The Lonely Crusade of China’s Human Rights Lawyers

Xie Yanyi, one of the lawyers detained in the 709 crackdown. Credit Giulia Marchi for The New York Times

BY ALEX W. PALMER
JULY 25, 2017

Liang Xiaojun had just finished breakfast when he received the first instant message: His friends were disappearing from their homes and offices. By itself, this news was unremarkable. As a human rights lawyer in China, Liang had come to accept that periodic spasms of repression were an unavoidable risk of his profession. He also had grown intimately familiar with the rituals of pressure and coercion by which China kept its dissidents in line — the meetings over tea with government minders, the frequent check-ins from the judicial bureau, the police harassment. But on the morning of July 10, 2015, Liang knew that something far graver was underway.

A disturbing event from the previous day, he now realized, had been merely a prelude. That morning, he awoke to startling news from a promi­nent rights lawyer named Wang Yu. After dropping her husband and son off at the airport for a red-eye flight, Wang returned to her apartment to find that the power and internet had been cut. In the early-morning hours, she sent out a frantic group message, describing how several men were trying to break in. Wang then dropped out of contact. That day, Liang and his colleagues in the human rights community circulated a petition, calling on the government to release her swiftly and without harm. But, he told me, ‘‘we didn’t think a lot about it. These things happen. We worried about her, but not about ourselves.’’

The petition was published online the next morning, just as Liang’s phone was flooded with a new wave of panicked messages. The arrests began around 7:30 a.m., when three men snatched a prominent lawyer from a hotel on the edge of Beijing, rushing him through the lobby with a thick black hood over his head. Simultaneously, police officers raided Fengrui Law Firm, a legal nerve center of China’s human rights community. Staff members scrambled to spread the news on messaging apps, then dropped abruptly out of contact as officers stormed through the building.

Liang went to work, trying to pretend that it was a normal day even as desperate messages continued to spread across China — ‘‘Flee at once,’’ one of them read. By late afternoon, nearly 60 lawyers were either detained or unreachable. Accounts of ransacked law offices, of friends and colleagues in handcuffs and hoods, circulated online. Alone in his small office in western Beijing, Liang watched his cellphone rumble to life with each bleak new update. One by one, his colleagues were vanishing.

The sense of siege was compounded by a near-total communications blackout. Just as the raids began that morning, Telegram, a messaging app popular with rights activists in China, went offline. Service remained down throughout the day, a result of a sustained cyberattack targeting the company’s servers. The culprits were unknown, the company said, but the attack had been ‘‘coordinated from East Asia.’’

Not wanting to alarm his wife, Liang waited until he returned home that evening to tell her what was happening. Then he began to prepare. He took a shower, tidied up his room and hugged his wife and young son. Around 10 p.m., his cellphone rang. It was the police, instructing him to come immediately to a nearby cafe. ‘‘I told my wife and son that I would be back soon, it’s just a talk,’’ he told me. But privately, he knew the truth: They had finally come for him.

Life has never been easy for China’s criminal defense lawyers. Until 1979, the People’s Republic operated with virtually no criminal-justice system whatsoever: The Communist Party organized Soviet-style police and people’s courts to address petty crimes and local disputes, but their primary responsibility was to enforce absolute loyalty to the party. Even the Constitution, the ostensible basis of the law, was rudimentary at best, and served mainly to outline the means of ‘‘socialist industrialization and socialist transformation’’ in order to abolish ‘‘systems of exploitation.’’ The near-constant churn of intraparty purges, revolutionary campaigns and political mobilizations rendered law an afterthought at best and a tool of the bourgeois antirevolutionaries at worst.

The economic reforms of the late 1970s brought legal reform along with them. The legal profession and the criminal-justice system were built from scratch — Mao had purged and destroyed the nascent community of lawyers in one of his ideological campaigns — but there was trouble from the start. These new courts were envisioned not as independent arbiters but as the ‘‘knife handle of the proletarian dictatorship,’’ according to Sida Liu, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies law and society in China. Defense lawyers were often treated like criminals themselves, harassed and imprisoned for fulfilling the basic duties of their profession. Between 1997 and 2001, at least 143 lawyers were arrested, detained or beaten in China for working on criminal cases, according to the Chinese bar association. The threat of punishment — or the allure of a comfortable job at a government-friendly firm — persuaded many lawyers to avoid criminal cases altogether, or to simply accommodate the whims of the authorities.

