China’s Disappearing People Problem: The Story of Wang Quanzhang

China’s Disappearing People Problem: The Story of Wang Quanzhang
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

If the state’s strategy is to terrorize the Chinese people into silence, then the few stories we hear are representative of a much larger problem, making their telling all the more important.

On July 9, 2015, Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) joined the ranks of China's disappeared people, and has been held incommunicado to this day. While many of these individuals are activists or journalists, Wang is a Beijing lawyer who has taken on sensitive cases involving human rights and the Falun Gong.

Recently, the government began harassing Wang's family. Last August, his wife was kicked out of her residence after police threatened her landlord, and his son was denied enrollment in elementary school for the same reason. It is all part of the usual pattern in which the Chinese government destroys the lives of individuals and their families in order to silence them. These people have committed no crime other than speaking their opinion. The only way to help them is through international pressure, and that will only happen if the international community hears these stories.

Wang Quanzhang’s story

The government’s distaste for Wang has mostly to do with his defense of Falun Gong members. The Falun Gong is an international society of spiritual practice which, after dissociating from the Chinese government, began to face scrutiny. In reaction to their defamation in the media, they staged several peaceful protests which snowballed into the Chinese government labeling them as a socially disruptive, deceitful cult. Or, in other words, the Falun Gong is a civil society group which the Chinese government will not tolerate because they have the power to assemble citizens. In 1999 — the year Wang became involved — a purge began with the arrests of thousands of suspected Falun Gong leaders. Stories of torture, work camps, and suspected organ harvesting of Falun Gong members are common.

Wang became a lawyer after graduating from Shandong University School of Law in 2000. As a student, he was already providing legal assistance to Falun Gong members, which resulted in formal warnings from officials. After his studies, Wang became involved in farmer land rights as an instructor in his home province of Shandong. He later caught the attention of authorities once again by providing legal services to defendants involved with a Beijing human rights organization, and for cases including the defense of a civil rights activist who was blackmailed. He was eventually pressured out of practicing law by authorities, but at the same time assisted with interviews from a foreign TV station about sensitive cases in China. He later wrote articles critical of the government under the pen name “Gao Feng,” and has since been involved in several cases assisting lawyers, activists, and Falun Gong members.

Wang clearly has a record of sticking to his principles of freedom and civil rights, and the Chinese government has subsequently applied increasing pressure in an attempt to stop him. He was always fully aware of the consequences of his actions — another lawyer, Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), was, in his own words, “kidnapped by the Party’s thugs,” and Wang rushed to the police station to demand his release. When Gao told Wang that following his own path would endanger his life, Wang laughed and replied, “However stupid I am, I know that much.”

The Party’s attempts to silence Wang

Wang really began facing government harassment in 2008, when his house was ransacked and his possessions confiscated. Instead of giving in, he subsequently went to Beijing and joined on with The World and China Institute, a non-profit NGO emphasizing economic and political development and the transition of Chinese society.

Of course, Wang’s situation only worsened. In April 2013 he was detained with the vague explanation of “disrupting court order” while defending a Falun Gong client who was being tried for “using a cult organization to undermine the implementation of the law.” Due to the petition by a large number of lawyers and wide domestic and international media coverage, Wang was released 56 hours later. This is a testament to the power of publicizing Wang’s case, but his struggle is far from over.

In 2014 he went to Heilongjiang to support some fellow lawyers and was forced to sign a document through physical violence. Then, in July 2015 the Chinese government instituted a crackdown involving the sudden kidnapping, residential surveillance, travel bans, or harassment of over 300 human rights defenders, including Wang. These were violent arrests meant to terrorize. A fellow lawyer at Wang Quanzhang’s firm, Wang Yu (王宇), disappeared after sending a text to her friends that her electricity and Internet had been cut and people were trying to break into her home.

After six months of no communication, contact, or information given to their families, several of the activists were finally charged with crimes. Wang Quanzhang’s charge was “subversion of state power.” Since the crime is said to involve national security, the government held him in a secret location without access to a lawyer.

If more than a year without hearing from Wang was not enough, his family has now been faced with harassment by state security police. They began following Wang’s wife every time she left her home, then they detained her landlord for several hours to force her eviction. When she went to find another home, an officer spoke with the landlord and she was turned away from that residence as well.

Finally, on Aug. 30, 2016, Wang’s wife put her son of three and a half years into a taxi on their way to enroll him in school. Before the taxi could leave, a man forced his way into the car with them. The man, a state security officer, accompanied them to the school for the entire enrollment process, spoke with the principal, and ensured that Wang’s son would not be able to enroll.

Keeping up appearances

Clearly, these actions are state terrorism. The logic is very simple: If people are terrified enough, they will not speak out against the government. The harassment of the families of dissidents follows a similar line of thought. First, families are leverage against an individual — if Wang does not fear for his own life, perhaps he fears for his family. Also, it is a deterrent against family members speaking out against the kidnapping of the dissidents. Finally, these actions have historical precedent. In ancient China, the most severe form of capital punishment found a criminal’s family guilty by association, and they were executed on nine levels: the criminal’s parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, cousins, spouse, and spouse’s parents were all killed.

But that does not fully explain why Wang’s family should suddenly face harassment after all this time. In fact, this crackdown is due to the cynical game of world politics. The G20 summit was held in Hangzhou on Sept. 4-5, and in the preceding month several activists and journalists reported travel bans, warnings, and extra scrutiny by the government. There was a crackdown on what could be reported, and any online satire or reports of inconveniences were especially off limits. All of this so that when world leaders gathered in China, they would see the happy, prosperous, clean city of Hangzhou. It is all an obvious song and dance.

Meanwhile, the victims of this charade are journalists, lawyers, activists, or simply people who know too much — one of those detained at a train station in preparation for the G20 was a bridge engineer who posted evidence that a girl died after being gang raped by thugs with connections to the police. Their families are also suffering, adding to the number of casualties. And it is not a small number. Wang’s story is only being told here because his is the most recent, but there are countless others. If the state’s strategy is to terrorize people into silence, it means the few stories we hear are representative of a much larger problem, making their telling all the more important.

First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang