. They asked her to stop speaking up for Chang. “They would call my boss whenever they found out that I was going to Beijing,” she said. “This created a lot of pressure for me.”

Chinese human rights lawyer and legal scholar Teng Biao said the “1226 mass arrests” is another large-scale crackdown on activists and human rights lawyers in China since the “709 mass arrests” in 2015.

“The outside world has obtained very little information about the detainees’ situation and they have been tortured, denied access to their lawyers as well,” he said. “The license of one of their lawyers has also been revoked recently. These moves have seriously violated the legal procedures.”

International pressure has improved their situation

Even though there is no obvious progress in the cases, Sophie Luo thinks international attention on the cases has helped to improve Ding and Xu’s conditions in the detention center.

Compared to Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, whose whereabouts remain unknown, the attention from the US government and US lawmakers has allowed Ding to meet his lawyers a few times. They have also not been put through secret trials yet.

“When the lawyers asked if both cases can be combined, authorities will keep delaying their responses,” she said. “I think this shows that they are wary of international attention.”

On the other hand, Chen says that she feels like advocating for her husband in China is like being stuck in a dead-end, as all possible channels to seek justice for Chang Weiping have been closed off. “Family members will face extremely huge pressure when they try to speak up,” she said. “My workplace continues to be harassed by authorities and I think they are trying to silence all the voices.”

She thinks the only possible way to improve Chang’s conditions is international attention. “My biggest hope is that there can be more international attention on my husband’s case because no media in China can report on the case,” Chen said. “Whenever I upload a video to Weibo, it will be deleted within five minutes.”

Teng says that while family members continue to play the important role of sharing information about the cases, those who are in China also face huge risks because the Chinese government has intensified its crackdown in recent years.

“Xu Zhiyong’s girlfriend Li Qiaochu has been arrested and charged after she tried to speak up for him,” he said. “Chinese poet Wang Zang’s wife has also been arrested and charged for doing the same.”

He thinks that so far, only family members like Sophie Luo, who are outside of China, can maintain regular contact with international media and human rights organizations without facing huge risks. However, since international criticism seems to have less effect on the Chinese government in recent years, it is hard to gauge the impact of criticism from human rights organizations and academia on the case.

From wives to human rights defenders

For Luo and Chen, apart from taking care of their families, they have also become human rights defenders outside of work over the last two years. Luo said she originally wants life to be peaceful and quiet, but she now realizes she needs to be against authoritarianism.

“I now hope that the CCP will live up to its own claims of democracy and freedom, that is, to govern China in accordance with its constitution and various laws and regulations,” she said. “Otherwise, I will spare no effort to expose their lies and false claims. I see myself as an amateur activist, which means I will devote all my spare time to human rights advocacy.”

Chen says she feels that the entire Chinese judicial system is “extremely hostile” to people like her. “The judicial system in China is like a high authority that doesn’t care whether your rights are being violated or not,” she said. “When you go to these departments and deal with them, my whole feeling is that they think I’m an unruly citizen who’s there to create trouble.”

Both of them say the next most important thing is to ask the authorities to handle the cases related to the “1226 mass arrests” in accordance with the law so that there will be no more indefinite overtime detentions.

“It is very important for them to follow the requests made by the lawyers and the clients in the pre-trial conference, including holding the trial in public and summoning the witnesses to the trial, which are the basic bottom line of the law,” said Luo.

“If they can’t even do that, then the so-called ‘trial’ is just mere formality. If the authorities don’t summon the witnesses to court, we will not back down,” she added.

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

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