Jerome A. Cohen is a law professor at New York University, faculty director of its U.S.-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
For four days starting May 30, almost 3,000 sociologists of law are meeting in Washington for the annual global convention of the Law and Society Association. Fourteen discussion panels will focus on China’s extraordinary modern development but also on the Communist Party’s many massive violations of both international human rights and the country’s own constitutional protections.
Yet, during these scholarly deliberations, a tragic and mysterious drama continues in China that should attract not only world academic attention but also that of international organizations, government officials, think tanks, NGOs, journalists and other observers concerned about the increasingly Orwellian repression of the Xi Jinping dictatorship.
Li Wenzu, the wife of the courageous Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, spent most of the past week shouting in public protest outside the Shandong Province prison where Wang is now held after 3½ years of incommunicado pretrial torture, followed by a farcical conviction last winter for “subversion of state power.” Because of his vigorous defense of Falun Gong followers and political dissidents, and his use of social media to spread “Western constitutionalism and other erroneous ideas,” Wang, 43, who had often been brutally beaten in and out of court while defending his clients, was sentenced to 4½ years in prison, plus deprivation of all political rights for a further five years.
For the roughly 1,400 days since Wang was detained in mid-2015 near the start of the infamous nationwide “709 crackdown” designed to crush lawyers and other human rights activists, Wang’s wife and family have never been allowed to see or speak with him. Chinese officials have gone to absurd lengths to deny them a single opportunity, even following Wang’s long-delayed criminal trial six months ago.
Yet credible reports that “709” suspects have been subjected to severe torture have increased family anxiety, and a government-assigned lawyer, who first interviewed Wang a full three years after he was seized, reported that, although not physically tortured, he seemed nervous and unstable and that, like many detained rights lawyers, he had been forcibly subjected to take “high blood pressure medication” that has often reduced their resistance and mental capacity. Since Wang — unlike many political detainees — refused to admit his “guilt,” the family could not see him on television.
No independent observer could even see Wang in court. His wife was not permitted to leave home to attend the trial, and his supporters, as well as foreign diplomats and journalists, were blocked because the case, which was declared closed to the public, allegedly involved “state secrets.”
Since Wang was not allowed to be represented by a lawyer of his own choosing and understandably rejected the government’s choice, his family could not receive a trusted report about his condition from anyone at the trial. Furthermore, the court’s opinion has never been released and cannot be found on the online database established by the Supreme People’s Court to enhance transparency. We don’t even know whether the trial court considered Wang’s psychological fitness to defend himself.
After the trial, the authorities informed Li that she could not see her husband because “the reception room is under renovation.” While frustrating her many efforts to visit, they provided, in an apparent attempt to appease her, two letters, ostensibly from him, reflecting on the mistakes he had committed because of his “ignorance of history and politics.”
Infuriated by this charade and in a vain hope that a personal appearance might prevail, Li traveled the long distance from Beijing to meet prison officials. At the last of four consecutive meetings in the same building where Wang is being held, she was shown a video of her gaunt-looking husband. “His expressions were slack and his response was lethargic,” she said on Facebook. “His gaze shifts around when he speaks, and when he finishes a sentence it takes ages for him to stammer out the next.” After viewing the video, a distraught Li took to shouting for justice outside the prison for several days before returning to Beijing on May 24.
In July 2015, while hiding from police as a leading target of their persecution, Wang Quanzhang penned a letter to his parents, apologizing for the harm his idealistic actions had brought them and urging them to patiently “wait for the day when the clouds will disperse.”
Almost four years later, the Wangs, China and the rest of us are still waiting. Meanwhile, scholars and activists who care about international law and human rights should intensify their research and publication about the realities of what China’s propagandists call “the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics.”