By Yang Jianli
A man films Li Wenzu, left, wife of imprisoned lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who holds a paper that reads “Release Liu Ermin,” as she and supporters and activists stage a protest outside the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Tianjin, China, in August 2016. Liu Ermin, a wife of one of the activists, was arrested in July 2016. (Gerry Shih/AP)
On Feb. 15, Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang turned 42. It was the 951st day of his imprisonment - and he has had zero contact with the outside world for that entire time. Wang spent his 40th and 41st birthdays likewise incommunicado. Nor has he had any access to his lawyer, Yu Wensheng, who was recently himself detained and charged with "inciting subversion." Nor was Wang able to be with his son and wife, the fearless Li Wenzu. They haven't seen him since he was first detained in early August 2015. He could, in fact, already be dead, but his family is clinging to the hope that he is not.
On that same day in Washington, Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs (EAP) at the State Department, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for her confirmation hearing to be the next assistant secretary for EAP. After ticking off some of the most egregious human rights trends in the region, including China's turn away from human rights, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) asked Thornton to reaffirm to the committee her commitment to human rights, which she did. "Standing up for democracy [and] human rights is part of who we are," Thornton said. Human rights, she added, "need to be part of every conversation we have with governments around the world."
Wang's case should "be part of every conversation" the U.S. government has with the Chinese government. He is an extraordinarily courageous man who has not succumbed to the authorities' likely demand for a public confession. Based on similar cases, we can assume that Wang has also been tortured relentlessly; he could, in fact, already be dead.
The authorities seized Wang on Aug. 3, 2015, in a sweep of human rights lawyers and defenders that resulted in the detention and interrogation of more than 300 people. This unprecedented attack is known as the 709 Crackdown because the first arrests took place on July 9, 2015. Those who have since emerged from custody have suffered various forms of torture and maltreatment. Wang is no different. But what makes his case unique is the extraordinarily long period of his detention. He is the last remaining detainee from the group who is still in prison. He has now been incarcerated for 960 days in total.
Wang was subsequently indicted on Feb. 14, 2017. The most recent reports we received seemed to suggest that he was being held at Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center. And yet, neither his wife nor his lawyers have been able to meet with him, so it is hard to say for sure.
Born on Feb. 15, 1976, in a rural area of Shandong province, Wang has represented a wide range of clients and taken on many sensitive cases since graduating from Shandong University Law School in 2000. He stayed in Jinan, Shandong, after graduation, working in legal aid and giving free lectures to villagers on Chinese law relating to issues relevant to their lives, such as rural land rights. Wang received many threats because of his work and eventually decided to leave Jinan. He moved to Beijing in 2008.
At the time of arrest, Wang was practicing law with the Fengrui Law Firm. Wang has been a particularly brave advocate in the rights defense movement, representing Falun Gong practitioners as well as other persecuted human rights defenders, such as housing rights activist Ni Yulan and the journalist Qi Chonghuai. In recent years, Wang focused increasingly on cases involving freedom of religion and belief, and took on more and more clients who were practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that is outlawed in China; such cases are known to be particularly sensitive, and many human rights lawyers have steered clear of them because of the high risk involved.
Before Wang was detained in the 709 Crackdown, he had previously been harassed, beaten and detained by Chinese authorities. In April 2013, for example, police took Wang into custody in a courtroom in Jiangsu province, while he was in the middle of providing a vigorous defense of his client, a Falun Gong practitioner, and given a 10-day term of "judicial detention." This was reportedly a first, and many human rights lawyers and rights defenders from around the country came to his defense, launching a protest outside the courthouse, which resulted in Wang's early release from "judicial detention."
In July 2015, the month before Wang was taken away, he wrote a letter to his parents in which he expressed his commitment to the work he had chosen to do - indeed, was called to do - and asked for their understanding and trust. He wrote: "I have never abandoned the qualities Father and Mother instilled in me: honesty, kindheartedness, integrity. In all these years, I have used these principles to guide my life. Even though I've often been steeped in despair, I have never given up thoughts for a better future."
Wang closed his letter to his parents with these words: "Dear Father and Mother, please feel proud of me. Also, no matter how horrible the environment is, you must hang on and live, and wait for the day when the clouds will disperse and the sun will come out."
The State Department, Congress, and the U.S. mission in Beijing must raise Wang's case consistently and forcefully with the Chinese government. By doing so, they can give Wang and his family hope "for a better future" and for the day when Wang can be reunited with his family.