By the early 2000s, the Chinese leadership under Jiang Zemin was taking a relatively soft approach to ideological conformity — in part because the country was petitioning for membership in the World Trade Organization, which required American approval at a time when United States officials were pressing China on its domestic policies. A new generation of Chinese lawyers was also entering the profession, students who ‘‘would read about constitutionalism, would read about liberal values,’’ says Eva Pils, a reader in transnational law at King’s College, London. ‘‘Students in those days were really studying the American Constitution as much as the Chinese one, and trying to think about ways of giving effect to the Constitution — to revitalize and breathe life into it.’’ A debate within the profession bubbled to the surface: Should lawyers operating in an illegal society follow the law? Faced with the slow strangulation of their rights and protections, some lawyers concluded that in an unjust system, extralegal methods — open letters, micro­blogs, protests and public advocacy — were the only way to uphold the true principles of the law.

Liang was making his name just as this newer, more radical movement of ‘‘rights protection lawyers,’’ weiquan lushi, was finding its voice. At first, the network was informal and uncoordinated; it grew through referrals, word of mouth and personal connections. From a core group of fewer than 20 people in the early 2000s, the movement expanded swiftly: By 2015, there were hundreds of lawyers practicing human rights law or engaged in online social groups. They were a fraction of a fraction — as of January 2017, China had 300,000 lawyers — but the rights lawyers were zealous, outspoken and willing to challenge the government in ways their predecessors would not have dared.

The movement scored notable victories. Rights lawyers helped draw national media attention to scandals involving tainted milk and vaccines, illegal land seizures and police brutality. But pragmatism was never their primary aim. To the new generation of lawyers, rights-defending was ‘‘a strict moral obligation toward the victims of abuses, as well as toward human society and toward oneself, ’’ Pils wrote in a legal journal in 2006. Compromise was neither tenable nor desirable. In a country where many political and social issues are taboo, and even certain kinds of thought are forbidden, the rise of rights lawyers was a precarious but hopeful development. ‘‘People developed a sense of purpose,’’ Pils says. ‘‘It’s a terribly hackneyed term, but there’s a sense of being empowered, of agency.’’ It was the allure, Pils says, of ‘‘living in truth.’’

But success eventually invited repression. The activities of rights lawyers inside and outside the courtroom ‘‘made them doubly obnoxious to the regime,’’ says Jerome Cohen, director of New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute. In August 2013, an internal party memo was leaked online. It listed ‘‘seven unmentionables’’ that the party sought to stamp out. Among them was ‘‘Western constitutional democracy,’’ which included ‘‘independent judiciaries’’ and ‘‘universal values’’ like ‘‘human rights.’’

At the same time, the Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping began to place a new emphasis on ‘‘rule of law.’’ During the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress, in October 2014, the leadership devoted an entire plenary session to discussing and passing an ambitious slate of legal reforms. The participants declared that ‘‘the country should be ruled in line with the Constitution,’’ a constantly revised and modified document, which in its newest iteration guarantees such rights as freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and of religious belief and, since 2004, ‘‘human rights.’’ The session followed similarly spirited exhortations by Chinese judges, diplomats and bureaucrats. Across every sphere of government activity, ‘‘rule of law’’ has become the phrase du jour. But in practice, ‘‘rule of law’’ has simply meant ‘‘rule of the party.’’

The government’s rhetorical shift came as the world was recalibrating its relationship with China and its conception of human rights. During his time in office, President Barack Obama de-emphasized human rights in the United States-China bilateral relationship; instead, he sought to cultivate China as a partner on issues like trade, climate change and North Korea. In meetings with President Xi, Obama claimed ‘‘frank’’ discussions of the countries’ divergent views on human rights, but he refrained from pressuring Beijing over its detention of political dissidents and human rights activists. The fate of Liu Xiaobo, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was imprisoned by the Chinese government on charges of ‘‘inciting subversion of state power’’ for his role in writing a pro-democracy manifesto, went largely unmentioned in Obama’s public comments. (Liu died earlier this month, from complications of liver cancer, while in government custody.) On the campaign trail and in office, President Trump has made explicit his predecessor’s shift: Today, China is too important and too rich to risk antagonizing over human rights issues. ‘‘I believe he is trying very hard,’’ Trump said of Xi, after the leaders met in April. ‘‘He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He doesn’t want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man.’’

