BEIJING >> Unresolved questions have haunted Yuan Shanshan since her husband, the human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, was taken away a year ago by the police.
She doesn’t know how her husband could have broken the law. She doesn’t know where she and their three children will live next month after they’re evicted. She doesn’t know what to name the 3-month-old baby girl with eyebrows shaped just like his.
Held in a jail 100 kilometers (60 miles) away, Xie probably doesn’t even know he has another child.
The Chinese government launched its largest-ever crackdown against human rights lawyers and activists on July 9, 2015, seizing and questioning hundreds of people nationwide in a campaign that sent a chill through the country’s legal system. Nearly two dozen of them remain in detention and face charges, including inciting subversion of state power — charges condemned by international rights groups and Western governments.
Twelve months later, the unprecedented sweep also has exacted a toll on the detainees’ families, who speak of financial ruin, homelessness, and physical abuse at the hands of police. Children have been denied schooling or placed under surveillance. Landlords have been pressured to evict families. Police have sought images of the detainees’ young children that could be used, relatives believe, to break their spirits and draw out confessions of wrongdoing.
The families’ stories, detailed in interviews with several of the detainees’ wives, paint a pattern of how China’s government — no stranger to political oppression — has refined its playbook for dealing with dissidents over the past decade while maintaining the veneer that it is abiding by the rule of law.
“Prosecution by media, forced confessions, roping in an entire family and punishing them — it’s a modern, mass-media era take on the Cultural Revolution,” said Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer. “Even 10 years ago lawyers could at least engage in the legal process. The party has run out of patience.”
Speaking in her home, Yuan described her year-long quest for information about Xie’s fate, an ordeal that exemplifies how the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has bent the legal system to its will.
The athletic, soccer-loving son of a military cadre, Xie obtained his law license in 2000 and shortly after earned the party’s ire by trying to sue former President Jiang Zemin for violating China’s constitution in 2003.
That year he met Yuan, an eloquent and poised nurse who lived upstairs in his apartment building. They fell in love and raised two boys — after paying a fee for the second child under China’s one-child policy — and moved to the Beijing suburbs, where he taught the kids to dribble a soccer ball and catch cicadas after rainstorms.
He published numerous essays about democracy and rule of law, and by 2008 had fallen in with China’s small but burgeoning group of rights lawyers as he took on cases defending rural villagers and practitioners of Falun Gong, the outlawed spiritual group.
When his friends came under fire last July, Xie was not detained in the initial wave. But he couldn’t resist posting an online essay lambasting the crackdown and was quickly summoned for a five-hour questioning on July 11.
After coming home that night, he recorded a voice memo to explain why he refused police demands to sign a confession.
“This isn’t about only me, there will be future generations,” he said in the 33-minute recording that Yuan listens to almost daily. “I can’t step back an inch because behind me are the rights of thousands of our sons of daughters. If none of us yield an inch, we might one day have rule of law. If all of us yield an inch, the rule of law will regress.”
Police arrived at 8 a.m. the next morning, on July 12, to take Xie away. They returned to rummage through the house for his possessions and questioned their boys, 10 and 6, about Xie’s computers and phones as they cowered under the bedcovers. After they left, Yuan huddled with the boys on their urine-soaked bed for hours.
In the days that followed, Yuan visited a half-dozen government agencies and departments looking for information but quickly realized this was not like Xie’s previous run-ins with authorities. As every department denied knowledge of his whereabouts, she saw a report by the official Xinhua News Agency naming her husband as part of a “major criminal organization.”
Bewildered, she began fighting back: She furiously read up on the law. She sued Xinhua, China’s powerful propaganda apparatus, for defamation. After Xie’s mother died a month into his detention, she unsuccessfully petitioned for a chance to tell him the news.
In January, she finally received notice of Xie’s arrest for inciting subversion of state power. But there was a twist: The family-appointed lawyer had been dismissed and replaced by government-appointed counsel. Neither lawyer had been allowed to visit Xie. Yuan asked officials why, and was told she “did not need to know.”
The Ministry of Public Security did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment. State media have accused the lawyers and activists of “stirring up trouble.” Rights groups say the lawyers are being targeted for organizing protests and social media campaigns to raise awareness of legal rights and hot-button social issues.
Eva Pils, a Chinese legal expert at King’s College London, said the government under Xi appeared more confident in citing its legal procedures compared to a previous era when dissidents were simply disappeared.
Before Xi came to power, “you had oppression but it was kept more hidden, the government wanted to avoid criticism,” Pils said. “There is a new assertiveness in the Xi era with the claims that we’re running the legal system our way.”
In those months, Yuan was faced with another dilemma. She discovered she was pregnant with a child conceived weeks, maybe days, before Xie’s arrest. On the verge of exhaustion, she considered an abortion.
In the end, she decided against it.
“I just hear his voice in the recording saying: ‘There will be future generations.’ I wanted to bring more people like him into the world.”
So she continued making trips to the Tianjin detention center, her belly growing bigger. She met the other lawyers’ wives outside the building, a group of women who banded together for support and solace.
They traded stories about how Wang Qiaoling’s daughter cannot attend a school she had been admitted to because the police refuse to issue requisite paperwork or how Fan Lili was homeless for weeks with her young child after authorities froze her husband Gou Hongguo’s bank accounts. Liu Ermin was repeatedly bashed against a metal door and stomped on the floor of a police bureau after attempting to find information about her husband, the activist Zhai Yanmin.
The group grew bolder, organizing small protests that drew foreign media attention. While Yuan stayed home, heavily pregnant, the women regaled her with stories of ducking into subways at the last second, changing cars and going into hair salons to ditch the security agents who trailed them.
When Yuan’s landlord told her police had pressured him to evict her, Wang offered to house her as she has some of the other wives.
Yuan gave birth in early March to a healthy girl weighing 3.6 kilograms (8 pounds.) She’s calling her meimei — “little sister” — for the time being, she said, because naming a child, a practice fraught with particular consequence in Chinese culture, should involve the father.
In case there is no more contact from Xie for the foreseeable future, she has drawn up names denoting either justice and perseverance or harmony and purity. Yuan can’t decide which.
One thing she is certain of, Yuan said this week as she surveyed her near-empty home with some belongings already boxed, was the decision to have the child.
“Like he said before he left,” she said. “There will be future generations.”