Rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was released from prison in Shandong on Sunday, but is still being kept under closely guarded isolation. Authorities have presented this as a standard measure against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but Wang’s family and supporters fear that it is a form of “non-release ‘release,’” a tactic used to contain politically disharmonious figures after the end of their formal sentences. The use of disease containment as a pretext for political control was previously suspected in cases like the detention of citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, and was included in a list of recommendations to the government from a private consultancy translated by CDT in early February. Wang was one of hundreds of lawyers and others detained during the 2015 “Black Friday” or “709” crackdown, but while most were soon released and a few key figures were tried and sentenced, Wang was held incommunicado for nearly three and a half years before a closed trial for subversion on December 26, 2018. His sentencing a month later was subject to a reporting ban. After his detention, Wang’s wife Li Wenzu, alongside other detainees’ relatives, emerged as a fierce advocate on his behalf and that of other 709 prisoners.
The Guardian’s Verna Yu reported on Wang’s situation:
His wife, Li Wenzu, fears that the authorities are using the pandemic as an excuse to hold him under de facto house arrest indefinitely. She said Wang has been released from prison but authorities had sent him to his home town, Jinan, in the north-eastern province of Shandong (400km south of Beijing) for quarantine.
Chinese authorities have been using compulsory quarantine as a pretext to detain or restrict the movements of government critics.
“The government is continuing to restrict his personal freedoms and forcing us to be separated,” Li told the Guardian. “This behaviour is shameless, I’m absolutely opposed to this and am very angry.
“I fear the government is using the pandemic as an excuse to detain him. Would it be just 14 days as they say? I can’t trust them. So long as my husband has no freedom, I’ll continue to fight until he comes back.” [Source]
In a message posted to Twitter on Monday, Li gave further details suggesting that the restrictions on Wang are not merely a matter of disease control:
Quanzhang’s phone has been confiscated!
Starting from 7 p.m. today, I wasn’t able to contact Quanzhang by phone, however many times I tried. At 9:16 p.m., Quanzhang finally called me, and anxiously said: “My situation here’s changed. The community head who helped me buy a phone yesterday is going to take it away, because the SIM was registered to her ID card. Some leader found her today, and said that letting me use the phone was for contact with family members only, not for all the other miscellaneous calls that came in. Now she’s revoked permission, and is taking the phone away. I kept telling her that my family would be worried if I suddenly lost contact. In the end, they let me make one call to you. From now on the rule is only one call per day to family.”
After he’d hurriedly finished speaking, Quanzhang hung up. When I called back again, the phone had been turned off.
Having heard what he’d said, I was furious!
In the name of “isolation,” they’re not letting Quanzhang go out. He has no way to go out and sort out an ID card or buy a phone card. Younger brother was dragged off to the police station while trying to deliver food and a phone, couriers are not allowed to deliver to his door. This is even more lonely than being in prison, now he doesn’t even have anyone to talk to! [Chinese]
South China Morning Post’s Kinling Lo and Mimi Lau further reported on Wang’s new captivity, and on signs of the toll taken by Wang’s treatment in prison.
In a phone interview, Li said Wang appeared to suffer from hearing and short-term memory losses.
“I was trying to get him to install WeChat but it requires a short verification and he couldn’t recall the code every time it was sent to him via text messages,” Li said.
[…] While she successfully had food and a bouquet of flowers delivered to Wang on Sunday afternoon, she said an unnamed cousin of Wang was taken away for questioning by police after being turned away from Wang’s flat.
Wang Qiaoling [wife of fellow rights lawyer Li Heping] said on Twitter that the bouquet of flowers she also ordered did not get to Wang, and the delivery man was taken into police custody.
Amnesty International China researcher Doriane Lau said the fact that authorities even turned away the delivery indicated Wang would likely face continued surveillance even though he had served his jail term.
“We are seeing more signs that the authorities are using the 14-day quarantine period for the coronavirus as a pretext to keep Wang under surveillance,” Lau said, adding that the group would carefully monitor Wang’s situation after two weeks. [Source]
NYU law professor Jerome Cohen anticipated this turn in Wang’s case in a blog post on Saturday:
I’ve used “Non-Release Release” (NRR) to describe the phenomenon of individual rights activists and lawyers in China often being released from prison into other, nominally “free” forms of what amounts to detention, such as de facto house arrest or enforced return and restriction to their native village. But NRR can also be used for large numbers of ordinary people, such as Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Many Uyghurs and other minorities there have reportedly been released from “re-education center” prisons, only to be forced to work in factories in various places.
[…] In the past decade NRR has been customized to suit the Party’s needs for effectively suppressing human rights lawyers on a more individualized basis than a formal system might allow, and also for a longer time than formal criminal or administrative sanctions might seem suitable. To the public, NRR looks better than sentencing a lawyer to life in prison, but it can nevertheless amount to a more discreet form of stifling someone forever. For example, whatever became of the great, courageous lawyer Gao Zhisheng? While repeatedly subjected to the formal criminal punishment system, his resistance generated periodic bad publicity for the Party and government. Since his last “release”, however, which forced him back to his native village, he has disappeared. Do people still remember him? Many wrongly assume he has happily been “reformed”.
Think blind “barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng, who, after four years in prison, was “released” to his rural farmhouse with a couple of hundred thugs guarding him around the clock until his miraculous 2012 escape to the American embassy.
Others had also warned of a “non-release ‘release,'” including Li herself and the 12 rights groups behind a joint statement calling for real freedom for Wang last week:
To ensure that his treatment after release is in line with Chinese law and international human rights standards, we – the undersigned – strongly urge the Chinese government to:
- Respect the wishes and basic rights of Wang Quanzhang and his family, and permit Wang to immediately return to Beijing to reunite with his wife and son;
- Respect and ensure the protection of Wang Quanzhang and his family’s personal freedoms, in particular their freedom of movement;
- Ensure Wang Quanzhang or his family will not be put under house arrest or constant surveillance;
- Protect Wang Quanzhang and his family against any future harassment or persecution;
- Guarantee the equal right to education of Wang Quanzhang’s son.
[…] According to Chinese law, as highlighted by Lawyer Jiang Tianyong, an individual released from prison should be sent to their normal residential address as a priority, with “normal residential address” being the location where one has resided for at least one year. Wang lived and worked in Beijing before his arrest, therefore he has the right and should be allowed to return to Beijing.[Source]
Li Wenzu also described her anxiety about the future in an interview with Deutsche Welle’s William Yang, who posted the full, translated text at Medium last week.
I used to be a housewife that merely cared about my own family, and I never really cared about what happened in the outside world until Quanzhang was arrested. Now, I have turned into someone who has a broader view of the world and also knows more truth about what the Chinese government is trying to tell its citizens.
Another important change is that I have learned more about Quanzhang, especially what he does. In the past, I didn’t really know what his job entailed, but after spending the last few years around human rights lawyers and their family members, I learned more about the community as well as what Quanzhang’s life was like.
[…] Quanzhang is a man that deserves so much respect for what he does. I’m very proud of having a husband like Quanzhang, and I think once he is released from jail, I will be able to face many difficulties and challenges with him.
[…] I think the Chinese government sees us as their enemies, so they won’t let us have an easy life. Many human rights lawyers and their families still face persecution even after they have been released from jail, so I’m sure the same will happen to us. If the government continues to oppress us, I will definitely keep protesting. [Source]
— 李文足（王全璋妻子） (@709liwenzu) April 6, 2020
All this time,
I’ve been counting the days on my fingers
The days till Quanzhang’s release
The days of his isolation
The days till our reunion
[Image: “The second day of Quanzhang’s isolation”]