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‘If We Give up on Our Husbands Today, Tomorrow Our Children Will Be Ashamed of Us’

How the Spouses of Lawyers Arrested in the 709 Crackdown Became Activists

In June, Li Wenzu, the wife of jailed Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, was able to make her first visit to her husband since his imprisonment in 2015 as part of what was called the “709 crackdown.” Afterward, Li wrote a public statement about the visit, describing her husband’s precarious mental and physical health and the heartbreak of seeing him so diminished. “It has been four years, he looks like a programmed dull stick, he didn’t even turn around and look at us again.”

The following story, written by longtime legal affairs journalist Jiang Xue, describes the quest of Li and other family members of imprisoned Chinese lawyers to advocate on behalf of their husbands. Jiang reported it over half a year, extensively interviewing Li and other family members of detained lawyers, including Li’s close friend Wang Qiaoling. The story first appeared in Chinese in the Hong Kong-based publication Initium in December 2018. It has been adapted for ChinaFile and was translated by Eleanor Goodman.

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This is a story about fear and the attempt to conquer fear. The wives of some of the lawyers who disappeared in China’s “709” crackdown have suffered house arrest, threats, and suppression. In their search to find their husbands, they hope no longer to be mere “political dissidents,” and instead to mature into self-aware women and citizens.

In 2018, China’s national holiday occurred during the week of October 1 to 7. Li Wenzu had just finished watching a season of the very popular television historical drama Story of Yanxi Palace. Her husband had been arrested three years before, and this was the first time she had sat down and watched the drama like an ordinary housewife might. “My son and I just enjoyed ourselves, which is what Quanzhang would have wanted,” she told me.

Her husband, Wang Quanzhang, a human rights lawyer born in 1976 in Shandong, was arrested by Chinese authorities on July 10, 2015. He had been imprisoned for three years and three months without his case going to trial. (Only on December 26, 2018 was his case finally heard in a Tianjin court.) In January, he was convicted of subversion of state power and sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

Before July 12, 2018, Li often worried that her husband was no longer alive. After his arrest in July 2015, she had heard no news at all of him, aside from government-appointed lawyer Chen Youxi’s claim to have seen him.

Late at night on July 12, 2018, Li suddenly learned that the lawyer Liu Weiguo had seen her husband in Tianjin’s Number One Detention Center. It was the first confirmed sighting since his arrest three years before. Although Liu was not the lawyer she had hired to defend her husband, and he offered no further details of their encounter, for the first time she had faith that her husband was indeed still alive.

From July 2015 to the present, of the lawyers that Li hired, two of them—Li Zhongwei and Xi Xiangdong—were forced to remove themselves from the case; the two lawyers who then took over, Yu Wensheng and Wang Qiushi, were both subsequently thrown in jail. Yu Wensheng first had his license revoked, and was then arrested by police when he tried to set up office again. In May 2018, Cheng Hai, another lawyer Li hired, suffered a violent attack and had his clothing ripped by police at a detention center, and subsequently lost his certification to practice law. Two additional lawyers, Xie Yang and Lin Qilei, have both encountered different degrees of obstruction.

Wang Quanzhang is the only lawyer involved in the 709 crackdown—a nationwide crackdown in 2015 on civil rights lawyers in China—to have not been released. (Yu Wensheng, a lawyers arrested for helping those involved in the 709 crackdown, is also still imprisoned.) After being apart from her husband for 1,000 days, not knowing “whether or not he was still alive,” Li, 34, was fighting every day and the anguish had steeled her.

She fought not only for her husband, but also, particularly in the early days, for the freedom of others as well. On June 4, 2018, she appeared on the big screen at the 29th anniversary commemoration of the Tiananmen Square Massacre held in Victoria Park in Hong Kong, telling the story of the 709 crackdown lawyers, and attracting more interest in Wang Quanzhang, as well as other human rights activists in China who have lost their freedom.

“I never thought she’d be so brave,” said feminist scholar and activist Lü Pin. When she saw Li appear on the screen in Victoria Park, she thought, she’s really going for broke!

Li comes from a small town in Hubei, and was once quiet and shy, without much interest in public affairs. Today, she is a symbol of the struggle for human rights in China. The woman who now appears in the public eye is bright, beautiful, and confident. She does everything she can think of to appeal to officials to release her husband, and to call the attention of the world to China’s human rights issues. She and another wife of a lawyer detained in the 709 crackdown, Wang Qiaoling, work tirelessly to keep the plight of the 709 lawyers in the public eye.

As one mainland social observer noted: “The persistence of Li Wenzu, Wang Qiaoling, and others like them, and their inventive methods of resistance, have been rarely seen among activists since 1949.”

In her ordinary life, Li Wenzu is just a normal woman who loves to dress up and wear pretty dresses. She can’t help but tear up at the thought of her husband. She is also raising a five-year-old son on her own as she frantically tries to learn of her husband’s situation.

“After three years, how have you managed to defeat your fear?” I asked her.

She was taken aback. “I haven’t defeated my fear at all. It’s still there.” Tears suddenly sprang to her eyes, shining out from her pale face.

A “March to Find Our Husbands” Is Stopped by Police

On April 4, 2018, Wang Quanzhang had been in custody for 1,000 days, and it was also the 1,000th day of Li Wenzu’s search for him. She had resolved that on that day, she would walk from Beijing to Tianjin to find her husband.

She came up with the idea of a “1,000 li march to find our husbands” while talking with friends. Calculating on her phone, she found that the distance was more than 100 kilometers, and so a march would be meaningful. Her excitement built as she decided to make it happen.

Taking a stand against her husband’s treatment and waiting for him to come home was painful and difficult. What had been the worst day? Every day was difficult, she told me. The times her son cried for his father; the times she carried heavy bags home and discovered that her locks had been broken by secret police; the times she took her son to the supermarket and realized they were being followed by seven or eight burly men. . . But no matter how difficult things were, she had to push through. It was a daily struggle.

The idea of a march was a creative one, and could bring more attention to Wang Quanzhang’s plight. That was Li’s only thought. In fact, even as the 709 crackdown became a topic of international discussion and the Chinese lawyers’ situation attracted the attention of the global community, because Chinese news outlets were prohibited from reporting about the crackdown and websites were prevented from disseminating information, very few people within China knew about the suffering of the 709 lawyers.

For three years, Li Wenzu and Wang Qiaoling were not only intermittently followed by secret police, placed under house arrest, and threatened, they also had to deal with the cover-up. Given the fickleness of public interest, they had to be creative and try to maintain public interest in the 709 incident, so that the treatment of human rights lawyers would not be lost amid other news topics.

A “march to find our husbands” would attract attention.

Li Wenzu immediately began preparations. Two other wives of 709 lawyers, Wang Qiaoling and Liu Ermin, wanted to join the march to Tianjin. Wang Qiaoling had long been there to provide emotional support for Li. She was also an essential member of the 709 lawyers’ wives group. Her husband, Li Heping, had already returned home after receiving a suspended sentence in May 2017. But Wang Qiaoling did not abandon her activism. She continued to accuse authorities of torturing her husband, writing complaint letters to judicial authorities almost weekly. Meanwhile, she also accompanied Li almost constantly and supporting her in her search for her husband. Her goal was to get the 709 lawyers still in custody home to their families.

The three women set out. Their luggage included two plastic basins so they could soak their feet after the long days of walking. Wang Qiaoling was an experienced traveler, and she had brought a pair of sturdy, water-resistant sneakers so as not to get blisters. A photographer accompanied the women on a motorbike and helped to carry some of their luggage.

Li left her five-year-old son in the care of his nanny. She estimated that the march would take 10 days. She had never left her son for any extended period of time before.

On April 4, a haze of pollution enveloped Beijing, and the weather was chilly. Early that morning, Li and her group first went to the People’s Republic of China Supreme People’s Court in Hongsicun to submit a formal complaint. As before, the court refused to accept it. This was their 28th attempt to submit a complaint, and the result was just as they had expected. They left the court, and set out for Tianjin.

The air was difficult to breathe, and April in Beijing is still quite cold. They put on their facemasks, and it soon began to snow. They walked past a stand of yellow forsythia and took cellphone photos, sending them to their friends as they walked on.

An enthusiastic supporter shot video of them, three cheerful women covered in snow.

They walked along the highway, and after a while two friends joined them. They walked and rested, chatting along the way. The first day went quickly, and soon they had walked 18 kilometers. But Beijing is enormous, and their hotel that night was only as far as the city’s sixth ring road.

On the second day, blisters formed on Li’s feet. On the third day, she fell ill, but insisted on continuing. That day, they finally made it out of Beijing and entered Hebei.

Photo courtesy of Li Wenzu

On the second day of the ‘March to Find Our Husbands,’ Li Wenzu walks through a demolished village in Hebei province, April 5, 2018.

The first village they came across, in Langfang, Hebei, had just been demolished. Everything had been razed. They passed by the desolate scene late in the afternoon. Li turned back to look with a sad smile, which the photographer captured. She asked Li to stop and stand in the middle of the wasteland, so she could take a more formal photograph.

In the photo, her eyes seem to brim with tears, and her bright red jacket is embroidered with the following words: “Held for 1,000 days.” Behind her is a scene of destruction that can be seen across the country. The rubble is a perfect metaphor for the state of the rule of law in China.

After marching for six days, they had traversed Langfang and reached the outskirts of Tianjin, more than 70 kilometers from where they had begun. They stayed in a small village for the night. The next morning, as they were paying their bill in the hotel lobby per usual, a group of people burst in and surrounded them.

Li’s first reaction was to pull out her cell phone and start filming. After a few seconds, however, someone snatched her phone away. “Everything was so chaotic, and suddenly I was being dragged away,” she said. “Then, everyone disappeared and I was standing there, feeling like it was all so bizarre.” In Wang Qiaoling’s memory, she says, two men grabbed her arms and took her outside. She recognized two of the people there, one a secret policeman from Beijing’s Shijingshan District, and the other a judge involved in the 709 case.

Li was taken to a nearby police station. She did not see any of her fellow marchers. She was locked in a room and interrogated by police. She protested loudly, but to no avail. “Some people in there stared at me, and it bothered me so much that I hid my face in the collar of my jacket.” She closed her eyes and tried to rest.

They finally let her go after three hours. She left the station and made some phone calls. She found out that Wang Qiaoling and Liu Ermin had been transported from the police station to Beijing’s sixth ring road, where they were left by the roadside.

The women refused to give up, and decided to return to where they had been taken, setting out again the next morning.

That morning, the same thing happened again. This time, policemen rushed the lobby, seemingly less tense than the first time. Two young policemen even seemed smiley, grabbing Wang Qiaoling by the arm and urging her, “Sister, go back home, ok? Quit making trouble.”

In a documentary by the Japanese broadcaster NHK, there is a scene captured on April 10, 2018, in which Domestic Security Protection officers enter the hotel, and a man and a woman hustle Li off and push her into a car.

This time, they were all taken back to their homes. That night, Li discovered that she had been put under house arrest and was not able to leave her building block.

First, her nanny took her son out to buy some fruit and was accosted by a few female members of the neighborhood committee. She came home crying. “They called us national traitors,” Li says the nanny told her.

Li went out to discuss the situation. When she reached the gates of her building complex, she encountered the same obstruction. Around 30 women surrounded her and prevented her from leaving, yelling: “Traitor!” “How am I a traitor?” Li retorted. She argued with the women and tried to force her way out, but could not. Some of the women followed her, pinching her. An older woman deliberately knocked into her, and the women around them pointed and scolded her: How could you knock into an elderly woman? Didn’t anyone teach you right from wrong?

“I was really, really hurt.” Li told me. “So I just went home. No matter how badly the police treated me, I never felt hurt. But I was hurt because those women are just like me, just ordinary people. But they treated me that way when the police put them up to it.”

This wasn’t the first time she had been called a “traitor.” In March 2017, during the meetings of the National People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Congress, she had been put under house arrest. When she tried to leave her building block, she was stopped and called a “traitor.” She still remembers an older woman scolding her: “We eat thanks to the Communist Party. You eat the same thing, but you’re secretly on the other side. They should execute you!”

It was not the first time she’d been called “unpatriotic.” The official Chinese news source Global Times described Li as a “national traitor.” She had tried to lodge a complaint against the newspaper, but the court had refused to file it.

Since she was limited to her small building block, Li could only call the police to report the women, but the police never responded.

She returned to her building. She stood in the entrance sobbing. She hadn’t cried like that for a very long time.

The Balcony Speech

April 11, a corner of Shijingshan’s Bajiao neighborhood.

Li Wenzu climbed onto the security gate of a fifth floor balcony, and began to speak to the people below. Her most enthusiastic listener was Wang Qiaoling.

A few minutes before that, Wang Qiaoling’s glasses had been knocked to the ground by a stranger. Extremely nearsighted, she only found her glasses again with the help of friends.

It was the second day after their march had been forcibly ended. The night before, Wang Qiaoling had received a call from Li. Li was feeling low after being put under house arrest. Wang Qiaoling was worried about her, and she decided to gather a few friends and go visit Li the following day. She never thought that as she entered the small building block, she would be stopped by several dozen people. The crowd grew and grew until there were over a hundred people surrounding them.

