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The wives of prominent Chinese rights lawyers Wang Qiaoling, Liu Ermin, Li Wenzu and Yuan Shanshan pose with petition letters they unsuccessfully tried to lodge at China's Supreme People's Court to protest their husband's treatment by the government in Beijing, China, December 17, 2018.
REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Hairless or lawless?
WUFA

Why the wives of China’s persecuted human-rights lawyers shaved their heads

By Kari Lindberg & Brandon Johnson

Among the most visible advocates of human rights in China are the wives of those languishing in prison.

Four wives of human-rights lawyers shaved their heads this week to protest the government’s persecution of their husbands, who were arrested during a concerted crackdown against 300 activists and lawyers in China starting on July 9, 2015, an event that’s since become known as the “709” incident.

Since then, the women have worked tirelessly to keep the plight of their husbands in the spotlight. In 2015, holding messages of support, three wives stood outside the Tianjin No. 1 Detention Center, where most of the detainees were held, and bright-colored clothing with the names of their husbands painted in red.

In this latest act of protest, four of the wives gathered outside a park in Beijing and took turns shaving each other’s hair, placing it in transparent boxes with pictures of their husbands’ faces on them, before walking to the Supreme People’s Court. The move is rife with symbolism, as the Chinese word for baldness, wufa, is a homonym for “lawlessness.”

Since the detainment of their husbands, some of the wives have been subjected to increasingly (paywall) coercive tactics to garner confessions from their husbands. According to a New York Times report (paywall), some have been forced to leave their homes after police talked to their landlords while others have had state security officers move in below their apartments.

Wang Quanzhang

A human-rights lawyer known for providing legal-aid services to Falun Gong practitioners, Wang Quanzhang remains the last lawyer behind bars from the 2015 sweep. According to a Radio Free China report, Wang’s health has significantly deteriorated, and he is forced to take medication for high blood pressure, which he developed while in detention. This July was the first time Chinese authorities permitted Wang to be visited by his lawyer, having rejected all previous attempts.

In 2015, Wang was arrested for alleged crimes of “subversion of state power.” Since then, his wife, Li Wenzu, has been active in drawing attention to her husband’s situation, including meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel in May. In April, she embarked on a 100 km (62-mile) march from Beijing to Tianjin, including trudging through a freak snowstorm, alongside a number of friends, to raise awareness of his detainment. For the past three years, she has made dozens of requests for information to the Supreme People’s Court. In November, Li was awarded Sweden’s Edelstam Prize for “exceptional courage” in defending human rights but was prevented from attending.

Xie Yanyi

Best known for filing lawsuits against various divisions of the Chinese government for violating citizens’ rights and advocating legal reform, Beijing-based human-rights lawyer Xie Yanyi was arrested in 2015 for “inciting subversion of state power” and “disrupting court order.” After being detained for more than a year, he was released on bail in 2017, and this January the government decided his case didn’t need to continue in trial.

Since then, authorities have continued to investigate him, calling into question his right to practice law. In May, Xie was attacked by police on his way to a Beijing Lawyers Association hearing to determine if his actions were severe enough to warrant disbarment. Frontline Defenders, an Ireland-based organization that works to protect human-rights defenders, issued an urgent appeal on his behalf, stating that “Based on recent persecution of China’s human rights lawyers, Xie Yanyi is likely to face imminent revocation of his legal license.”

Li Heping

Li Heping is well-known for defending individuals in criminal cases, including underground churches and Falun Gong practitioners. He has also assisted dissident lawyers, human-rights activists, and farmers who have had their property seized by the government. He was abducted from his home in July 2015 on the grounds of “subversion against state power” and was released in May 2017.

During his imprisonment, Li was forcibly medicated for high blood pressure even though he didn’t suffer from the disease, according to a 2017 report from advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. He was also deprived of sleep, psychologically abused with threats of electric shock, and forced to stand in a military pose for 15 hours straight. During his detention, he was not permitted to see family members.

His wife, Wang Qiaoling, told Hong Kong Free Press in May 2017 that officials had threatened Li and said they would kill her and Li’s younger brother, Li Chunfu, another human-rights lawyer who was imprisoned during the 709 crackdown.

Zhai Yanmin

Zhai Yanmin was one of the first human-rights activists detained in the 709 crackdown, having been accused of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order of a public place.” He was imprisoned in Tianjin until his release on a suspended sentence in August 2016.

His case was part of a much larger crackdown on lawyers connected to the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, which, according to the government, “conspired to subvert state power.” Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported that Zhai was accused of working alongside fellow human-rights activists and lawyers, including Li Heping, to organize protests to influence public opinion in a plot to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.

According to party mouthpiece Xinhua, Zhai was given a significantly more lenient sentence for confessing to the allegations and testifying against other defendants in a forced televised confession. In his testimony, he warned against the “dangers of democracy and human rights” and expressed remorse. The confession came after police threatened to take away his son if he didn’t comply. Now free from prison, Zhai is unable to travel or work without surveillance, and is forced to wear a tracking device.

In January this year, Zhai’s wife, Liu Ermin, posted (link in Chinese) on her blog that he had endured various kinds of torture while imprisoned. She wrote that he suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak, and that the stroke was likely a result of him being forced to regularly consume an unknown medication while in prison. In her post, she said that Zhai appeared “black and thin” and was withdrawn after his release.

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