She was a quiet com­mer­cial lawyer. Then China turned on her.

Wang Yu is one of the most high-pro­file hu­man rights ad­vo­cates picked up in a co­or­di­nated na­tion­wide crack­down

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ANNA FI­FIELD Xu Yangjingjing con­trib­uted to this re­port. anna.fi­field@wash­post.com

bei­jing — It could be said that Chi­nese author­i­ties cre­ated Wang Yu — or at least the Wang Yu who has be­come a thorn in their side.

She was a mild-man­nered com­mer­cial lawyer work­ing on patent dis­putes and the like un­til an in­ci­dent at a train sta­tion in Tian­jin at the end of 2008. She had an al­ter­ca­tion with sta­tion em­ploy­ees af­ter they stopped her from get­ting on a train, even though she had a ticket, and was then as­saulted by sev­eral men.

But sev­eral months later, it was Wang— not the men who beat her — who was charged with “in­ten­tional as­sault.” Af­ter a lengthy and ques­tion­able le­gal process, she spent 21/2 years in jail.

There, she saw how pris­on­ers were forced to work for no pay and heard their tales of be­ing mis­treated and tor­tured, her friends and as­so­ci­ates say. When she emerged in 2011, Wang had trans­formed into a hu­man rights ad­vo­cate, tak­ing on some of the most high-pro­file cases in China.

“When she came out, she quickly be­came a part of this move­ment and re­ally threw her­self into it,” said Eva Pils, an ex­pert in Chi­nese law at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, who spoke to Wang a few weeks ago.

Wang is one of a group of more than 100 lawyers de­tained in a highly co­or­di­nated raid across 19 Chi­nese prov­inces last week, part of an ef­fort to “smash a ma­jor crim­i­nal gang” that was “se­ri­ously dis­turb­ing so­cial or­der,” ac­cord­ing to state media.

Wang for a time rep­re­sented Il­ham To­hti, a prom­i­nent Uighur in­tel­lec­tual who was sen­tenced to life in prison last year on charges of ad­vo­cat­ing sep­a­ratism and in­cit­ing eth­nic ha­tred, crit­i­ciz­ing the gov­ern­ment and voic­ing sup­port for ter­ror­ism.

She also de­fended the “Five Fem­i­nists” who were charged in March with cre­at­ing a dis­tur­bance as they planned a public aware­ness cam­paign against sex­ual ha­rass­ment to co­in­cide with In­ter­na­tional-Women’s Day.

And there were the mem­bers of the banned Falun Gong spir­i­tual group whom Wang was sup­posed to be rep­re­sent­ing, but she was re­peat­edly de­nied en­try to the court­houses.

Af­ter one in­stance in the north­ern province of Hei­longjiang last year, when she was de­nied ac­cess to a Falun Gong client, she and a col­league stood out­side the Mu­dan­jiang po­lice bureau hold­ing signs say­ing, “Lawyers de­mand the right to meet with clients.”

Few peo­ple would have seen the pair out­side the re­mote po­lice sta­tion in a city near the Rus­sian bor­der, but Wang’s col­league put a photo of the two of them on Weibo, China’s ver­sion of Twit­ter, and it soon spread.

It was this work — and her use of so­cial media to take it to the masses — that led to her ar­rest last week as part of a co­or­di­nated, na­tion­wide crack­down on hu­man rights lawyers.

“I think she re­ally made the gov­ern­ment an­gry be­cause of her hu­man rights work,” said Teng Biao, one of China’s best-known civil rights lawyers and a vis­it­ing scholar at Har­vard Law School. “These lawyers are well or­ga­nized and they are well con­nected. They can mo­bi­lize peo­ple through so­cial media.”

Ar­rests of hu­man rights lawyers are hardly un­com­mon in China. As of Thurs­day, a to­tal of 215 lawyers, law firm staff mem­bers and hu­man right ac­tivists were de­tained, ar­rested or in­com­mu­ni­cado in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the Hong Kong-based China Hu­man Rights Lawyers Con­cern Group.

But an­a­lysts said the scale of last week’s mass de­ten­tions, which came amid a broader sup­pres­sion of non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions and other civil so­ci­ety groups un­der Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, was as­tound­ing.