The last five years have brought severe setbacks for China’s lawyers — especially those who work on the rule of law. Sida Liu, the Toronto professor, has called this divergence the ‘‘dual-state model.’’ ‘‘They use one system for ordinary legal cases and use another, much harsher system for sensitive cases,’’ Liu told me. ‘‘They draw a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable.’’ When that line is crossed, ‘‘they can do anything to you.’’

The last five years have brought severe setbacks for China’s lawyers — especially those who work on the rule of law. ‘‘They use one system for ordinary legal cases and use another, much harsher system for sensitive cases,’’ Liu told me. ‘‘They draw a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable.’’ When that line is crossed, ‘‘they can do anything to you.’’

Liang was initially drawn into the profession more by circumstance than by conviction. The son of a People’s Liberation Army officer and a manager at a library, Liang grew up in a comfortable middle-class household where the party’s dictates were treated as gospel. He drifted into commercial law but struggled with the work. ‘‘It was not what I wanted,’’ he says. ‘‘I felt to be a lawyer sometimes you have to speak against your will.’’ His turning point came in 2008, when he defended a man from Xinjiang, the restive Muslim-majority autonomous region in China’s far west. His client was accused of ‘‘splittism’’ and, eventually, of providing state secrets to foreigners. In reality, Liang believed, the man was imprisoned for converting to Christianity. A friend of Liang’s took the case initially, but the police refused to allow him to meet his client; frustrated, the friend asked Liang if he could help. ‘‘I said, ‘Yes, I can,’ ’’ Liang told me.

When I met Liang for the first time, on a late-February day last year, I pressed him to explain this decision. The case proved to be his first step onto a potentially dangerous path of confrontation with the Chinese state. Why had he done it? We were sitting in Liang’s modest, unadorned office, drinking tea, and as I spoke he cocked his head in apparent puzzlement. ‘‘I feel I must,’’ he told me. ‘‘People’s rights have been destroyed. Many times they have been tortured. Their families are broken. I cannot turn my back and ignore this.’’

He opened his own law firm in 2009 and started taking more human rights cases soon thereafter. He didn’t realize the work was dangerous — ‘‘the ignorant fear nothing,’’ he told me — until three months later, when the Ministry of Justice sent representatives to his office. By that point, he had accepted the risks. In the years that followed, Liang expanded his work to represent dissidents, human rights activists, petitioners and other persecuted groups across China. He took almost every case that came to him and quickly developed a reputation as a quiet but steadfast member of the burgeoning movement, working cases that had once seemed impossible or untouchable to him.

Then came July 9, 2015 — ‘‘709,’’ as it came to be known, the largest crackdown on Chinese lawyers in decades. All together, Chinese human rights observers estimated that fall, more than 300 rights lawyers and activists from across the country were targeted, with 27 forbidden to leave the country, 255 temporarily detained or forcibly questioned and 28 held in government custody. It was an attack not just on rights lawyers but also on the wider networks of civil and social activism. ‘‘The human rights lawyers play the most important role in civil society,’’ says Teng Biao, a rights lawyer who left China in 2014 and is now a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. ‘‘Whenever there is a blogger or a church leader or a journalist arrested, some courageous lawyers represent them.’’ Human rights lawyers are not just advocates for China’s dissidents but often the connective tissue among them. The 709 crackdown was intended to silence many voices in one stroke. ‘‘Kill one, intimidate 100,’’ Sida Liu told me.

Many of the lawyers and activists swept up in 709 faced possible sentences of life imprisonment. For six months, they effectively disappeared, under a provision of the Chinese criminal code that allows the police to hold suspects incommunicado for ‘‘residential surveillance in a designated location,’’ a practice that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has asked the government to end ‘‘as a matter of urgency.’’ In the aftermath of the crackdown, Liang — who avoided arrest himself — did his best to remain inconspicuous. It was a decision born of disposition as much as self-preservation: 45 years old, with boyish cheeks, kind eyes and short, graying hair, Liang is quiet and self-effacing, neither a natural advocate nor a zealous crusader. ‘‘He’s not someone you would find on a soapbox,’’ one friend told me.

