Behind the Confession of Chinese Women’s Rights Defender Wang Yu

Remember the Feminist Five who were arrested in China for planning a public campaign against sexual harassment? On July 31, 2016, their human rights attorney Wang Yu (王宇), “confessed” to her crimes shortly before she was about to stand trial.

Wang was disappeared on July 9, 2015 and charged with “subversion of state power” in early 2016; she was detained for over a year before she confessed. Her disappearance last July was the start of the “709 Incidence,” the mass-scale crackdown on over 100 Chinese civil rights attorneys, also known as “cause lawyers” or “rights defenders” (weiquan lawyers, 维权律师).

Wang’s confession, which is public — while the likely torture, intimidation, threats and violence that precipitated the confession have, of course, been invisibilized by the state — was hard to watch. Ever since she herself was wrongfully imprisoned for over two years, Wang has defended the bravest, the most rebellious, and the most vulnerable members of Chinese society in the face of state violence. She’s advocated for religious freedom and the freedom of assembly. She’s fought on behalf of elementary school girls who were sexually assaulted by school and government officials. (The outrageous assault and Wang’s backstory are covered in the heartbreaking documentary “Hooligan Sparrow.”) She was also the attorney of late activist Cao Shunli (曹顺利), who died in detention after being denied treatment by Chinese authorities. And of course, she represented the “Feminist Five” who were arrested in March 2015. Wang is widely admired by Chinese feminists, who see her as the conscience of the Chinese bar.

Many believe Wang’s confession was coerced and scripted. According to Amnesty International’s 2015 research, Chinese human rights defenders and advocates have long been the targeted victims of state torture. Common torture tactics include “tiger bench” (forcing victim’s legs to bend backwards), “diaodiaoyi” (also known as “hanging restraint chair”), deprivation of sleep or food, extreme heat or cold, and “iron chair” (restraint and immobility for long periods of time). Recorded and televised confessions are a key trend in recent Chinese state media: back in 2014, journalist Gao Yu (高瑜) confessed to “leaking state secrets” on the national broadcaster, Chinese Central Television (CCTV); in January 2016, Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin apologized on CCTV for his violation of the Chinese law and “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people”; and in February, five booksellers based at Causeway Bay Books (铜锣湾书店) in Hong Kong, who disappeared mysteriously in 2015, suddenly appeared on CCTV and confessed to illegal book sales. Wang Yu is by no means the first activist to be targeted by the state; nor, I am sure, will she be the last.

The fact that the Chinese state has spent such energy on silencing Wang proves just how powerful a feminist civil rights attorney she is. Since 2015, the Chinese state has vigorously cracked down on women’s rights activists, often engaging in extreme psychological intimidation, including the threat of sexual violence. (Wu Rongrong, one of the “Feminist Five,” was threatened by police  during an interrogation: “We’ll tie you up, throw you in a cell with men, and let them gang rape you.”)

China ratified the Convention Against Torture (CAT) in 1988.

While a comparison of state violence against women in the U.S. and in China is much needed (and a worthwhile topic for another day!), I’ll say just this for now: The two largest powers of our time are both actively using state violence against their people.  In hard moments like these, let’s remember that we as ordinary citizens possess the capacity — and the responsibility — to remember Wang’s work and to resist state silencing. After all, our collective consciousness and memories of state violence — however fledgling right now — cannot be easily “confessed” away.

Header image credit: @Badiucao

New Haven, CT

Nancy Tang aspires to become a legal advocate for the marginalized and the indigent. A second-year J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, Nancy co-directs the Rebellious Lawyering Conference (RebLaw), the largest student-run public interest law conference. She grew up in Beijing, China, attended Amherst College, and was a former Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research interests include: law & gender-based violence, Chinese politics & social movements, reproductive justice & population control, criminal justice reforms, and immigrant rights. Nancy enjoys podcasts, pocketed dresses, and procrastination (in addition to alliterations, of course).

A feminist from Beijing, Nancy Tang is an aspiring legal advocate studying at Yale Law School.

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