Amid China's Crackdown On Human Rights Lawyers, One Woman Fights On For The Future

Dec 31, 2016
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It's been a tough year for China's small band of human rights attorneys. Authorities have interrogated more than 260 rights - 60 human rights lawyers activists and their family members. Since a crackdown began in 2015, another 20 or so are in prison or detention. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt found out, sometimes government intimidation can backfire.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I first met Wang Shengsheng two years ago outside of a Shanghai courthouse. She was representing a woman who'd spent a year in prison after protesting the government's demolition of her home. I'm sure what my image of a Chinese human rights attorney was but Wang didn't fit it. She was petite, in her late 20s and wore a fashionable green overcoat with wooden buttons. After court, we ate Chinese hotpot at a local restaurant. Wang had already been through a lot. Earlier in the year, police in another province had thrown a black hood over her head and abducted her for interrogation, so she was wary about speaking with a foreign reporter.

WANG SHENGSHENG: (Through interpreter) Are you going to broadcast this overseas? Is it possible you just call me lawyer Wang instead of using my full name? Because the director of my law firm says that if I accept an interview with foreign media, I have to be careful.

LANGFITT: Wang's concerns turned out to be prescient. Six months after we spoke, China's government launched an unprecedented crackdown on rights attorneys like her.


AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Police have detained or questioned nearly 150 lawyers and activists in recent days.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The scale of these police raids that appear to have targeted human rights lawyers and activists have...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: China put its state police on display as the show trial of its best known human rights lawyer got underway inside...

LANGFITT: The government's objective was clear. Eva Pils teaches at King's College London and is the author of "China's Human Rights Lawyers: Advocacy And Resistance." She spoke over Skype.

EVA PILS: It's decimation and intimidation with the overall goal, really, of stopping this entire movement.

LANGFITT: Earlier this year, before I left Shanghai for a new job in London, I visited lawyer Wang at her home in central China. Her fears had come true. Under pressure from local authorities, her law firm tried to fire her. But 300 fellow attorneys signed a petition in her defense.

So your firm gave you your job back?

WANG: Yeah. They said, OK, we'll continue our contract.

LANGFITT: The caution Wang displayed in the restaurant a year and a half earlier was gone, replaced by defiance in the face of the government's campaign.

WANG: This is like a terror, like a terror. We feel we just need to fight back to survive.

LANGFITT: Fight back, she says, to survive. Wang recently had her first child, a boy.

Some people - they have a child, they become more careful.

WANG: No, no.

LANGFITT: Why not?

WANG: Because I feel I have no ability to protect my child, so the only way out is to fight.

LANGFITT: The only way out, Wang says, is to fight. She dabs her eyes with a tissue instead of making her more cautious, motherhood has made her even more invested in building a just society.

WANG: Sometimes, I blame the previous generation. If you fight it, maybe I can live more easily.

LANGFITT: If they'd fix the problem earlier?

WANG: Yes, yes. That will be easier for us. We don't have to struggle like this.

LANGFITT: Wang says she plans to continue the struggle for legal rights in China and not leave it to her son and the next generation. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.