China: Wife of detained lawyer Yu Wensheng tells of ongoing fight for justice

By Xu Yan

It’s been five years since China began its assault on human rights lawyers and activists across the country on 9 July 2015. Lawyer Yu Wensheng, who represented several of those targeted, was himself arrested in 2018 and remains in prison – completely cut off from his family. His wife, Xu Yan, told Amnesty International about her continuing struggle to get her husband released.

You may know Yu Wensheng as a wrongfully imprisoned Chinese human rights lawyer. I know him as the husband who always insisted on talking to his future son while I was pregnant.

“Baby, this is your father. I love you.” The same sentence every time and, of course, no response.

Then one morning, after months of this, he said again: “Baby, this is your father. Father loves you … Can you hear me? If you can, give a kick.”

I suddenly felt my belly explode with the baby’s movement. Yu was so shocked he fell out of bed. Since that moment, Yu always believed that the baby could hear him. Yu continued these conversations with our future son until he was born.

That child is now 15 years old, and he hasn’t seen his father for the last two and a half years. Nor have I.

My husband was arrested on 19 January 2018 soon after he had written an open letter criticizing the leadership of the People’s Republic of China and calling for constitutional reform. The authorities said he was suspected of “inciting subversion of state power” and “obstructing the duties of public officers”.

Last month, he was sentenced to four years in prison and deprived of political rights for a further three years. I stayed calm as I received the two-minute phone call from the authorities informing me of this. Afterwards, I just cried.

Yu had represented several individuals who had been arrested and charged under the “709” crackdown that began five years ago today, when the Chinese authorities rounded up more than 200 lawyers and activists. He had been at the forefront of the fight for the rights of individuals affected by the crackdown – until he himself lost his own freedom.

Yu Wensheng always worked hard to promote awareness of human rights. He is a brave and selfless human rights lawyer who was targeted simply for exercising his freedom of expression and performing his duties.

After Yu was detained, I began facing intimidation as well. Police threatened to arrest me if I continued to speak up for human rights, accept media interviews or communicate with people outside China. Sometimes they would come and knock on my door at night. I am still under heavy surveillance – sometimes the police follow me when I am out.

But I am stubborn. I have refused to give up and tried my best to defend my husband's rights. I demanded that the Chinese government acquit him. I went to government offices in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, and Beijing to try to find out what happened in Yu’s case and call for his release. I went to these places more than 60 times. I wrote around 300 letters to the authorities, none of which were answered. Each step was extremely difficult, but it was beautiful to win the support and respect of so many people.

Still, I have paid a high price for defending my husband’s rights. My health has suffered, and so has our family’s finances. But I don’t regret it because I know that Yu Wensheng is innocent.

I hoped the Chinese judiciary would act lawfully. Tragically for us, fairness, justice and the rule of law were nowhere to be found, and my husband remains in prison.

I have still received no official notice of the charges against Yu, and they have not told me whether we can appeal. I don’t know which prison Yu is imprisoned in, how his health is or if they will let me and our child see him.

We were allowed to talk to him via video call about two months after his detention. But since then, nothing. Letters we sent were returned to us. The Chinese judicial system has completely deprived Yu Wensheng of his legal rights.

But I have to keep going. I hope Yu will be eventually acquitted by the Chinese judicial system and be able to keep his lawyer’s certificate.

I feel a huge gratitude toward those who support us, and I urge you to continue following Yu Wensheng’s case. We may not be able to see Yu’s response right now, but – just like Yu with our boy – I know that somehow all our messages are giving him strength.