Attorneys challenging human rights abuses, political persecution, and abuses of power within China are telling their stories of torture and imprisonment, more relevant than ever as President Xi Jinping assumed nearly unprecedented power over the nation.
Speaking to BBC, one of these attorneys, Xie Yanyi, explained this week how his insistence in representing defendants persecuted for political ideology or religious faith landed him in prison, where he was routinely tortured.
“I was kept alone in a small room and saw no daylight for half a year. I had nothing to read, nothing to do but to sit on that low stool,” Xie tells the BBC. “People could go mad in that situation. I was isolated from the world. This is torture – the isolation is more painful than being beaten.”
Xie told the BBC that the torture of isolation was worse than the beatings, food deprivation, and elaborate tortures like being forced to crouch for hours.
The BBC notes that Xie is one of over 300 people in his field who has suffered repercussions for attempting to practice law in defense of people the Communist Party have chosen to eliminate from society and that his testimony resembles much of what others have witnessed. One of those examples is the story of Wang Yu, who told the South China Morning Post in July that she was charged with “subverting state power” after assuming a number of human rights cases.
After being arrested and trapped in an undisclosed location in an overnight attack, Wang says police “forced [her] to sit cross-legged for weeks inside a circle drawn on her bed. Any time she complained she was scolded or beaten.” She was ultimately released into a state of unofficial house arrest after issuing a forced confession.
The South China Morning Post detailed two other cases: the Xie case and that of attorney Li Chunfu, who was “diagnosed with schizophrenia after 500 days of detention.”
Under Xi Jinping – who, this week, had his name enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party constitution alongside only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping – the Chinese communist regime has launched a campaign to eliminate human rights advocacy in its entirety, with defense lawyers at the forefront of the assault. According to an Amnesty International report published in July, nearly 250 lawyers had been arrested and tried for crimes like “provoking trouble” since 2015, when Xi launched this anti-subversion campaign. By this week, when the BBC published Xie’s testimony, that number had grown to over 300.
Amnesty’s report include’s the Li case as well as a number of incidents of “disappearances” in which no torture testimony exists because the individuals in question have not been seen since their arrests.
“For two years, the Chinese government has been methodically decimating the ranks of human rights lawyers and activists. This vicious crackdown marked by arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, torture and ill-treatment and fake confessions must end now,” Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement at the time.
The official number of “lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists and family members” arrested, exiled, disappeared, or otherwise targeted by the government stood at 321 on October 17, the last time the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group updated their tally.
The Chinese government, both through official outlets and through its state media, has widely dismissed the claims as lies. One stated on Chinese media referred to Xie’s case in particular as “fake news.” In response to the death of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo this summer, who died imprisoned for his work, Chinese state media articles referred to human rights activists like Liu as “losers … trying every means to reboot their image.”
The Chinese government has also trotted out pro-government attorneys to refute the charges and praise the Chinese legal system. The Communist Party Congress this week featured attorneys who, according to the People’s Daily, lauded the regime.
“The rule of law will play a bigger and more basic role in the governance of the country and the Party after the congress,” Zhang Sujun, vice-president of the China Law Society, told the state outlet.
Another attorney quoted in the state-sponsored report specifically praised China for its alleged human rights protections.
“Filing a case has not been difficult for people since Chinese courts banned unnecessary barriers to the process through judicial reforms. That also protects human rights in litigation,” a lawyer identified as Xue Jimin said.