“You can’t come in! You’re all traitors!” Wang Qiaoling did not get angry. She’d seen many such scenes. She merely asked, “How am I a traitor?” They couldn’t come up with an answer, finally saying, “You know full well!”

When Wang Qiaoling reached for her cellphone to film the women keeping her from Li’s door, a man rushed in, pointed at her and told her to put down her phone. He was much taller than Wang Qiaoling, and very threatening. She put her phone down, then raised it again. Suddenly, someone slapped her, and the video she was taking broke off as her glasses were knocked to the ground.

Wang Qiaoling decided to call the police. She couldn’t reach Li’s house; there was a crowd around her, among them a group of middle-aged women pressing in close, yelling “traitor” and hurling insults at her and her companions. They belonged to the well-known “Chaoyang Masses” (ordinary citizens who assist the government by informing on “illegal” activity). Wang also saw Lu Kai, a Beijing-dialect-speaking secret policeman who had long managed her and Li’s case. He did not try to conceal his presence.

One of Wang Qiaoling’s companions was pushed to the ground by someone in the crowd, and things grew even more chaotic. Wang Qiaoling managed to call the police, but when they arrived, they did nothing to deal with the situation. At the same time, a Japanese reporter who was on the scene was pulled out of his car by the Chaoyang Masses and beaten.

As that was happening, Wang Qiaoling looked up and saw Li standing on her balcony. She silently urged her: Wenzu, tell everybody about the 709 crackdown! And Li’s voice began to ring out above them.

“This old girl’s husband is a lawyer, and he helps ordinary people bring lawsuits. He’s been in custody for more than three years. Why shouldn’t I go look for him? You people are nothing more than government stooges!” Li’s voice had lost its usual gentleness. It was clear and resounding.

Wang Qiaoling said at that moment she began to feel excited. It wasn’t only because she felt that she and Li had some kind of intuitive connection, but also because she was proud of Li: Wenzu, you’ve made a breakthrough! It’s amazing! Since July 2015, when their husbands were arrested, they’d been like mindless flies buzzing around. But once they’d started trying to find their husbands, she’d seen Li slowly grow stronger. She was no longer helpless and tearful, but increasingly brave and confident.

Li was still a shy, gentle person inside. But she had been brave enough to come out onto the balcony and use the words “this old girl” in front of everybody, an expression considered to be “uncouth” and “ill-mannered,” reprimanding the secret police and those sent to keep her under house arrest. Wang Qiaoling had never thought she could do anything like it.

“Great job, Wenzu! I’ll stick by you for as long as you stick to it!” Wang Qiaoling shouted up to Li. The people surrounding her seemed stunned and everything fell silent. Several video cameras captured the scene.

“I realized that day that her fight had gotten to a whole other level,” Wang Qiaoling told me. “In the past, we defended human rights together, but she always stood to one side, as just a helper. But that day, she had a breakthrough.” As Wang Qiaoling told me this, a month after the crackdown, Li was sitting to one side with a hint of bashfulness still on her face.

After the 709 crackdown, the lawyers’ wives united to help each other, to fight together, and to call for the whole world to pay attention to what had happened to their husbands, as well as to the larger human rights situation in China. From 2015 to July 2018, they went through many hardships together. Throughout, however, Li seemed to be Wang Qiaoling’s “support person.”

“From that day on, it was different. We used to call her ‘Little Seven,’ but after that, we called her ‘Big Sister Seven!” Wang Qiaoling laughed. Li Wenzu told me that she was one of seven sisters, and since she was the smallest and the most coddled, she’d been nicknamed “Little Seven.”

“That day, I heard the ruckus outside, and I knew Qiaoling and the others had come to see me. I wanted to go out and see what was going on. When I opened the door to go out, it was totally blocked by people. One of the big guys who guards my door started yelling nasty things at me. I couldn’t go outside. I was angry and frightened, and without thinking, I just did what the situation demanded. I ran up to the window!” A month after it all happened, Li still grinned as she thought about it.

Life and Children

A street in Beijing in May 2018, as white willow buds dance lightly in the breeze. Li sits in the courtyard of her building block. It’s evening and the air is cooling down as her five-year-old son Quanquan sleeps in her arms.

An hour earlier, she had gone to a nearby real estate office to sign a rental agreement. She had confirmed her move-in date with the landlord several times. She was worried most about interference by the police and the landlord suddenly refusing to rent to her.

Because her husband worked in human rights law, he had prepared for the worst, and their old apartment was rented from the father-in-law of a friend. He’d thought that if they rented from friends, they would be less likely to get kicked out if the police started to pay them visits.

After the 709 crackdown, however, their apartment had been surrounded by cameras and surveillance. Li lived on the fifth floor, and for a time, the apartment on the second floor was occupied by someone tasked with keeping an eye on her. Three years had passed, and the police had kept up their harassment. The friends she rented from couldn’t stand it any longer, and Li had decided to move out. At the same time, she wanted to live in a place where her son would be able to go to school.

On May 2, everything had gone smoothly and she had succeeded in renting another apartment. Both Li and Wang Qiaoling believed this was due to their activism. Whether it was the “march to find our husbands,” the “balcony speech,” or the issue of her child not being allowed to attend school, they had persisted in speaking out in online forums, and that appeared to have been useful.

It was not at all unusual for the 709 lawyers’ spouses to be driven out of their apartments or prevented from renting new ones.

In August 2016, Wang Qiaoling rented an apartment in Songzhuang, but the day after she had moved in, she came back to the apartment to find that the landlord had padlocked the door. She could only take her children and move somewhere else. Even today, her belongings are still there.

On another occasion, she had prepared everything she needed to rent an apartment. The sympathetic landlord flew from another province to Beijing to help her deal with the formalities.

Right after they had signed the contract, and were about to complete the final steps, the landlord suddenly changed his mind. Later, Wang Qiaoling learned that the police had visited the landlord and chastised him for several hours.

After that, she managed to find an apartment in a neighborhood of Daxing and lived there for six months. In April 2017, however, she discovered cameras that were recording her every movement. Only when her husband, Li Heping, was released in May 2017 did the surveillance gradually come to an end.

So that day, when Li was able to sign a lease for a new apartment, they both breathed a sigh of relief.

On the way home, Quanquan, a strong, good-natured boy, was so excited that he started to yell on the bus. He’d open the window and feel the air against his face for a few moments, then he would press himself against his mother’s side, asking for chocolate.

“My son is a big source of support,” Li told me. “Yesterday, I bought a few things in Shijingshan, and was carrying them slowly back home. Suddenly I felt really bad, and I thought about how hard and uncertain the last three years have been, how much I’ve had to deal with. But he was still so happy, sitting in the back seat playing. That gave me a lot of comfort, and I felt a lot better.”