Yet now, it was the lawyers themselves who needed defending. After 709, many of the remaining members of the legal community went underground or retreated from the work. Liang himself dared to write about the cases only under a pseudonym. His wife asked him to stop doing human rights cases when their first son was born, and again when Liang was nearly arrested in 2011.

Seven months after the crackdown began, as we spoke in his office, I watched Liang’s phone ping to life with a surprising message, delivered via a secure messaging app. ‘‘Hello, Liang,’’ it began. ‘‘I’m Xie Yanyi’s wife. You came to my house a few days ago. Now I need your help.’’

No further explanation was necessary. Xie Yanyi was his close friend and a venerated figure among his fellow lawyers: Bold, confident and uncompromising, Xie took cases no one else would, sued powerful government departments and spoke out openly in the press. The police came for him soon after the crackdown began, and he had been held ever since. The lawyer whom Xie’s wife, Yuan Shanshan, had hired to defend him was under too much government pressure to continue working on the case.

‘‘Can you suggest another lawyer?’’ Yuan asked in her message. ‘‘Or maybe, if possible, you could take the case.’’

Over the next two weeks, Liang went back and forth about Yuan’s plea. ‘‘I knew how much pressure there was — this is a serious case,’’ Liang told me later. ‘‘I tried to think which lawyers were fit to defend Xie. But I have so many friends who are suspects themselves. There were not enough people left to defend all of them. Xie needed help and support.’’

On March 4, Liang wrote back to Yuan. He would take the case.

On a brisk, cloudless day in late March, I joined Liang as he visited Yuan at her family’s apartment on the outskirts of Beijing. As we drove past glittering shopping malls and rows of tall, identical housing blocks, Liang told me about the first time he met Xie, in 2009. At the time, Liang had only recently begun to self-identify as a human rights lawyer; Xie, by contrast, was already something of a legend among his peers, having challenged the president in spectacular fashion years earlier. The men became fast friends and allies.

After nearly two hours we reached Miyun, a district in northeast Beijing abutting the dimpled mountains that ring the city. We wandered through a sprawling residential complex and arrived outside the Xie family apartment, where a rack overflowing with children’s shoes crowded the landing. Liang knocked quietly, and Yuan, in black sweatpants, a gray sweater and flip-flops, answered the door and invited us inside.

Before discussing business, Liang asked to see the Xies’ new daughter. The child was born just a week earlier, almost nine months to the day after Xie’s arrest. In a cramped, makeshift nursery, the baby was asleep, with Yuan’s younger sister keeping a dutiful watch. ‘‘What’s her name?’’ Liang whispered. ‘‘She doesn’t have a name yet,’’ Yuan replied quietly, eyes fixed on her newborn. ‘‘I’m waiting until her father returns home to give her one.’’

Yuan ushered us into the living room, and Liang took a seat on a low brown couch. Drawings of ghosts and fall landscapes by the couple’s two sons hung on string across the window. Liang pulled a stack of papers from his backpack and began sorting through them as Yuan, in the kitchen, stood over a copier, scanning the identification documents that Liang would need in order to defend her husband. Though they had been colleagues for years, Liang had never inquired about his friend’s background, and as Yuan brought out the documents — lawyer’s license, marriage certificate, ID card and more — she began to tell her husband’s life story.

Xie Yanyi was born in 1975, the son of a military officer turned factory boss and lawyer. He was stubborn from an early age, Yuan told me. Despite their age difference, Xie loved to challenge his older brother to wrestle and fight. He never won, she said, but the defeats did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm.

In 1997, Xie’s mother, a lawyer herself, sent Xie to Singapore to study law. In addition to his classes, Xie interned at a local law firm, where he was exposed to human rights law and theory for the first time. When Xie returned to his hometown, he rented a small apartment, locked the door and asked a friend to bring him food twice a week. Six months later, he passed the bar. He practiced for several years before making his name in spectacular fashion in 2003, with a case that became a sensation in the Chinese media.

