On 9 July 2015 the Chinese authorities began an extensive crackdown on human rights defenders (HRDs) and their friends and family members. Dubbed the ‘709 Crackdown’ after the date on which it began, the campaign saw over 300 lawyers, activists and their associates detained, interrogated or imprisoned.
Some of those detained have since vanished into China’s prison system. Many others have since been released, and with them have emerged reports of physical and psychological torture, including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation. One of those released is human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who was finally reunited with his family in April 2020 after serving nearly five years in prison. During his imprisonment, Wang suffered several health issues, losing approximately 30 pounds and showing signs of memory loss.
Five years since the crackdown began, pressure on HRDs in China continues to increase, with some forced to scale back their work on ‘sensitive’ cases or leave the profession entirely. Today we reflect on the crackdown, and its repercussions which continue to be felt across China, in the words of those who lived through it:
“Five years ago, on 9 July 2015, in Beijing, lawyer Wang Yu’s family, father and son, were taken away by police directly from Beijing Capital Airport. The next day, in Beijing, more lawyers, paralegals, and human rights defenders were arrested, and a massive human rights persecution that spread throughout the country began.
Afterwards, hundreds of lawyers and citizens from all over the country were taken away by the police, summoned, detained, or questioned “over tea”… The incident shocked people at home and abroad, and the world called it the “709” arrest of lawyers, which was the largest campaign to arrest human rights lawyers ever conducted by the Chinese Communist Party.
The “self-confident” Chinese Communist authorities launched this campaign with the clear intention of suppressing Chinese human rights defenders, especially human rights lawyers.Chinese activist A
“The “709” arrests are a reality of state terrorism, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, denial of the right to [legal] defence. The list of secret trials is endless. All concepts of justice and human rights have been trampled on and insulted, and the Chinese authorities have demonstrated in the most barbaric and brutal way that they have no respect for human dignity and life. Over the past five years, the human rights situation in China has continued to deteriorate, and the adverse consequences of the “709” arrests continue to unfold. Many human rights defenders have been unable to hire a proper defence lawyer. In light of this year’s global pandemic, COVID-19, the deteriorating human rights situation in China is threatening the security of the whole world. Therefore, we call on the world to continue to give attention and support to human rights defenders in China.”Chinese activist B
“One of the most beautiful sights of the campaign was the beautiful faces of the wives of the arrested lawyers.
These wives, always were convinced of the innocence of their husbands, who in their hearts are the most righteous and brave good men, no matter how much pressure the authorities put on them, no matter what charges are put on them, it will not change their wives’ beliefs. With this conviction, they fight for their loved ones again and again, appealing again and again: appointing a lawyer for their loved ones, requesting the case unit to inform them of the whereabouts of their loved ones, accusing the case unit of illegal acts, holding a request to meet and visit them in accordance with the law.”Chinese activist A
Another of those detained in the crackdown was Li Heping, one of China’s most experienced and high profile human rights lawyers who has worked on numerous sensitive religious freedom cases involving Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, and victims of torture. Li was released in 2017 after nearly two years’ imprisonment. During Li’s detention, his daughter, just six years-old at the time, appeared in a powerful video calling for her father’s release:
“China’s human rights road is still full of thorns, and the number of human rights defenders is far from enough. Every wave of government repression creates new groups of human rights defenders, and yet the authorities continue to launch more and more campaigns targeting more and more people and parts of everyday life.
The road to human rights is a long one. Although it is difficult and quiet, it is a path that leads to light. May more and more Chinese people wake up and join the community of human rights defenders, so that the spirit of freedom, democracy and the rule of law can soak into the land of China. We need to work together.”Chinese activist A
With the situation of human rights in China continuing to deteriorate under Xi Jinping, the work of brave HRDs such as these remains essential. As these individuals boldly stand up to the Chinese government over some of the most egregious violations in the world today, from the horrific violations against the Falun Gong community, to the relentless raiding and closure of churches and places of worship, it is essential that the international community does everything in its power to support them.
Editors note: Activists’ names withheld for security reasons.
Featured image: Wang Quanzhang and family. Credit: Reuters