“Mama, why are you crying?” Her son would often ask her when he saw tears on her face. This adorable, spirited boy was only two years and seven months old when his father was taken away.

At first, he frequently asked his mother where his father had gone. She would tell him that he was away on a business trip. She didn’t know how to explain to a child what had happened. Then one day, her son suddenly asked: “Mama, why was Daddy put in jail?”

Li was stunned. She knelt down, and for the first time, she had a real talk with her son. She said, “Your father’s a good man, and in order to help other people, he had to go to jail.”

“Are the people who took Daddy monsters?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll beat them up and save him!”

This brave little boy was close friends with Li Heping’s eight-year-old daughter, Jiamei. She and her mother had waited for a long time for her father to come back. They had also withstood police surveillance.

Li remembered one incident when two or three men had followed her when she’d taken her son to the supermarket. Quanquan had suddenly stopped, put his hands on his hips, and said to the men: “Quit following us! It’s so annoying!”

In August 2016, Li started to look for a kindergarten for her son. But she soon realized that none of the kindergartens would accept him. The first school went through all of the paperwork, and had even issued him a little school blanket, when the principal abruptly informed her that they could not accept him. She pressed the principal until she finally learned that the school had been visited by four Domestic Security Protection officers, who had threatened the principal until the school rescinded the offer.

Li was furious, and argued fiercely with the officers. Only when she saw her son standing by the door, clutching his blanket and crying, did she give up and take him home.

The next day, she woke at 6:00, turned off her cellphone, slipped out the door, and went to a different kindergarten. Just as she was about to sign the contract and pay the fees, the principal told her that the police had warned them about her, and they couldn’t accept her son.

“I was really angry, and I called Domestic Security Protection officers to yell at them,” Li said. “I was told that if I would just be good and stop what I was doing and wait at home for news of my husband, then my son could be able to go to school.”

So as all the other children went to school, Quanquan had nowhere to go. Li tried everything, until finally on March 1, 2017 she found a school that would take him. This time, the police did not try to prevent it, but they did insist on driving them to the school. Then the two Congresses met in Beijing, and the police told Li, “From now on, no matter where you go, someone will be following.”

So Li decided that it was best for Quanquan to stay at home instead of going to school.

Jiamei also could not go to school, even though she was a very clever eight year old. At least her two beloved dogs kept her company at home, one called Coffee, the other called Tea.

On July 10, 2015, the day her father was taken, Jiamei had happened to go to the office with him. When the police tried to take him, she used her tiny body to try to prevent them. When he was released, Li said that it was that attempt by his daughter to save him that had given him the courage to survive in prison.

After her father was taken, Jiamei’s mother was busy trying to help him, and Jiamei was left at home. In early 2018, she was eight years old and still had not gone to first grade. In May 2018, a friend finally introduced them to a sympathetic private school that was will to accept her.

This time, the secret police did not interfere. Like Li’s apartment rental, much to their amazement everything went smoothly. They figured that since they had persisted so long, the police had finally realized that even something as important as denying their children an education would not prevent them from speaking out.

Wang Qiaoling’s son also suffered from guilt by association. He graduated from high school in June 2018. He had studied in an international school, and most of his classmates had already gone abroad to continue their studies. But when her son tried to get a new passport, it was intercepted by the police, and that prevented him from leaving the country.

Wang Qiaoling told me she occasionally felt guilty, but eventually she thought it all through. She finally sat down with her son and had a talk.

“I said to him, the authorities are hoping that your father and I will just shut up. If we did, you’d be able to leave the country, but we’d all feel humiliated, like they’d beaten us. But we have another choice, which is to keep fighting, keep resisting and demanding our rights, so you can leave with your head held high. It’s up to you. And my son told me, I choose the latter.”

Today, her son works for a non-profit organization, studying and waiting for his chance to go abroad. Wang Qiaoling uses a line from the Bible to console her husband and son: “Good for a man that he beareth a yoke in his youth.” Wang Qiaoling, who is a Christian, provides spiritual support not only to her own family, but to many of the families of the 709 lawyers.

She told me that at the beginning she had also struggled over whether she should tell her children about what had happened to their father. Finally, she decided to tell them everything, because the best education would be to let them see that when their father was in the worst spot possible, their mother had held on, and the whole family had helped.

“That’s the best education I could give my son, too,” Li said. Although Quanquan was still young, she couldn’t avoid telling him that his father had been arrested for being a good lawyer.

In fact, many of the lawyers’ wives had faced the same issue of whether or not to explain what had happened to their children.

The lawyer Li Chunfu is the younger brother of Li Heping. He was arrested 20 days after his older brother. His five-year-old son, Little Snowball, was on the scene. When Wang Qiaoling got there, Little Snowball said that the police took his father away in handcuffs. His mother quickly told him that they were just toy handcuffs. But he retorted stubbornly that they weren’t a toy, they were real.

The lawyer Xie Yanyi’s wife, Yuan Shanshan, learned that she was pregnant the day after her husband was arrested. It was their third child, and she decided to keep it. When Xie Yanyi was finally released from prison, he was delighted to meet the daughter he had never seen.

Yuan Shanshan struggled but managed to get through the separation from her husband that lasted more than a year. In a video she taped herself, she says: “I have no idea how I should explain things to my children. But starting tomorrow, I want to tell them the truth. And let them know what the world they live in is like.” Her three children, including her tiny daughter, all sleep soundly beside her, as tears stream down her face.

“What you’re doing is bad for your kid. You shouldn’t be like that [antagonistic toward the police],” a cab driver once told Li. Li had just explained her situation to him in order to get him to lose the car that was following them.

She had explained things carefully and thought that he would sympathize. She never expected him to say: “You should quit doing that stuff, for your family and your son. Why pick a fight you’re bound to lose?” Li said nothing. She didn’t understand why people thought that a person should bow down and accept any sort of humiliation for her kids. Shouldn’t people be strong and keep up their resistance for their kids?

Anonymous

The families of lawyers arrested in the 709 crackdown, 2016.

Love

Li Wenzu often thinks of the last time she saw her husband.

It was June 9, 2015. People thronged through the Suzhou train station. He was in Suzhou on business, and had brought her and their son along so they could have a little vacation. When they parted, she didn’t hug him, instead waving goodbye to him in the crowd as usual. She still blames herself for that three years later: I should’ve just gone ahead and hugged him. If she had, “maybe over these three years, I would’ve felt just a little bit better.”

The last time she heard his voice was on July 8, when they had a half-hour conversation about their family and so on. The next morning, she had called him and gotten no answer.

She was immediately worried. He had disappeared a few years before, in Jingjiang, Jiangsu province, where he was representing Falun Gong members in a case. He had used his cell phone in the courtroom to photograph evidence for future reference, and it had been confiscated. When the hearing was over, Wang Quanzhang had been arrested and ordered to be held for 10 days.