That year, Jiang Zemin ended his second term as president of the People’s Republic of China. Despite officially retiring from public life, Jiang retained his role as chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission. ‘‘Yanyi said that violated the Constitution, so he sued,’’ Yuan told me with a rueful smile. Xie called his challenge to the ex-president ‘‘the first constitutional lawsuit’’ in Chinese history.

It was a courageous gesture, but also a foolhardy one. ‘‘I was young — I was very naïve,’’ Xie told an interviewer years later. ‘‘I thought, The law provides this channel, and I’m going to use it. I believed in the protection of the law.’’

A Beijing court summarily dismissed Xie’s challenge, but the complaint brought notoriety to the 28-year-old lawyer — as well as intense scrutiny from the state security apparatus. He moved to Miyun in hopes of escaping some of the pressure, but wherever he went, the young lawyer remained under constant surveillance.

From the start, Yuan said, she was conflicted about her husband’s work. She found it difficult to fully support him. Why risk everything for a cause that had never returned anything to him? The couple married in summer 2006 and came to a compromise: She would take care of the home, and he would keep his work as a human rights lawyer away from the family.

That compromise crumbled on July 11, 2015, two days into the wave of arrests. At 8 p.m., Xie received a phone call instructing him to come to an interrogation session. Xie knew that many of his friends and colleagues had been taken already. Yuan urged him to leave immediately, to go hide at his brother’s factory until the situation cooled down. But Xie refused to flee. At the interrogation, five police officers asked Xie about a letter he had written in support of Wang Yu, the lawyer whose detention signaled the start of the crackdown. Xie replied that he was friends with Wang, as well as with many of the other captured human rights lawyers. The police asked Xie’s opinion of the Chinese Communist Party. Xie replied that he was not a Communist and didn’t need to be loyal to the party. The police instructed Xie to write a guarantee promising that he would not speak out about the captured human rights lawyers. He refused.

Xie returned to his apartment at 1 a.m. on July 12. Six hours later, the police knocked at his door and told him that he was to come immediately for a meeting with their superior officer. He never returned. At 2 p.m., 20 policemen, some in uniform and some in plainclothes, swarmed into the apartment, confiscating Xie’s registration papers, books, bank cards, case files and cellphone. Yuan managed to hide her husband’s laptop before the police arrived. In their search for it, the officers tried to enlist the couple’s two sons, ages 11 and 8. ‘‘Where’s your father’s laptop?’’ the officer asked, squatting down to eye level. ‘‘Where does he like to keep it?’’ After three hours, the police left.

It was only days later, in a news broadcast, that Yuan learned that her husband was being investigated for the crime of ‘‘inciting subversion of state power,’’ which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. No one had seen or heard from Xie since July 12. The communications blackout meant that Xie was unaware of anything that had happened since his arrest, including his mother’s death from a heart attack on Aug. 22. Yuan traveled to the Tianjin police bureau, where Xie was reportedly being held, to ask permission for Xie to attend his mother’s funeral. She stayed on a chair in a waiting room for three days, pleading her case. The police refused her request.

Xie was also unaware of his wife’s pregnancy. At the time of her husband’s arrest, Yuan didn’t know about the baby, either. Two days before her due date, she returned to the Tianjin police bureau, trying to get Xie’s signature for a hospital form. Again, the police refused. ‘‘They wouldn’t even tell him about the baby,’’ Yuan said.

Liang finished preparing the papers for Yuan to sign. She dropped gracefully to one knee in front of a low green-glass table and signed the forms, sliding them back toward Liang, who added his signature beside hers.

Outside, Liang was in a quiet mood. As we approached his car, he began talking, as if to no one in particular, about what actually happened during his own meeting with the police during 709. ‘‘They asked me the same questions they asked Xie,’’ he confessed. ‘‘They told me not to get involved with the captured lawyers, not to talk to journalists or write articles. I said O.K. They forced me to write a guarantee. I wrote it.’’ He paused and smiled weakly. ‘‘I guess I am not as firm as Xie.’’ We drove back to Beijing in silence.

