Five years after 709: The crackdown from Beijing has never stopped

On the day of the fifth anniversary of the “709 Mass Arrest” in China, while most human rights lawyers have been freed from prison, Yu Wensheng, who was several lawyers’ defense lawyer, has been detained for almost 1000 days. His wife said five years since the mass arrest across 23 provinces in China, the Chinese government hasn’t stopped cracking down on human rights lawyers.

Xu Yan still remembered the night on August 6, 2015, when more than 20 police were banging on the door of her house, trying to break in to arrest her husband Yu Wensheng. After Yu refused to open the door, police used a chainsaw to break the metal door of her house and kicked open the wooden door inside. Then they broke into her house and arrested her husband.

“After they refused to show their identification cards, my husband refused to let them in,” Xu said. “They used a chainsaw to break the metal door on the outside, and I could still remember the terrifyingly loud noise. Once they broke into my house, they forced my husband to the ground and handcuffed his hands to his back.”

Yu was detained for 24 hours on that night, but after he was released, he continued his work as the defense lawyer for several human rights lawyers arrested in the “709 Mass Arrest.”

On July 9, 2015, the Chinese government launched a mass arrest of more than 100 human rights lawyers, activists and their family members in 23 provinces. The mass arrest attracted international attention. Following the mass arrest, Yu Wensheng became the first lawyer to sue China’s Ministry of Public Security for “illegally detaining citizens” on July 30.

After Yu wrote an open letter calling for constitutional reform in January, 2018, he was arrested and charged with inciting subversion of state power in April, 2018. Even though Yu has been forcefully detained for almost 1000 days, his wife and son haven’t been able to visit him once.

Last month, Xu Yan suddenly received a phone call from the court in Xuzhou City, informing her that Yu has been officially sentenced to four years in prison and he will also be deprived of political rights for three years. The trial was conducted behind closed doors and the court didn’t inform Xu.

“Many illegal procedures happened in Yu Wensheng’s case, including he was secretly sentenced and put through secret trials,” Xu said. “I think his experience was more brutal than other human rights lawyers. As his wife, I was also summoned to the police station many times or the police would prevent me from leaving my house.”

Xie Yang, who was also one of the lawyers detained during the “709 Mass Arrest,” was Yu Wensheng’s defense lawyer. He said Yu’s case has completely deviated from the normal legal proceedings. Beijing’s decision to handle Yu’s case through secret trials has also sent a chilling effect through the human rights lawyer’s community in China.

“I have not been able to meet Yu Wensheng since he was detained almost 1000 days ago, and the court’s decision to conduct secret trials as well as prohibiting family members and lawyers from meeting him have violated China’s criminal proceedings. These secret proceedings also make human rights lawyers very terrified and worried.”

“From a small prison to a big prison”

Jiang Tianyong is another human rights lawyer whose situation has gained international attention since the “709 Mass Arrest.” Since he was released from prison on February 28, 2019, Jiang has been put under house arrest at his parents’ place in Henan Province. His wife Jin Bianling said Jiang is still under 24 hour police surveillance and they continue to deny him the right to go to the hospital.

“Jiang Tianyong’s health has not been well since he was released, forcing him to stay home and rest most of the time,” Jin said. “Even though he wanted to come to the United States and be reunited with me and our daughter, he can’t even leave the small village. He has basically been transferred from a small prison to a big prison and he still can’t regain his freedom in the big prison. Rather, he remains under house arrest.”

Jin points out that even though some human rights lawyers are still under certain level of government surveillance after they were released from jail, it is still different from the 24-hour surveillance that is applied to Jiang Tianyong. She said Jiang’s current status has made her lose all hope in China’s legal system. “China has never been a country that upholds rule of law,” Jin said. “It is only their own claims.”

Months after Jiang Tianyong was released, Xie Yang went to visit him in Henan. Xie emphasized that the police has no reason to keep Jiang under house arrest. “When I visited Jiang, I was told that the police had prevented him from visiting the hospital,” Xie said.

“I realized that if he wasn’t able to regain access to hospitals, he could lose his legs. I decided to negotiate with the police officers stationed outside Jiang’s house, hoping they could allow Jiang to visit the doctors. They agreed and took Jiang to a nearby hospital. However, the doctors only ran a few tests then concluded that there was nothing wrong with Jiang’s body. Until now, Jiang still hasn’t been able to access quality medical care, and his illness persists.”

“709 has never ended”

When Wang Quanzhang was released in April, many media described the moment as “the last 709 lawyer has been released.” However, Xu Yan, Jin Bianling and Xie Yang all think Beijing’s crackdown on human rights lawyers has never ended. “As long as Yu Wensheng hasn’t been released, it means the crackdown on human rights lawyers that began with 709 continues,” Xu said. “The only difference is that Beijing has changed the way they persecute human rights lawyers, punishing them through administrative penalties or cancelling their licenses.”

Jin Bianling emphasized that even though Jiang Tianyong and Wang Quanzhang have both been released over the last year, but both of them haven’t really regained freedom. Additionally, their experiences in the prison has caused them serious physical and psychological traumas. “Their physical health isn’t great, and sometimes they also have difficulty controlling their emotions,” Jin explained.

“I think these are all traumas caused by the tortures they suffered in prison. The Chinese government has been using very nasty ways to handle cases related to the ‘709 Mass Arrest,’ so I think the incident has never ended.”

Xie Yang compared his own experience to Beijing’s current tactics against human rights lawyers, highlighting that even though the Chinese government did many things to human rights lawyers behind the scenes, but at least the courts would still maintain public proceedings according to the law.

“However, take Yu Wensheng’s case as an example, there was no public trial and his family members were also never informed properly about updates from the case,” Xie said. “When I was detained following the ‘709 Mass Arrest,’ I was able to meet my lawyer 500 days after my initial detention. Yu has been detained for close to 1000 days, but he still can’t meet his lawyer or his family members. Beijing’s crackdown on human rights lawyers have completely deviated from the legal system.”

As Jiang Tianyong continues to be under house arrest, Xu Yan confessed that she is worried that Yu Wensheng would face the same fate once he serves out his sentence. “Yu Wensheng will definitely face the same situation,” Xu said.

“He still has to be imprisoned for 22 months, so I’m worried that he might be tortured. I also wonder if the police will finally let me and my son to visit him. I will continue to advocate for him, but if he can’t come home with me after 22 months, I really can’t promise what might happen next.”

Jin Bianling says that as family members of the human rights lawyers, they need to be strong in the face of a government who is used to citing “the law” as their defense. She thinks that only if family members are willing to speak up, more people will pay attention to the persecution of the human rights lawyers, and it could potentially lower the risks of them being tortured.

“Look at Wang Qiaoling and Li Wenzu. Since they are back in China, they are facing a lot more risks than some of us,” Jin said. “However, they never stop protesting, which was why I think Wang Quanzhang could reunited with his family. This is a small success.”

This article first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

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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.