Their son was just over a month old at the time, and Li was terrified. From then on, she begged him to inform her whenever he was about to turn his cellphone off. So when she couldn’t reach him, she was fearful that something had happened to him.

She learned afterward that on July 9, lawyers across China had been either arrested or questioned, and her husband was one of the over 300 people to be taken in.

Li was born in 1985 in the Badong Distict of Enshi, Hubei. Raised in a picturesque small town in the south, she is a pretty woman with a round, soft face and bright clear eyes. But ever since her husband was taken, her eyes have been worried and frequently filled with tears.

In 2009, when she was 24 years old, Li followed a friend to Beijing.

Before that, her parents had never worried about her. She had gone to a three-year college and worked as a tour guide in scenic sites near her hometown, living a quiet life. Occasionally, someone would try to set her up with a man, but she showed no interest. It was an easy, pleasant life, though uneventful.

She went with her friend to Beijing to see more of the world. Back then, she says, she was innocent and carefree. Her friend secretly sent her information to a dating site, and a date with Wang Quanzhang came out of it. She remembered he told her that he was a lawyer as they sat in a McDonald’s by a subway exit. He was very thin, with pale skin and an air of sophistication. He didn’t say much, but seemed stable and dependable.

At first, they didn’t go out much, and she never imagined that he had immediately fallen for her. At Chinese New Year, he brought her back to his hometown in Shandong. She didn’t know that he intended to ask her to marry him and was even already making preparations for the wedding. Not too long after, she became his wife.

Their son was born in March 2013, and she stayed at home to take care of him. She shopped online, buying nice clothes to “make herself pretty,” and rarely paid attention to what was going on in the larger would. Only when her husband was arrested in Jingjiang did she realize that his work as a lawyer was actually dangerous.

After the 709 crackdown, she looked online for articles and talked to her husband’s coworkers and assistants, and learned that her husband had suffered greatly for his profession: He had once angered a judge in court and had been taken in by police, who slapped him in the face 100 times. He had once slept in a sleeping bag outside a detention center in the frigid late winter of northeastern China, to support another lawyer. His perseverance, the responsibility he had assumed, showed her a version of her husband she had never known.

In August 2015, Li brought her child back to Beijing and then hurried to Tianjin to look for her husband. That was the first time she had met Wang Qiaoling.

At the beginning, Wang Qiaoling had also felt helpless.

She and her husband had been students in the same law program at Henan University. After graduating, Li Heping became a lawyer, while Wang Qiaoling wanted nothing to do with the law. In 2004, she joined a church, in which she became deeply involved, as she distanced herself from her husband’s work. She had no interest in public affairs.

“I’ve always thought of myself as just an ordinary person, living an ordinary life,” she said. “For many years, I kept my husband’s work out of my own life. But in one instant, that all changed.”

The wives grieved and wept. Their husbands had disappeared, and they didn’t even know where they were or what they were charged with. They knew nothing.

“At that point, they were completely in the dark,” says Su Nan, a human rights advocate. She went to see Wang Qiaoling, Li, and others at the time, and found that they were at a total loss, and had no idea how to deal with what had happened.

After the initial panic, Wang Qiaoling began to calm down. But she and the others hadn’t prepared for this kind of event. Were they going to put up a fight? Or just endure it and wait, in order to “protect themselves”?

Wang Qiaoling said that at first she didn’t dare speak out. She knew that in China, as soon as you spoke publicly, as soon as you began to take a stand, everything would change.

“You already can’t go back to the way things were,” she says the lawyer Jiang Tianyong told her. That upset her, but also forced her to face reality. “Your life won’t go back to normal until Li Heping comes home,” he said. “Everything you’re doing now is helping him to come home.”

She typed out “My Husband Li Heping (Part I),” and her hands trembled as she pushed send. The essay was disseminated across the Internet, the earliest statement from a family member of a 709 lawyer.

Wang Qiaoling remembers that one day she was waiting for Jiang Tianyong in a restaurant, when what arrived instead was news that he had been arrested. For her and Li, this had become a regular occurrence. They would hire a lawyer to help their husbands, and soon hear that that lawyer had been taken into custody too.

But the women emerged from their initial panic. They knew that they had no choice but to remain firm. And whenever they got together, they encouraged each other to keep on and lifted each other’s spirits.

Engaging in the human rights struggle and taking this path in life to defend human rights isn’t some sort of whim. It’s some hidden instinct in me, a calling that increases year after year and grows up and up like an evergreen.

The path is covered in brambles. It’s bumpy and rough.

When Li saw these words of her husband online, she gradually began to understand him.

Similarly to Li, Wang Qiaoling became aware of her husband’s work only after he was arrested. “After the 709 crackdown, I wasn’t confronted with my husband’s supposed misdeeds, but rather with his compassion. Looking at it that way, I’m very fortunate.”

In 2001, Li Heping had taken a case involving political persecution, which came to be known as the “New Youth Study Group” case, in which a college student, Yang Zili, was arrested for discussing politics with three others.

Years before, Li had read one of Yang Zili’s essays called “My Mother, a Farmer,” which had touched him deeply. This compelled him to volunteer to take on Yang’s case, and to write an impassioned plea for him.

“I’m ashamed to say that the case file was sitting at home and I never looked at it,” Wang Qiaoling said. “It was there until the police came on July 10 and took away all of the files. Now I want to see it, but I have no idea where to get ahold of it.”

“I also feel guilty that my husband is such a righteous and compassionate man.”

The Red Buckets: A Real Turning Point

Once, Li Wenzu was so afraid her husband was dead that she couldn’t breathe.

When she heard the news that the Guangzhou political activist Zhang Liumao had died in prison, she began to cry, thinking of her husband. She wondered if he could already be dead.

She felt the same kind of terror after the Tianjin explosion in 2015. The explosion happened in August, one month after her husband was arrested. She didn’t know where her husband had been taken, and her heart was filled with fear.

The first day of the lunar year of 2016, Li, Wang, and some other lawyers’ spouses each received a notice of arrest. The notices offered no good news, stating that their husbands were arrested for “subverting state power.” But at least they now knew what had happened to their husbands, and knew that they were still alive.

“From that day on, we knew that we needed to go on living, so that our husbands might eventually be released,” Wang Qiaoling said. “It was a turning point, when you have to give up your fantasies and realize that it’s never going to get any worse than this, and face that this is your life.”

She told everyone that they had to support their husbands, and that first and foremost they needed to dress well and look good: “Even if you’re crying every single day, we have to get through it. We have to change our attitudes and actively confront this. We can’t spend every day crying.”

Immediately, a friend objected, saying that if they wanted to defend their rights and find their husbands, they needed to look miserable so other people would sympathize. You can’t just go around smiling. Wang Qiaoling disagreed.