One week after the visit to Yuan’s apartment, Liang traveled to Tianjin, a bland industrial port city just southeast of Beijing, to try to meet his new client. Like many of the lawyers detained during 709, Xie was being held at Tianjin Detention Center No. 2. Liang’s plan was to visit the detention center and confirm his status as Xie’s lawyer. That sounded simple enough, but as we prepared to leave on the train from Beijing, Liang was not optimistic. ‘‘All the lawyers who went to Tianjin said a special policeman came out and told them they couldn’t see their client because he or she had refused a lawyer.’’

He was determined to press the issue. ‘‘It isn’t legal for the police to tell us our client’s will,’’ he said. The visit in itself was valuable, he added. ‘‘It’s pressure from lawyers and the suspect’s relatives on police that changes things. We must keep up the pressure. If we don’t, the policemen will think we don’t care about the case.’’

An Army soldier in camouflage and flak jacket remained motionless as we entered the detention center, following our movement only with his eyes. The local police, in varying degrees of armament, augmented the security. Behind the guards was a window onto the detention center’s interior courtyard, neatly trimmed and ringed by stone arches, like a college quad.

Liang presented his papers and asked to see his client. We watched as guards gathered at a desk behind a glass partition, peering at us and mumbling among themselves. Liang was calm but wary. I asked if he was nervous. ‘‘No,’’ he said, and paused. ‘‘I’m just not sure what they’re going to do with you.’’ I thought back to my visits to Liang’s office in Beijing: When it came time for me to leave, he would peek his head out the door, ensure that no one was keeping watch and only then let me go. It was only after several such goodbyes that I noticed the pattern and realized that he was protecting me.

The wait was brief. A few minutes after we arrived, a thick metal door beside the glass partition swung open. Two men emerged. The first was young and crisply dressed, with short black hair and an enigmatic smile. The second man was older and less imposing. He had stooped shoulders, a thinning comb-over and a tired, distracted mien. The younger man turned to Liang and called him inside. Liang handed me his cellphone and disappeared with the men behind the heavy metal door.

The meeting lasted less than four minutes. Liang emerged alone and headed directly for the exit. As we walked back along the rutted dirt track toward the subway, he narrated the encounter for me.

The younger man, he explained, was an officer named Li Bin, who had been tasked with meeting the relatives and lawyers of all the 709 detainees. Liang had heard of Li, but Li clearly knew Liang intimately: He began the meeting by ticking off a list of Liang’s previous cases and his encounters with the police and judicial bureau. Then he turned to Xie’s case. ‘‘We can’t accept your power-of-attorney form,’’ he said. ‘‘Xie already has two defense attorneys.’’ Liang asked who these lawyers were. Li replied that he was not required to answer. Liang asked if the other lawyers had visited Xie to prepare his defense. Li said again that he was not required to answer.

Liang continued to press. How could he confirm that Xie had hired these lawyers? How could Xie have hired his own lawyers while incommunicado in detention? Li replied each time that he was not obliged to say; Liang was not Xie’s lawyer and had no official connection to the suspect. The second officer said nothing.

As Liang got up to leave, Li offered a comment. ‘‘I’m surprised you’re not defending Wang Quanzhang,’’ he said. Wang was one of Liang’s closest friends and, like Xie, he was being held somewhere inside Tianjin Detention Center No. 2. No one had heard from him in eight months. ‘‘I know he’s a good friend of yours.’’ Then Li smiled, handed back Liang’s papers, and showed him out.

In the years since the movement’s founding, rights defense lawyers have taken up causes including freedom of expression, labor rights, religious freedoms and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Yet in every case, the lawyers face a common and elemental adversary: fear. Beyond beliefs or values, this is what unites the movement’s members. ‘‘I think you can probably go inside lots of law schools’’ in China ‘‘and speak to lots of students and find they have pretty liberal ideas,’’ Pils told me. ‘‘It makes sense to most people that law is better served by, for instance, an autonomous judiciary.’’ But that does not make them human rights lawyers, she says. ‘‘It’s really a question of, Can you withstand the pressure?’’

Under President Xi, that pressure has ratcheted up across Chinese civil society. As part of a far-reaching campaign to stamp out ‘‘foreign hostile forces,’’ the government has detained and deported foreign activists, denied medical care to detainees and revived the practice of forced televised confessions, a throwback to the days of internal party purges. The campaign has been justified by a host of new legislation granting the government a free hand over almost any matter deemed relevant to national security.

