When Chinese Rights Activists Were Jailed, Their Wives Fought Back

After their loved ones disappeared in the wave of arrests, some family members, especially the wives of the detained lawyers, overcame their fear and fought back, often in a theatrical fashion. They used online appeals and visits to jails, prosecutors and courts. They gathered in bright red clothes and with red buckets to publicize their demands for information and access to the prisoners.

Their tongue-in-cheek slogan became “Leave the dressing table and take on the thugs,” said Li Wenzu, whose husband, Wang Quanzhang, a human rights lawyer, has remained in secretive custody 21 months after he was detained in August 2015.

“The story of the wives is one of the great stories of the whole crackdown — it is a brilliant adaptation by the activists to repression,” said Terence Halliday, a researcher at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago who has written a book on Chinese criminal defense lawyers. “My goodness, the attention they have brought to bear, not just for their husbands, but also the state of the crackdown.”

Chinese state investigators have long applied pressure on detainees’ families to win cooperation and confessions. But this time their tactics seemed more systematic, said Wang Qiaoling, the wife of a detained lawyer, Li Heping. Mr. Li was recently released after being tried and receiving a suspended prison sentence.

“They can treat you like hand-pulled noodles, squeeze you into any shape,” Ms. Wang, 45, said in an interview. “If you’re isolated and scared, it’s hard to resist.”

Some wives of detainees said they had been forced to move from rented apartments after the police warned landlords. Some were prevented from enrolling their children in school. And the police recruited relatives to beg them to stay quiet and compliant. The families described these tactics as “lianzuo” or “zhulian,” old Chinese terms for the collective punishment of families.

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Wang Qiaoling, the wife of the detained lawyer Li Heping, in Beijing last year. Mr. Li was recently released after receiving a suspended prison sentence.

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Fred Dufour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Some families buckled. But others protested and filed petitions about the secretive detentions and trials. Ms. Wang encouraged a tight circle of women who rallied the relatives of detainees, arguing that silence would only encourage courts to hand down stiffer sentences.

“If you want to protect your family, you can’t stay silent,” Ms. Wang said. “It’s been crucial that we’ve been able to stick together.”

But for Ms. Chen, 42, the journey to defiance was especially wrenching.

While many of the detained lawyers lived in Beijing, she lived in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province,…

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