“As a matter of fact, in the past I dressed pretty sloppily,” Wang Qiaoling said. “When I served in the church, I’d see which of us bought cheaper clothes. I’d often go out just in a baggy t-shirt and shorts.”

Now, though, the wives have to keep an online presence, take photos, and even meet international human rights advocates. The first time they met an advocate, they each dressed in bright colors, put on makeup, and presented themselves spiritedly. “If you keep your head up even in the midst of difficulty, people want to help you.” That was Wang Qiaoling’s reasoning.

In the past, the women had only rarely worn bright red clothing. Li had always dressed neatly and elegantly, wearing mostly black and not even owning a single piece of red clothing.

At first, she wasn’t used to the color, and took to wearing a red accent piece, like a pair of red shoes, a red purse, or a red jacket. But Li was able to transcend her normal limits, and she found she had a natural fashion sense. The first time she went to the Supreme People’s Court to file a complaint, she overheard a female judge quietly commenting on her taste in clothing.

They also encouraged each other to wear red. “You look so pretty, you’ll have [the police] falling all over themselves, you know?” a friend told them.

But the real turning point came with the appearance of the red buckets. In a photo that made the rounds on the Internet, four lawyers’ wives wearing nice clothing each hold up a red bucket. The bottom of each bucket has the name of the woman’s husband on it. They do not look worried, but rather smile and laugh as though they’ve just come from a party. “They looked so pretty that they totally undid the image that most people have of the relatives of political prisoners,” one observer told me.

The photo spread like wildfire, and from then on, the lawyer’s wives would all bring a bright red bucket to their protests. In another photo, Yuan Shanshan’s one-year-old daughter sits in a bucket, her glistening dark eyes curiously looking out at the unfamiliar world.

Photo courtesy of Li Wenzu

(From left to right) Wang Qiaoling, Liu Ermin, and Li Wenzu hold red buckets in front of the Tianjin Municipal People’s Procuratorate Number Two Branch, June 6, 2016.

The idea behind the red buckets came about completely incidentally.

Li remembers the day. She and another lawyer’s wife were on their way to Tianjin’s Number Two Detention Center, and had stopped at a wholesale market. That day, they bought any red accessories they found: scarves, umbrellas, cloth, purses, sunglasses. . .

Li was their “fashion designer,” and everything she chose was stylish. While they were shopping, she saw a display of gleaming red buckets. She thought that they might work as makeshift stools when they went to petition the government, so she decided to buy a few.

Each woman carried a bucket, and when they happened to pass by a print shop, someone thought of the idea of printing their husbands’ names on their buckets. Each of the four women wrote a short message as well. “Quanzhang, I love you. I miss you and I’m waiting for you,” Wang Qiaoling encouraged Li to write. Li thought it was too much, so she simply wrote: “Quanzhang, I’ll wait for you.”

The buckets quickly proved useful. The next time they went to petition, they stood at the courthouse door in a row, standing in different poses with the red buckets.

In the past, they had tried holding up signs, but in China, carrying a sign is quite risky. In 2013, the Beijing-based lawyer Ding Jiaxi stood on a corner holding a sign demanding that officials publicly reveal their property holdings, and was promptly arrested. But carrying a bucket is completely legal.

They took photos in front of the courthouse until police came and brought them all to the nearby Guajiasi police station. Several lawyers were brought in along with them.

“We weren’t carrying signs, so why did you arrest us?” Li asked the police.

“You were carrying buckets,” the police replied.

They were kept at the police station for nearly 24 hours. The buckets were deemed “instruments employed to commit a crime” and confiscated. From then on, the red buckets became their symbol. The bright red buckets contravened the tragic image of the 709 lawyers’ families. Wang Qiaoling commented, “The international attention began with those red buckets.”

“People will look at sad things once or twice, and after that, they don’t want to look anymore,” Wang Qiaoling said. “But when people see our red bucket photos, they realize that we’re fighters. When you’re just called pathetic all the time, people stay away from you.”

Red is a powerful color. Wang Qiaoling remembers an occasion when a group of wives went to Tianjin to observe a case, and hundreds of police officers and several police trucks confronted them. They left and went to a friend’s house for the night. The next morning, they went to the bathroom in a shopping center by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and changed into red clothing. They then walked with their heads held high right past the crowd and the police.

Sisters

Life is difficult. In the course of looking for her husband, Li once found herself totally overtaken by tears.

She was coming home and realized that her new lock had been smashed, and that the electricity had been cut off to her apartment. She had to find a locksmith before she could get inside. When she opened her refrigerator, she realized that dumplings her parents had specially made for her had all spoiled. At that moment, she was overwhelmed with grief.

“If Qiaoling hadn’t been here for me, I never would have made it to the next day,” Li said. For three years, she’d had no news of her husband, and many times she felt as though she couldn’t go on. As the 709 lawyers were released one by one, only Wang Quanzhang’s situation remained a mystery, and through it all, Wang Qiaoling stayed by her side.

“A lot of times, I feel like we have a special sort of understanding between us,” Wang Qiaoling said.

They did not know each other before the 709 crackdown. Wang Qiaoling remembers the first time she saw Li. It was August 2015 in Tianjin, and they were part of a group of women trying to find information about their husbands. Li began to cry the instant she tried to speak. Beautiful and fragile, she elicited much sympathy.

Slowly, Wang Qiaoling came to realize that Li might seem fragile, but she was the most determined and straightforward of any of them. “Lots of people thought she would be easy to push around, but actually she’s hard as nails.”

They became as close as sisters. Many times, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they confronted the secret police. Their arms would be twisted behind their backs and they’d be taken off to the police station together, where they would shout to pass information to each other.

In 2017, in Changsha, they went to observe the trial of Xie Yang. When they went to the police station to try to get money to Xie, Li witnessed a police officer slap Wang Qiaoling on the face.

Wang Qiaoling has a hot temper. If a local thug shadowing them spoke nastily to her, she would spin around and curse him out. Li would never do something like that. “She’s a lovely young woman,” Wang Qiaoling said. “She doesn’t swear or curse at people. But me, I don’t care.”

The two complement each other. Wang Qiaoling is often disheveled, while Li is stylish and put together, and they have ended up the best of friends.

On that terrible day in March 2017, Li moved into Wang Qiaoling’s apartment and stayed for seven months, during which they spent much of their time together. Their children played together, and for the period they were together, they felt safe.

They also had their conflicts. Once in Henan, they accompanied Jiang Tianyong’s sister when she went to visit him in prison. At the prison entrance, they argued about whether or not to go in. Wang Qiaoling felt they might as well, since they’d come such a long way; Li thought that if they went in they wouldn’t be able to see him anyway and so there was no point in risking it. They began to quarrel. Finally, Li was convinced to go in.