For lawyers who veer into sensitive areas of the law, the pressure is applied slowly; it begins with a simple invitation to tea from the police. What kinds of cases are you working on? an officer asks. Do you know what your colleague has been up to lately? How are your children finding their new teacher?

Often, the first meeting is enough to change a lawyer’s course. For those who continue, the pressure gradually escalates: frequent visits from the judicial bureau, being constantly followed and messages from government minders — ‘‘Be careful what you say at your meeting this morning’’ — that serve both to intimidate and to remind that someone is watching.

The pressure can be startlingly personal. In the on-and-off cycle of repression and relaxation, some minders treat their target to dinner one week, then interrogate him the next. Softening euphemisms abound: to have been ‘‘spoken to,’’ instead of threatened; ‘‘educated,’’ instead of disciplined. Somehow the fear and the constant threat of violence become normalized. ‘‘At first you’re scared just to talk to someone,’’ Pils says. ‘‘And then one day you’re used to the idea that you could be taken anytime.’’

For Liang, it was soon after accepting his first human rights case in 2008 that he came to the attention of the authorities. In 2010, he was prevented from attending a meeting for the first time. A European embassy in Beijing was holding a conference on rule of law, and the organizers invited Liang to speak. The morning of the event, two policemen knocked on his door. They stayed with him throughout the day, gave him lunch and then sent him home after the conference concluded. Since then, the harassment has been nearly constant, including intimidation from government thugs and raids targeting Liang’s office.

The most jarring incident came in August 2015, a month after the 709 arrests. Liang was with his wife and son at the Beijing airport, preparing to fly to New York for an exchange program at Columbia University. When the family was at customs, Liang was stopped and told that he was not allowed to travel. ‘‘They said I might endanger national security,’’ Liang says. He has been unable to leave the country since.

Before his travel ban, Liang opted to stay silent about the 709 crackdown. Having been granted a visa to the United States, he hoped to keep a low profile and so maintain his freedom to travel with his family. When that hope proved illusory, his calculus changed. ‘‘I decided, Well, I might as well go public,’’ he told me. He began to write articles under his own name and openly denounced the detentions as illegal. And yet Liang has also made his accommodations to the system. Faced with the same decision as his friend Xie Yanyi, Liang chose to sign the forms, make the promise, nod when told. Liang has rarely been detained for longer than 12 hours, a rare distinction among human rights lawyers.

As he sees it, minimizing confrontation is a matter of tactics. ‘‘I don’t deal with the police too hard,’’ he told me, as we rode the subway from the detention center back to central Tianjin. ‘‘The police press me to take a pledge to do something, I say O.K. Because for them, there’s no law. If they don’t act in accordance with the law, I don’t need to keep my pledge to them. I just need to do the things I think are right.’’

I asked Liang if he considered himself a brave man. He paused. ‘‘I think I’m not braver than the lawyers in the detention centers,’’ he said. ‘‘Sometimes I’m scared, and I still try to do the right thing, to defend sensitive cases and challenge the party in accordance with the law. But I have a family and parents, a wife and son. I need to protect myself sometimes.’’

We reached our station and shuffled up the stairs. Before reaching the top, Liang stopped and turned to me. ‘‘Do you know ‘The Catcher in the Rye’?’’ he asked. He began to paraphrase a passage: ‘‘An immature man wants to die nobly for a cause. A mature man wants to live humbly for one.’’ He gave a small smile and fidgeted with his jacket pocket. ‘‘I use these words to comfort myself sometimes.’’

In the aftermath of the 709 arrests, the police turned their attention to some of the wives and family members of the detained lawyers. The pressure became especially intense after two of the wives, Wang Qiaoling and Li Wenzu, began holding public demonstrations and pressing the government for answers. Together the women rallied the wives of the detained lawyers into an impromptu community, half support group and half protest movement.

While lawyers like Liang navigated the byzantine legal system, the wives became the public face of 709, leading small rallies and protests in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities. The wives traveled to the detention center in Tianjin with a nearly religious devotion. Each week, they took family and friends and posted photos online of their children frolicking on the beige linoleum floor of the prosecutor’s office, like snapshots from a dystopian family vacation.

