“They stripped me”: A human rights lawyer on her year of secret detention in China

Hard to relive it.
Hard to relive it.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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About two-and-a-half years ago, Chinese authorities carried out an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, with more than 150 people being summoned, questioned, or arrested across the country over a single weekend started July 9, 2015.

A slap in the face to president Xi Jinping’s promise of “rule by law,” the notorious “709” (July 9) crackdown is one of the darkest moments for human rights in China. As of this October, at least 321 lawyers, human rights defenders and their relatives have fallen victim to the nationwide swoop, with many currently serving their sentences or held under house arrest or residential surveillance, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.

A leading figure in China’s human rights movement, Beijing-based lawyer Wang Yu was arrested during the 709 crackdown, after defending feminists and minorities in China. Charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” Wang was held under detention for a year and released on bail in August 2016, followed by her forced confession published by several Beijing-backed media outlets—a common tactic the Chinese Communist Party uses to discredit its critics. The same month, the American Bar Association gave its inaugural International Human Rights Award to Wang, who was absent from the event. Wang had been kept under house arrest in Inner Mongolia before moving back to Beijing with her husband and son this August.

The People’s Republic of the Disappeared
The People’s Republic of the Disappeared
Image: Fair use

This week, Wang’s account of her first few months of detention, from July to September 2015, was published as part of  a book entitled The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories From Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances—an anthology written by all sorts of victims of China’s “black jail” system, including lawyers and dissidents. The China Change website published an excerpt of Wang’s account, which tells harrowing stories of her torture and abuse.

Around the same time her stories were published, Wang’s 18-year-old son was, again, barred from leaving China for state security reasons, according to a social-media post by his father.

Break-in and abduction

At around 4am on July 9, 2015, a dozen police officers broke into Wang’s apartment in Beijing, handcuffed her, forced a black hood over her head, and then dragged her into a van. Wang was transferred to a secret detention center, which later she knew was inside a military base on the edge of Beijing:

Afterward, I could feel that my hood was even tighter. I shouted: “I am suffocating. Someone give me some air!” A woman beside me adjusted my hood a little, and I could see a sliver of sky out of the side. The sky was just getting light.

Forced to strip

Wang stayed in a cell with 10 single beds for the first month, and during the day she was forced to stay within a painted square measuring 40 cm (16 inches) on each side. For the first couple of days, she was put in iron handcuffs and shackles, and deprived of sleep as she was strapped in an interrogation chair at night. The “cruelest torture” she endured, however, was being forced by female guards to strip off her clothes in front of surveillance cameras on the first day, Wang wrote:

I was told to take off all my clothes, stand in the middle of the room for inspection, and to turn my body three times. I objected to this insulting order. But these young girls didn’t care.

They rushed forward, pushed me against the floor, and stripped me. I was crying, and pleading with them at the same time. Why would they insult me like this? Why didn’t they have any compassion? Why were they so violent to a small woman like me?

Fears about her son 

Interrogators often used Wang’s fear for her teenage son to persuade her to speak with them, suggesting “they were obviously holding back some information,” she wrote. Wang described her anger and frustration over such tactics:

Maybe because I am so close to him, I couldn’t conceal my concern. This divulged a weakness for them to exploit. From that moment on [the fifth night], over the following year, they would often mention my son. When I did finally get back home after a year, I learned he had been under house arrest; that he had been prohibited from studying abroad; and had been monitored by more than a dozen guards every day.

He was so young. At just 16 years old, he had also become a victim of the regime. My heart was devastated. A regime that uses a mother’s son to threaten her is shameless to the extreme.


Wang had thought of writing about her detention and torture many times, but felt such experiences were hard to look back upon. She finally forced herself to do it; otherwise “eventually they would fade away,” she wrote. But she almost collapsed, she said, after getting it all out in the writing process:

Reliving these episodes was even harder than the moments I was actually there. I don’t know why. While I was experiencing it, I didn’t feel scared. Sometimes I had even adopted a “play” attitude in order to face it. It was almost fun to engage in a “battle of wits” with my captors and interrogators. But when I reflect back on these experiences now, it’s hard, and I can’t imagine how I was able to handle it. Sometimes, if I think about if it were to happen a second time, I ask myself: would I be able to handle it again? Perhaps this is what is meant by “secondary trauma.”