“This is the most no­table crack­down since the one af­ter the 2011 ‘jas­mine’ protests that fol­lowed the Arab Spring, when there was con­cern that the prodemoc­racy move­ment would spread to China,” said Wil­liam Nee, China re­searcher at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. “But this has far sur­passed it in both the scope of the crack­down and the con­se­quences for cer­tain lawyers.”

Although Wang, 44, and other lawyers from the firm where she works were part of a broader group of lawyers de­tained, her sit­u­a­tion has at­tracted public at­ten­tion be­cause she was one of a few who had been sin­gled out for crit­i­cism.

Last month, the state-run Xin­hua News Agency ran an un­signed com­men­tary about Wang that was ap­par­ently de­signed to smear her rep­u­ta­tion. “This ar­ro­gant woman with a crim­i­nal record turned overnight to a lawyer, blab­ber­ing about the rule of law, hu­man rights, and jus­tice, and roam­ing around un­der the flag of ‘rights de­fense,’ ” it said.

Those who know her paint an en­tirely dif­fer­ent pic­ture.

Li Tingt­ing, a les­bian cam­paigner on women’s is­sues who was one of the “Five Fem­i­nists,” said that Wang is a pa­tient and com­mit­ted lawyer. “She works very hard. She’s al­ways on the road. Her bag is al­ways stuffed,” Li wrote on Weibo. “She is very thin, and ev­ery time I see her car­ry­ing that heavy bag, I note that she works so hard but she never com­plains.”

Maya Wang of Hu­man Rights Watch said the de­tained at­tor­ney is no fire­brand. “She’s softly spo­ken and she’s very se­ri­ous about her work,” she said. “First and fore­most, she’s a lawyer. The en­tire crack­down on her and her law firm is a po­lit­i­cal crack­down against lawyers who are just try­ing to do their jobs in im­ple­ment­ing the rule of law.”

But the author­i­ties used the train sta­tion in­ci­dent against Wang. “The fact that she has this con­vic­tion, even as dodgy as it is, makes her a tar­get,” Pils said.

When the state com­men­tary ap­peared, Wang and her col­leagues knew it was a sign of some­thing bad to come.

On July 8, Wang saw off her hus­band, hu­man rights ac­tivist Bao Longjun, and their 16-yearold son, Bao Zhuox­uan, at the air­port. They were head­ing to Aus­tralia, where the teenager was set to go to school.

That night at her home, the elec­tric­ity went off and the In­ter­net con­nec­tion went down sud­denly at about 3 a.m., she wrote in a text mes­sage to a group of fel­low lawyers. Then she heard the sound of some­one pick­ing the lock on the door.

“I looked out­side through the peep­hole but it was all dark. Some peo­ple were speak­ing in low voices but I couldn’t hear them clearly,” she texted. “Nei­ther my hus­band nor my son picked up their phones.”

It turned out that they had been ar­rested at the air­port.

When hu­man rights ac­tivists tried to call Wang af­ter re­ceiv­ing her texts, she didn’t an­swer.

Wang and Bao have been in de­ten­tion since, although their son was re­leased into the care of his aunt, but not be­fore his pass­port was con­fis­cated.

Sens­ing that she was likely to be picked up, Wang had said last month that her work meant that “many of the rich and pow­er­ful bear a grudge against me.”

“The truth can­not be long hid­den,” she wrote in a state­ment re­spond­ing to the Xin­hua com­men­tary. “I be­lieve that dur­ing this time of en­light­en­ment and rapid de­vel­op­ment of In­ter­net and media, any shame­ful at­tempt to smear me is doomed to fail.”

Author­i­ties ap­pear to be try­ing to make sure that doesn’t hap­pen.

Searches for “lawyer Wang Yu” and “rights de­fense lawyers” have been blocked on Weibo, and the only com­ments about Wang’s case have been highly neg­a­tive ones.

“Such a bad per­son should have been ex­e­cuted long ago,” said one, “and those lawyers who wrote nice things about her aren’t any good, ei­ther.”

KIM KYUNG-HOON/REUTERS

Wang Yu spent 21/ years in jail af­ter an al­ter­ca­tion at a train sta­tion in which she was beaten. What she saw and heard there, friends say, led

2 her to take on hu­man rights cases af­ter her re­lease. When state-run media de­nounced her last month, she sus­pected that trou­ble was ahead.

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