Wang Yu knew she would have to pay a price for her work as a Chinese human rights lawyer but she was not prepared for the toll the state would take on her young son.
Wang, the once-fiery defender of activists and the vulnerable, has been beaten mentally and physically by detention and surveillance, and today, three years after she was swept up in a nationwide crackdown, her speech is slower and her pauses for thought longer. She struggles with auditory and smell hallucinations, memory problems and a heart condition – among a litany of other ailments.
But the 47-year-old’s relentlessness returns when she describes the damage that was visited on her son – and the family as a whole.
“To subject my son to collective punishment because I took on human rights cases is inhumane. The barbaric practice must not go on. It is torture,” she said.
“My son’s [punishment] must be the first of its kind. Even the daughters of Ilham Tohti and Gao Zhisheng were not [persecuted by association with] their parents,” Wang said.
Uygur economist Tohti is serving a life sentence for “separatism” and rights lawyer Gao has not been seen since he disappeared a year ago while under house arrest.
A CHILD’S ORDEAL
Wang had no idea that her teenaged son Bao Zhuoxuan had been handcuffed, shackled, isolated, beaten and intimidated by Chinese security officers after she was taken into custody on July 9, 2015. She was among roughly 300 lawyers, legal assistants and activists detained across the country, some of whom are still behind bars. Wang’s colleague Wang Quanzhang has been held without trial and not been heard from since. Others have been stripped of their professional licences.
While Wang was at the start of a year of her own extreme deprivations, 15-year-old Zhuoxuan and Wang’s rights lawyer husband Bao Longjun had been picked up at Beijing’s airport as the boy tried to board a flight to study in Australia.
Father and son were separated and Zhuoxuan was held alone in a Tianjin hotel for three days, Wang said. The child was sent to live with his grandmother in Inner Mongolia, cut off from his school and community in the capital.
“Surveillance cameras were installed around their house and in his classroom. He was tailed daily and everywhere he went. Security police even patrolled his school and he was ridiculed by other students,” Wang said.
Three months after his parents’ arrest, Zhuoxuan tried to flee China into Myanmar with the help of two activists but was captured by Yunnan public security officers.
“They put handcuffs and feet fetters on a 15-year-old underweight boy. How can you do this to a child?” Wang said.
“He was interrogated in secret and was repeatedly slapped on the face. It was swollen for days.
“They also beat him with a bat, working their way up his back and threatening to crush his skull if he continued to resist. They hurt him so badly that the child could not bear it and cried, saying he would sign anything.”
She said Zhuoxuan had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and the “irreversible damage” inflicted on him violated international and Chinese law.
“I still can’t gain a full picture of what has happened to him as I only heard fragments from relatives who cared for him. He couldn’t talk about it to me. We could only cry and hug each other in recalling the torment,” she said.
Repeated attempts to contact the Yunnan and Inner Mongolia public security departments for a response to the allegations were unsuccessful.
FORCED TO CONFESS
Wang said her torment included five days of sleep deprivation as well as periods of starvation and interrogation. She was watched around the clock and armed guards sat less than a metre from her at all times.
“Inside, they want your total submission and would do anything to crush your will and spirit,” Wang said.
It only ended after she agreed to make a “confession” on state television.
Wang said she refused to be filmed the first time she was dragged to China Central Television and ordered to make a statement in 2015, threatening to kill herself.
But, she could not say no again when the order was reissued a year later and officers suggested that she would not be able to see her son or decide on his education. She was told to memorise a script denouncing her colleagues and her human rights work.
“It was the only way I could see my son. There was no other way,” Wang said.
“I don’t know what else I could do after being locked up for so long.”
As difficult as the choice was, Wang said she would make the same decision again.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose my son’s freedom over my pride,” she said.
Wang was released in July 2016 and Bao a month or so later. Bao was so gaunt that his mother did not recognise him.
The family were reunited but not allowed to return to their Beijing home, forced to live in Inner Mongolia under de facto house arrest in a flat rented by the state security authorities. Security personnel were stationed in the flat opposite, surveillance equipment set up in the hall and the family followed everywhere they went – even to take out the rubbish.
As they grappled together to cope with their ordeal, the family was strained by the constant pressure.
“At first, my husband and my son condemned me for the confession. They said it was a disgrace and an act of weakness. They mocked me and criticised me until one day I couldn’t contain myself any more. I told my son: the only way for your mother to be with you was to go on TV and confess. There was no other choice for me,” she said.
“My son then hugged me and said I didn’t do anything wrong. They haven’t brought it up since then.”
Bao said he had thought the couple were prepared for the consequences of their human rights work and was blindsided by his wife’s nationally televised confession.
“We are doing the right thing to preserve justice, conscience and the rule of law so I couldn’t imagine she would go against her will to confess guilt. She used to be so tough,” he said.
“As time went by, I understood why she had to do what she did.”
Bao added that he did not regret the price the family had paid.
“The only thing is that I am worried about our personal safety. When we were locked up, other lawyers like Yu Wensheng and Li Yuhan advocated for us but now that we are out, they have been locked up and we have to advocate for them. This is a very scary nation,” he said.
The family returned to Beijing late last year and Zhuoxuan was finally allowed to leave China to go to university in Melbourne, Australia. But Bao and Wang still cannot return to their profession.
Looking back, Wang said she had a sense before the crackdown that something was coming.
“About a month before 709 … I was smothered by round-the-clock smear campaigns in state media and on government websites,” she said.
“[I endured] days of no sleep, deprivation of food and water as well as being locked up for seven months in complete isolation [from the outside world]. It was detrimental to my psychological state and is something I cannot overcome even now.
“But the worst was the unthinkable persecution of my son. This was something I had never prepared for. I condemn the Chinese government for collectively persecuting my son.”