Yu Wensheng: Beijing is trying to wipe out human rights lawyers

William Yang
8 min readOct 1, 2022

More than six months after he was released from a Chinese prison, prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng talked about his experience in the Chinese prison for the first time with a foreign media outlet. He is pessimistic about the prospects facing human rights lawyers in China and he thinks support from the international community is critical to the community.

Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng was released from prison in March, after being imprisoned for four years under “inciting subversion of state power.” More than six months after his release, the experience in prison remains vivid to him.

“The 82-day detention under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ made me feel like dying might be my way to end all the miseries,” he told DW. “If they fed me poisonous wine during that time, I would drink it without any second thought. It’s really hard to describe the situation I was in.”

Since 2012, China has implemented “residential surveillance at a designated location,” targeting dissidents and activists. According to Yu, the window of the secretive place would be completely covered up, making it hard for him to distinguish whether it was daytime or nighttime. Several police officers would take turns to interrogate him at 6 or 7 a.m. every morning, and the interrogation usually lasts 17 or 18 hours.

“I would be interrogated in a metal chair for 17 or 18 hours every day, and my hands would be handcuffed to the chair,” he said. “The walls and the toilet bowl in the room would be completely covered by foamed plastics, and I later learned that it was to prevent the detainees from committing suicide, as the experience during RSDL would usually make detainees want to die. It was the same for me.”

“When I was sleeping, usually three police would surveil me and when I went to the bathroom, police would be inside and outside the bathroom,” he added.

After spending 82 days under RSDL, Yu was transferred to a detention center in Xuzhou in May 2018, and he spent the next 33 months there. According to him, police used pepper spray against him and the recurring issue with his teeth couldn’t be treated properly, causing him to lose three teeth in the end.

“I told them about the issue with my teeth, but they only told me to bear with it. In fact, they didn’t want to let me see the doctor,” he told DW. “I brought the issue up when I saw my lawyer for the first time in August 2020. He was able to get me the necessary treatment, but by then, the problem had gone way worse.”

Additionally, Yu said he was beaten up by a group of other detainees when he was transferred to the Nanjing prison at the beginning of 2020. “These detainees were helping the police to manage other detainees, and on my first day at the Nanjing prison, they beat me up, pushing my head against the floor,” he recalled.

“I was not able to get enough food to eat in the prison, as they put me in the section with other old or disabled detainees and I wouldn’t be allowed to do any labor works. In Chinese prisons, only those who do labor work would receive money to buy food. Since I wasn’t allowed to work, I didn’t have any money. While they seemed to be looking after me, they were in fact persecuting me,” he said.

According to Yu, the amount of food that older or disabled detainees receive was only half of what other detainees get, which was the cause of his long-term hunger in prison. “In order to have enough food, I had to eat the leftovers from others in the morning, and by November 2020, I went on a hunger strike because I couldn’t bear with it anymore,” he said.

“Afterwards, I was finally able to get enough food. Additionally, some detainees in my section couldn’t get the care they need, which would sometimes create messy or unsanitary situations in the cell. This caused me to have allergic dermatitis all summer long,” Yu added.

And since there was no running water for his section of the prison, prisoners in his section had to get water from the drain of the toilet when they needed water. Yu also talked about receiving threats from different authorities after he decided to appeal the verdict from his first trial in 2020.

“After I appealed the verdict of the first trial, the police, the court, the prosecutor’s office and the detention center all tried to threaten me,” he said. “The prosecutor’s office said they might increase my sentence if I appealed, and the vice president of the court told me that if I didn’t drop my case, I might be subjected to strict measures.”

According to him, the facility punished him by leaving his entire cell block without hot water in the winter when the temperature was below zero degrees Celcius.

“At first I thought the hot water equipment in the whole cell block was broken, but later I learned that hot water was available in other cell blocks. They stopped the hot water in the whole cell block to punish me,” he said.

Crackdown on human rights lawyers increased under Xi Jinping

Some experts think Yu’s experience in the prison over the last four years reflects the large-scale persecution of human rights lawyers in China. Teng Biao, a Chinese legal scholar in the United States, says the “709 Mass Arrest” in 2015 affected almost all active human rights lawyers in China, and the mass arrest caused a serious loss in the community.

“These lawyers were either warned, banned to leave China or interrogated, while many of them were arrested or sentenced,” he told DW. “Apart from the imprisoned human rights lawyers, the Chinese government also revoked the licenses of many lawyers or forced them to not take on human rights cases.”

Despite enduring the four-year prison sentence, Yu and many human rights lawyers in China face difficulties to earn a living after being released from prison. Yu told DW that he realized the situation facing Chinese human rights lawyers is very different compared to four years ago.

“Not too many lawyers are willing to take on sensitive cases now, and even if they take on those cases, they might remain silent,” he said. “Any lawyer who tries to be more vocal or who tries to take on sensitive cases is either in jail or has lost their licenses. This trend creates a chilling effect, causing many lawyers to no longer be willing to take up human rights cases.”

More than six months since his release, Yu has not earned any income and he has been living on his savings. “If the situation continues, I don’t think I can last much longer,” he told DW.

“It’s pretty much the same for other lawyers. If they don’t have licenses, it will be very difficult for them to perform any legal duties. Even if they establish legal consulting firms, they may not be able to get any customers, as it’s incomparable to the usual law firms,” he added.

Teng Biao said the Chinese government has been revoking human rights lawyers’ licenses for a long time, and lawyers including him and Gao Zhisheng, whose whereabouts remain unknown, lost their licenses during Hu Jintao’s era. However, he said the practice has been intensified since 2013.

“Since Xi Jinping took power, at least 60 lawyers have had their licenses revoked, and the authorities are clearly using this to deprive them of their right to practice law and make life difficult for them,” he said.

Yu said since the Chinese government is not bound by law, they use it “recklessly” as a tool to target specific communities in China. “The extent to which the Chinese government will do what it wants is unpredictable,” he told DW.

“As of now, I see no prospect for China following legal regressions that have taken place over the last decade. There is no hope,” he added.

“Maybe I could be imprisoned again”

Despite having been arrested, detained, and sentenced by the Chinese authorities several times since 2014, Yu said he doesn’t regret what he did in the past. If I had to choose again, I would probably do it again,” he said. “I think with my character and my beliefs about human rights, if I didn’t do it, I would probably regret it more. I think what I did was meaningful.”

“There are always sacrifices to be made, and I used to define myself as a ‘pawn in the revolutionary.’ Although I suffered a lot, I think I gained more than I lost, and it made me think about a lot of things,” he added.

Despite his attempts to remain positive, Yu admits that he does not dare to have long-term plans at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is about to host its 20th Party Congress.

“I would like to leave China, but we are still restricted from leaving the country,” he told DW. “Because I can’t think positively about the future political direction in China, I can only make short-term plans, which is spending more time with my wife and children now that I am free.”

Yu said he is not sure what kind of situation he will face in a month’s time. “Maybe the path in front of me is either going back to prison or leaving the country. Given my belief in human rights, I think it would be very difficult for me to live in China now. China is not only trying to eradicate Covid-19, but it is also trying to wipe out the human rights lawyers.”

At a time when the space for human rights lawyers is shrinking, he thinks the international community’s continued attention to China’s human rights regression can bring some benefits to the community.

He said, even though he was subjected to different forms of repression during his time in prison, his wife’s efforts to advocate for his rights have helped improve his situation in prison. “Without the advocacy from my wife, I probably would have experienced more persecution in prison,” he told DW.

“Under the current situation in China, only the continued attention from the international community might make our lives better. Without such support, the room for our survival will be even narrower,” he added.

This piece was first published 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.