TAIPEI – A disbarred Chinese human rights lawyer has been forced to move 13 times in two months as part of a pattern of harassment against him and three other prominent rights advocates in Beijing that is further squeezing the country's battered civil rights community.
Wang Quanzhang said he is now living in a borrowed apartment in the suburbs where the power is frequently cut off, while another lawyer left Beijing entirely in hopes of ending the harassment. His colleague Bao Longjun said he is still in the apartment he owns, but has been barred from leaving it multiple times by unidentified groups of men who loiter outside his door. Bao said a fourth lawyer was detained along with his wife.
All four are prominent members of a group known as the 709 lawyers, after the date — July 9, 2015 — when a crackdown on independent legal advocacy began in which hundreds were arrested. Such advocates are a rare source of help for people facing political charges, or trying to access benefits denied by often unaccountable bureaucracies.
Their work has ranged from defending members of Falun Gong, a religious movement opposed to China’s government that Beijing bans as an “evil cult,” to helping people lobby for increases to their pensions.
All four men were disbarred after their 2015 arrests, but after being released from prison they continued to do similar work that doesn’t require a law license.
Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the lawyers' ordeals coincided with a series of high-profile visits by foreign dignitaries. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beijing in early April, followed by Germany’s foreign minister, and most recently U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The meetings, she wrote, were intended to “signal China is open for business and engagement again. But the petty and inhumane treatment of human rights lawyers and their families show that, the authorities only want to double down on repressing the Chinese civil society.”
Beijing’s police department did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
In mid-April, disbarred rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his wife were detained by Beijing police while on their way to the European Union Delegation, said Bao Longjun, another one of the four advocates.
Around the same time, two other rights lawyers were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison on charges of “subverting state power.”
Wang, the lawyer who was chased out of his home, and Bao faced more bewildering situations.
Groups of men began hanging out in front of Bao’s and Wang's doors, and told them they were not allowed to go outside.
The men did not say who say who they were or why they were there. The lawyers believe they are informal contractors for the police, a practice widely used by local Chinese governments to apply extralegal pressure to people they view as troublesome.
More pressure came via Wang’s landlord. Around the time that the men appeared, the landlord told Wang that his lease was no longer valid and his family had to move. Initially, they refused, but after a few days the apartment's electricity, water and gas were cut off.
Fellow disbarred rights lawyer Li Heping and his family left Beijing after similar pressure, according to Wang and Sophie Luo, an activist based in the U.S. Li declined an interview.
Bao was not forced out of his home, which he owns. He says groups of men in plain clothes come and go intermittently, sometimes confining him to his house.
Bao said the harassment is intended to pressure advocates to leave Beijing. He said that authorities likely hope the advocates will return to their hometowns, where they will be another local government's problem.
Wang and his wife, Li Wenzu, are still in Beijing, after a month and a half during which the couple has moved from apartment to hotel to apartment 13 times.
They’ve been followed to each location by groups of men in plain clothes who loiter nearby, unnerving landlords and neighbors.
At times, Wang said, hotels have asked him to leave the same day he’s checked in. The longest they’ve managed to stay in one place was a hotel that allowed them to stay for nine days. The couple eventually sent their 10-year-old son to live with relatives.
For the last week, the couple has been living an apartment in suburban Beijing owned by a friend, where the electricity is frequently cut off.
The first time, Wang said, he was able to restore it by flipping a switch in a fuse box outside the apartment; on later occasions, he found a bicycle lock on the fuse box, or more complex damage that required an electrician to repair.
AP journalists saw seven men hanging around the courtyard of the apartment building on Tuesday.
To cope with blackouts, the couple has installed a solar panel to charge their phones, and stockpiled drinking water, rice and instant noodles.
Wang was measured in describing his ordeal, though clearly frustrated.
“Of course, I hope I can live a peaceful life,” he said. For now, “I’m just living one day at a time.”
Associated Press reporter Dake Kang and photojournalist Han Guan Ng contributed to this report from Beijing.