Wang Qiaoling’s husband, Li Heping, was finally sent home in early May 2017.

Everyone was in tears. Wang Qiaoling hugged her husband tightly when he came through the door. His torments in jail had turned his hair completely white, and he was so emaciated that his daughter Jiamei didn’t recognize him at first.

Li and her son Quanquan stood to one side. Quanquan watched Jiamei hugging her father, and asked his mother if she would lie down with him for a while. Li knew that he missed his father, and she felt awful.

Secretly, she was also worried. Now that her husband had come back, would Wang Qiaoling still want to spend time with her?

But Wang Qiaoling did not let her sister down. That day, she contacted the other wives, saying, “We can’t leave anyone from the 709 group behind!”

Over the following days, they kept up their search. Wang Qiaoling persisted in advocating for her husband’s rights, and she filed complaints against his cruel treatment in prison. Li went on looking for her husband’s whereabouts.

Each weekend, they went to the Supreme People’s Court, tirelessly making reports and filing complaints.

Wang Qiaoling had to be careful. The secret police viewed her as a menace, and thought that she was encouraging Li to continue her dangerous human rights activism. But they also knew that with their time together and their deep connection, they would defend each other as ferociously as sisters.

“If you keep on, I’ll keep on with you!” Wang Qiaoling told Li.

“Sometimes I’d wonder, why did God make Wenzu fight until the end?” Wang Qiaoling said. Slowly, she realized that fragile Li Wenzu was in fact the toughest and most resilient of them all.

“Doing something alone is often really different from doing something with someone else. When you’re on the road somewhere, if you look over and someone’s next to you, you’ll suddenly have the energy to go on.”

“If there were no God, I wouldn’t give so much.” Wang Qiaoling had been going to church for 12 years. She attributed everything to her faith. Every time she felt weak, she would pray to God. She said she’d once expected herself to be the last to see her husband come home, and never thought it would be Li instead. “I think God is giving me a chance to stay with you,” she told Li.

Travels with Terror: Without Compromise, With Hope

Once, after her husband had been gone for 1,000 days, Li Wenzu felt that her death was near.

It was the winter of 2017. it was a very cold day, and she had been dragged away from the entrance to the Changsha Municipal Court entrance yet again by four policemen.

This had become ordinary for her, but that day as she was being dragged away, her coat covered her face and she started to suffocate. She couldn’t cry out, but she struggled instinctually, twisting and wriggling until she could breath again.

Many times, she stood in front of the secret police, brave and determined, never letting them see the terror concealed inside her.

“At the beginning, when I started to look for my husband, I didn’t know anything, and so I didn’t really feel much fear,” she said. “But then I experienced a lot, and saw Qiaoling get hit, and got thrown into a car door myself, and hit in the head with a heavy bag. And then I saw Ermin get beaten, and I started to get more and more afraid.”

The worst of it was when she was under house arrest, and tried to open her door but realized it wouldn’t open. She could see through the crack that there was an ugly shaved head outside, a hired goon tasked with keeping her from leaving. On November 8, 2017, as President Trump visited China, she was locked inside her house. When she tried to take her son outside, the same bald-headed man prevented her from leaving, hurling insults at her.

It was likely the man’s hostile face that frightened her son. After that incident, Quanquan had frequent nightmares in which his mother was dragged down the stairs by a demon.

Mark Schiefelbein—AP Photo

Security officers surround Li Wenzu as she attempts to deliver a petition to the Supreme People’s Court petition office in Beijing, December 28, 2018.

She suppressed her inexpressible terror with bravery. But occasionally it would still overcome her. Even round-faced, short-haired, ever-smiling Wang Qiaoling’s seeming dauntlessness was a mask. “Everyone feels fear,” she says. “But it’s better than it used to be.”

Wang Qiaoling remembers a time she was seized by terror. One day in 2016, she came out of her apartment and realized that cameras had suddenly appeared in the corridor and the entrance to the parking garage.

“There were just so many cameras,” Wang Qiaoling said. “I have to admit, I was really afraid.” It did not help that during that period, family members, lawyers, and friends were all telling her that things weren’t safe for her. She knew that some of her relatives had been intimidated by security officers, telling them they’d better cut ties with Wang Qiaoling and that she’d stepped over the line so many times it had gotten trampled. The threats implicit in such statements, the eyes that watched her, and the burly men who followed her all had the same effect: They made her involuntarily retreat.

She remembers that the day Li Chunfu was arrested, she was coming back from consoling his wife, and the closer she got to her housing block the more nervous she felt. She was afraid to go home, and so she stopped her car by the side of the road.

She put her seat back and closed her eyes. Cars whizzed past, and passersby laughed at her. It was nearly midnight, but she felt the unfamiliar street was safer than her own home. At that moment, she realized how terrorized she was, and she made a vow to talk openly about her fear. She wrote a statement for her friends on the Internet, as a kind of last testament: “I have no regrets about all the things I’ve done for my husband and family this year. If I’m arrested, it’ll just be a completion of my transformation from a thoughtless housewife into a complete citizen. If it happens, I’ll say: Thank you, Communist Party, and thank you, my country!”

In June 2016, Li and Wang Qiaoling decided to drive south more than 700 miles to visit the 709 families outside of Beijing. They stopped in Changsha to see Chen Guiqiu, the wife of Xie Yang, who was taken in on the same day as Li Heping.

They met and discussed clothes and food, and went to eat and drink together. Their mutual support helped them all gradually overcome their terror, and mature together.

“If we give up on our husbands today, tomorrow our children will be ashamed of us. . . We can’t break through the prison walls and rescue our loved ones ourselves. But we still mustn’t stop our appeals and our complaints. We have to keep doing whatever we can do!”

“At this point, the 709 crackdown has become a little flame of conscience inside the hearts of the Chinese people. So when you’re remembering everything that's happened, don’t get caught up in hate and pain, but know that in the midst of our pain, we have brought love to life.”

In June 2018, Yuan Shanshan’s husband, Xie Yanyi, was allowed to return home. He quickly finished a book called A Record of the 709 Crackdown and 500 Questions about Peaceful Transformation. Wang Qiaoling was invited to write the introduction to the book, and the quote above is from what she wrote.

Around that time, I saw Wang Qiaoling in Beijing. When I asked her why she chose to continue her fight instead of staying silent, she laughed and said, “It’s my nature. . . Actually, right now, each time my family gets together to eat or have fun, it’s a form of resistance.”

