Exposed: How China Punishes Families of Human Rights Defenders

A U.S.-based human rights organization says Chinese authorities have been “collectively punishing” families of human rights defenders in recent years, warning that the persecution appears to be part of a “state policy.”

In a new report, Chinese Human Rights Defenders said authorities have held the children of detained human rights defenders in custody and put them in psychiatric hospitals or orphanages, forced school-age children to drop out of school, imposed exit bans on children of human rights defenders and imprisoned some family members of rights activists.

The collective punishment carried out against families of Chinese human rights defenders “is completely illegal and violates all sorts of international human rights laws and conventions,” Renee Xia, director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said during an online press briefing on April 11.

“The most heartbreaking part is [how the Chinese authorities are] inflicting so much pain on the children of human rights defenders and the experience of watching their parents being mistreated growing up leaves long-term psychological trauma on them,” she added.

VOA has reached out to China’s foreign ministry for comment but has yet to receive a response. During a Universal Periodic Review held by the U.N. Human Rights Council in January, China’s top diplomat in Geneva said Beijing is dedicated to “safeguarding the rights of specific groups” and “children’s development.”

Forced to drop out of school

As part of the collective punishments against families of human rights activists, some have experienced repeated forced evictions while schools are repeatedly turning away their children due to pressure from local authorities.

Wang Quanzhang is a prominent human rights lawyer who was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison on charges of subversion during the “709 crackdown” in 2015. Wang has been evicted by landlords or hotels more than a dozen times since last April. He described the forced evictions as part of Chinese authorities’ retaliation against him and his family.

The 2015 crackdown is known in China as the 709 crackdown because it began on July 9, 2015. On that date, authorities began targeting independent legal advocates and arrested hundreds of lawyers.

“The authorities think our community has been trying to humiliate them, so they want to use all the means at their disposal to punish human rights lawyers,” Wang told VOA in a phone call.

Apart from the forced evictions, Wang said his 11-year-old son has been turned away by schools several times over the last year. “Since we were forced to move to new places so frequently over the last year, it’s been difficult for my son to remain at the same school for long enough,” he said, adding that some schools would turn away his son due to pressure from authorities.

Wang tried to send his son abroad last year, hoping to protect him from the harassment.

“When we tried to leave China last October, the customs officers stopped my son and the daughter of another human rights lawyer and said they weren’t allowed to leave the country since they could be a threat to national security,” he said.

Since then, Wang and his family have moved to the southern province of Guangzhou and tried to admit his son to a private academy recommended by his friends.

“After just a week, close to 20 people suddenly showed up at the academy to conduct ‘inspection’ and following their repeated harassment, the academy was forced to move to a more discreet location,” Wang said.

Since it’s not clear when his son may return to school, Wang is signing him up for some online classes to make sure he is still learning something. “The authorities know my son is my biggest weakness so they try to make it difficult for him to go to school, hoping it could stop me from criticizing them,” he told VOA.

In addition to Wang’s son, the children of other detained human rights activists have also experienced persecution from Chinese authorities. According to the CHRD report, the 11-year-old son of detained Chinese activist He Fangmei has been put into a foster home since her detention in February 2021 and her two daughters, ages four and one month old at the time, were left at a psychiatric hospital despite repeated pleas from relatives.

Meanwhile, Yu Zhenyang, the 19-year-old son of detained human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his wife Xu Yan, was briefly detained and tried to commit suicide twice since last November.

Family of rights defenders detained

Apart from targeting children as part of their collective punishments against Chinese activists, CHRD said Chinese authorities have detained or imposed tight control on family members of imprisoned activists.

Wang Li, the wife of imprisoned Chinese artist Wang Zang, was sentenced to two-and-half years in prison in December 2022 after she demanded that authorities release her husband.

In addition to that, VOA previously reported that several family members of detained Chinese activist Peng Lifa, who famously draped protest banners on a bridge in Beijing calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “national traitor,” have been put under strict surveillance.

In its report, the group demands that China “immediately cease all harassment and extralegal detention of the family members of human rights defenders.” CHRD has also called on the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, to issue robust statements on rights violations committed by the government and provide regular updates on the progress of dialogue with officials.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *