Legal Assistant Zhao Wei Still Missing [Updated]

A year after her in the “Black Friday” crackdown on and activists, 24-year-old paralegal Zhao Wei was reportedly released on bail last Thursday for her “candid confession” and “good attitude.” However, four days later, the young legal assistant has yet to be seen publicly, her lawyer has been arrested, and her followers have questioned the authorship of posts on her social media. Reuters’ James Pomfret reports:

Since her release, the only people who are believed to have seen Zhao are her mother and father, because Zhao posted a message about celebrating her mother’s birthday with them.

Neither Zhao nor her parents were reachable.

[…] In one post on her Weibo page, she thanked police for treating her well. In another, she accused her former employer, , of having “concealed information from her” and that she was “so naive” to trust and work for him.

[…] Those who knew Zhao have expressed surprise at her attacks given her strong advocacy of rights causes. She also accused her lawyer, Ren Quanniu, of spreading rumors of purported sexual abuse she suffered while in detention.

[…] Police arrested her lawyer, Ren, in Zhengzhou on Friday, in Henan province, and charged him with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. [Source]

At the time of her detention last July, Zhao was working for Li, a prominent rights lawyer who was also detained during the crackdown and remains in custody.

The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin previously reported details on the suspect posts from Zhao’s Weibo account and state media’s emphatic coverage of them, and relayed doubt about Zhao’s release from her lawyer Ren Quanniu. (The article was published prior to Ren’s arrest for spreading rumors about Zhao’s mistreatment, but mentions it in an update.):

First was a short post, published in the early afternoon, that expressed pleasure at being outdoors and thanked the police, “who helped me immeasurably as if they were relatives.” Several hours later, a longer open letter appeared on her account. It described how she came to work for Mr. Li [Heping] out of a desire to improve society and her later discovery that he was being supported by an unnamed foreign nonprofit group. The group said its aim was to do anti-torture research, she wrote:

In reality it was sponsoring projects as a way to collect information on sensitive domestic incidents that it could hype up to attack China’s legal and social systems, agitate for change and bring about China’s peaceful transition. The so-called “seminars” they organized were only intended to provide a platform for ‘human rights lawyers’ and sensitive people, turning such people into allies and pawns in their efforts to penetrate China and realize peaceful evolution.

[…] China’s have ramped up reports that portray foreign nonprofits as a threat to social and political stability, backing an effort under President Xi Jinping to severely restrict the ability of such groups to work in the country. On Thursday night, the nationalist tabloid Global Times jumped on the news about Ms. Zhao, running a story about her under the headline: “Post-90s Beauty ‘Koala’ Exposes the Dark Secrets of ‘Human Rights Lawyers’: I Was So Simple!”

Ms. Zhao couldn’t be contacted. Her lawyer, Ren Quanniu, said neither he nor Ms. Zhao’s husband had been able to contact her since police announced her release. Mr. Ren said Ms. Zhao is likely still under police control and that the point of her release was to smear Mr. Li and the other lawyers. [Source]

The Guardian’s Tom Phillips quotes Zhao’s husband You Minglei on his doubts that she wrote the Weibo posts of her own accord, and his suspicion that she is not truly free:

“I believe she is not in the detention centre and it is true that she is on bail but she is not free,” You said, adding that he had been unable to contact his wife and did not know where she was.

You said he suspected police had announced Zhao’s “release” so as to distract from the one-year anniversary of China’s offensive against civil rights lawyers on Saturday. Activists say more than 20 of the crackdown’s targets are still incarcerated, many of them facing charges of political subversion.

You also questioned whether Zhao had written an online apology in which she blamed “naivety” for her decision to become involved with lawyers who she claimed she had discovered were attempting to destabilise the Communist party.

“To be clear: the government is controlling her. I don’t think [those posts] were written of her own freewill,” You said. [Source]

Phillips goes on to note that supporters of Li Heping fear that Zhao’s “confession” and Weibo posts may hint that authorities are planning to give him a heavy sentence. Both Zhao and Li were charged in January with “subversion of state power,” an exceptionally serious crime that could result in life in prison. Even if truly released on bail, Zhao could still face the subversion charges at trial.

[Updated at 23:29 PDT on Jul 11, 2016: Zhao has claimed authorship of the posts in a phone interview with South China Morning Post, insisting that she “truly wanted to repent,” and saying that she is now staying with her parents in Henan. The newspaper noted, however, that it “could not verify Zhao’s location or whether she was under surveillance during the interview. Zhao declined requests for a face-to-face interview.” Her husband remains suspicious, and is planning to travel to Henan to meet her.]

As family members of the 20 or more who remain in detention continue to rally for their release, international lawyer groups have written open letters to Xi Jinping calling for him to respect the rule of law by ordering their freedom. The South China Morning Post reports:

“We call on you as the president of the People’s Republic of China to dedicate your personal attention to ensure that the country honours its commitments to the constitution, national law [and] the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers,” said the letter, which was signed by more than a dozen overseas bar associations and lawyers’ groups.

It also asked authorities to stop interfering with the families of the detainees as they sought legal assistance and to ensure adequate medical treatment for their loved ones and visitation rights.

[…] Separately, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute issued an open letter calling for “the immediate and unconditional release” of all lawyers detained since last July.

“Such attacks violate the fundamental rights of both lawyers and their clients, risk causing irreparable damage to the independence of the Chinese legal profession and undermine the ,” it said in a statement. [Source]

In an editorial on Monday, meanwhile, the state-run Global Times lashed out at Western countries for criticizing the crackdown on rights lawyers, drawing attention to ongoing racial violence in the United States. The newspaper’s penchant for pointing to social injustice in foreign countries was featured in a jocular “How to Write a Global Times Editorial” flowchart that was recently shared widely on social media. The Hong Kong Free Press’ Catherine Lai reports, including mention of recent protests from foreign governments over the continued detentions:

“US police repeatedly kill black people in the streets, and black people killed five police officers in the Dallas protests, in addition to wounding several police officers – there are obviously problems with human rights and justice in the US. And the US still has the mood and energy to disrupt law and order in China – the west is so self-satisfied, it makes one marvel,” said the editorial.

“The Department of State remains deeply concerned about the continued detention in China of at least 23 defence lawyers and rights defenders and denial of access to independent legal counsel,” said the US Department of State in a press release on Saturday, the anniversary of the crackdown.

The German embassy in China also issued a statement on the crackdown, saying “the situation of the persons affected by the crackdown remains an issue of grave concern.”

[…] The Global Times editorial questions why western discourse is so concerned with the arrest of only 23 people out of the tens of thousands of lawyers in China and says the west is picking and choosing which cases to focus on based on its own political agenda. The Fengrui law firm, one of the focuses of the crackdown, falls within the circle of “democratic forces” supported by the west, it said. [Source]