They would make dumplings and invite all of the friends and the lawyers who have helped them during the past three years to come eat together. They sent out “709 Gifts—Three Years of Gratitude,” and visited those who were still in prison, such as Jiang Tianyong, who at the time was imprisoned in Henan, and Yu Wensheng in Xuzhou, even though they could not actually get in to see them. Every time they went somewhere, they would post pictures on the Internet of the “709 Gastronomy Club.” They see their pleasure as also a kind of activism.

Three years after her husband was arrested, Li feels that “I no longer resemble my former self.” She smiles and tears up at the same time, saying, “Wang Quanzhang probably won’t even recognize me when he gets out.” She is no longer the shy, gentle woman she once was. “I’ve been called a madwoman and a bitch by Domestic Security Protection officers!”

On June 6, Wang Quanzhang had been gone for 1,062 days, and Li and two others went to Tianjin to see if they could get money or gifts to him. They just happened to arrive when the gate to the prison was opening: towering iron fences, neat lines of police vehicles, another wall to block the view from the outside—it all opened to their gaze. At that moment, she had the sudden urge just to make a dash for the inside. But she controlled herself.

“Three years of experience has proven that if their families persist in standing out in front, the lawyers have more of a chance for success,” Wang Qiaoling once wrote. “And if the families stay within the framework of the law, they can fight for human rights in a legal way.”

Not everyone agrees with Wang Qiaoling, including some friends. She told me, there are always two voices: one that says to compromise and one that says not to compromise. There are always friends who urge her to negotiate with the authorities and give up her activism in order to get her husband out sooner.

But Wang Qiaoling and Li have refused to give up their principles. “If you force me to compromise in exchange for rights that should be mine anyway, I’ll feel terrible. I can’t just bargain with somebody’s dignity or the most precious things in life.”

“Something you once had has been stolen away from you,” Wang Qiaoling said. “What’s there to negotiate about?”

Li has continued filing complaints on behalf of her husband, while also asking authorities to investigate infringements of her own human rights. She sued the local police for the incident with the “Chaoyang Masses,” and also lodged a defamation claim against the official media for labeling her a “national traitor.” Wang Qiaoling sued the Beijing police department for preventing any of her family members from leaving the country, and demanded the return of their passports. Together, they have brought six or seven legal suits.

This is another expression of their refusal to compromise. Some friends who originally supported them have criticized them for being “uncompromising,” and “too extreme.” “If you can help Wang Quanzhang get out, even if you have to compromise a little with the authorities, that’s nothing to be ashamed of,” a senior lawyer and activist says.

But Wang Qiaoling doesn’t agree. “In the past, when a dissident was released, that was probably the end of it for the family. But for us, that's basically when it all starts.” She continues to lodge complaints about the torture her husband likely endured in prison, and continues to keep Li company as she waits for Wang Quanzhang to be released.

Wang Qiaoling says that in the beginning she didn’t understand what it meant to “speak out.” It was only after the 709 crackdown that she understood that politics effects the lives of every single person. “And there’s no subtle way of resisting. For example, if you come home and realize that your house has been knocked down and everything’s on fire, how are you going to act?”

“Our basic principle is not to compromise. But we won’t lie about anything. If you’ve been beaten once by the police, we won’t say we’ve been beaten three times. If I get dragged off, I’ll say I got dragged off. I won’t say they beat me black and blue. We’re not going to make things up like that.”

Su Nan expresses admiration for their persistence. She thinks that in the course of fighting for their husbands’ rights and their own rights, it is very important that they’ve found their own principles and methods. The most essential of those principles is “we will not be controlled by other people.”

“A lot of people don’t understand what that means, to ‘not to be controlled by other people,’” Su Nan says. “But their story helps others start to make sense of it.”

She feels that in the current climate in China, it is essential in the fight for human rights that the involved parties are willing to pay the price involved in trying to exact justice. For some people, so-called justice can be bargained for. But Li and Wang Qiaoling refuse to do that. They hold on to their principles and ideas, and will not compromise with the authorities. They truly are not controlled by other people—not by enemies, and not by their friends.

Su Nan also thinks that “in the case of Wang Quanzhang, you can’t just gloss over the real issues or try to play peacemaker [by urging Wang Quanzhang to admit guilt in order to get out sooner]. Some things really are that simple. You haven’t done anything wrong, but they make you admit to wrongdoing. On what basis? In truth, it’s a very simple issue. But in this cultural climate, it’s really difficult.”

“If you seek out justice unstintingly, those who mean you harm will retreat,” Su Nan says.

Li Wenzu does not seem quite that staunch. She often dreams that her husband has come back home.

“The last time I dreamt about him, it was really painful,” Li said. “I found him in the middle of a forest, and he was like a beggar, all skinny and filthy, eating rotted lemons. It was terrible to see him like that. Each time I dream of him coming home, as soon as I open my eyes and can’t find him, I panic.”

She admits that sometimes she wonders why she’s so unlucky, being the last wife left without her husband.

“I think God is testing you,” Wang Qiaoling told Li. “A person drags a rock up a hill, and then God knocks it back down. You’re going to ask, God, why are you messing with me? But at the same, you’ll realize that you’re growing stronger.” Li agreed with her.

“God puts us in a situation and then presses us. Olives don’t give oil unless they’re pressed. The Bible says that useful things, good things, don’t appear until they’re pressed out.”

She knows that she has faith and so she can rely on God. But Li does not have religion to fall back on, and she has already been remarkably brave and strong.

On October 15, 2018, Li, Wang Qiaoling, and several others again went to the Supreme People’s Court in Hongsicun to hand-deliver a petition to the court. They wore black clothing with the words “A Desperate Group” on the back, and Wang Quanzhang’s image on the front with the words “Release Wang Quanzhang.” After they delivered their petition, they went to take a photograph below the sign for the Hongsicun bus station.

Li went back to the apartment she had just rented near Huilongguan. Quanquan, who is now in first grade, does not know why they recently moved, but he is older now and has asked his mother many times whether his father is dead.

“Your father’s going to come back soon,” Li answers quietly, holding her son in her arms. “We haven’t beaten the monsters yet. We have to stay strong.”

The Latest News

December 17, 2018, Beijing. One by one, Li Wenzu, Wang Qiaoling, and Liu Ermin have their heads shaved, and go to the gates of the Supreme People’s Court to protest: “We can be hairless, but you can’t be lawless!” (making a pun of the words for “bald” and “lawless,” which sound the same in Chinese). In the sunlight, Li, in her pink coat, smiles with her eyes full of tears.

On December 26, 2018, Wang Quanzhang’s case was finally heard in the Tianjin Number Two Municipal Intermediate People’s Court. At dawn, Li and Wang Qiaoling tried to slip away, planning to go to Tianjin to observe the trial, but police stopped them at the door of their building. They argued for more than an hour, but in the end were not able to leave. That day, the trial began in Tianjin. Neither the family members nor the media were allowed into the courtroom to listen.