I met Wang and Li in a wood-paneled coffee shop on a blistering summer afternoon, a little more than a week before the first anniversary of the crackdown. The worst part of their husbands’ sudden disappearance, they agreed, was trying to explain the situation to their young children. Li, whose husband was Liang’s friend Wang Quanzhang and whose son was 2½ when his father disappeared, tried at first to maintain a veneer of normalcy, telling her son that his father was on a business trip. But over the course of the year, as the family visited detention centers, police stations and lawyers, the boy came to realize that his father had been taken to prison. He asked his mother why.

‘‘I explained that he is a lawyer,’’ Li told me. ‘‘He has to help others. Because he helps others, he has been taken away by monsters.’’ Wang put her hand on Li’s back as she continued. ‘‘ ‘Why doesn’t he come back?’ my son asked. ‘Are there too many monsters?’ I said to him, ‘If you be good and grow strong, you can help your father fight the monsters.’ ’’ She paused and took a sip of tea. Li’s husband often came to Liang’s office to work, and the books he had left behind still cluttered Liang’s shelves — and as she spoke, Liang kept his eyes down, fiddling with a pen. ‘‘He asked if others are also helping fight the monsters,’’ Li said. ‘‘I told him, ‘Yes, many people.’ ’’

Yet despite their troubles, it was Xie’s wife, the women agreed, who was in the toughest position. She lived far outside the city, isolated from the other wives and sources of support. And only Yuan had a new baby to care for, a distinction that the authorities had employed as a powerful bargaining chip.

The police had offered Yuan a deal: If she would write a letter persuading her husband to confess, they would recommend a lighter sentence, and he would be allowed to see a photo of the baby. It was the only way, the police said, to reform Xie’s ‘‘poor attitude.’’ Liang warned her to resist. ‘‘They are trying to put psychological pressure on Mr. and Mrs. Xie,’’ he told me. ‘‘I think it would cause Mr. Xie to break down. As a man, seeing video of your baby when you’re not there — it would be too hard.’’ Yuan hesitated at first, desperate for any form of contact with her husband, but eventually she agreed. She became an active member of the wives’ group, traveling repeatedly to the detention center to demonstrate.

In the coffee shop, Wang and Li began planning for the coming anniversary of the crackdown. They had yet to decide what form their protest would take; they discussed the possibility of all the wives’ wearing red. ‘‘The red makes us feel better,’’ Wang said. ‘‘We want to show our optimism, so every time we go to Tianjin, we wear red.’’

As we got up to leave, Wang and Li pulled two short stacks of white printer paper from their purses and handed them to Liang. ‘‘Just in case,’’ Li said. Scrawled across the pages were handwritten power-of-attorney forms, naming Liang as the lawyer for both of them in the event that they were detained. Liang tucked the papers into his backpack without a word. The wives waved goodbye, then stepped out into the blazing sun arm in arm.

In mid-November, the Tianjin deputy police chief called Xie’s older brother, Wei, with a proposal. The police had told Xie about his new daughter, but he still did not know about his mother, and the police worried that he would react violently when he learned the news. If Wei would agree to tell Xie about their mother’s death, the police would arrange a meeting between the brothers. Wei agreed. It would be the first time anyone had seen Xie since his capture 16 months earlier.

The meeting lasted more than four hours, with Xie carrying the bulk of the conversation. He spoke about human nature, about philosophy and democracy and about what he had learned in the detention center. His imprisonment was also valuable for the guards and officials, he said. ‘‘It’s an exchange of minds,’’ he told his brother. ‘‘The officials also need to be changed and enlightened by this experience. This is necessary to see the light.’’

Around noon, lunch arrived. During the meal, Xie turned to the deputy police chief, who was sitting off to the side. In his first six months of detention, Xie said, he had been given three steamed buns each day, but he never ate more than half his portion. ‘‘Do you know why I didn’t eat them all?’’ he asked the deputy. ‘‘I was preparing myself to endure hunger. I wanted to be ready for the long term.’’ The deputy laughed uneasily.

Xie did not seem interested in the outside world. He did not ask about the status of his imprisoned friends and colleagues, or about his wife and still-unnamed newborn daughter. He had spoken at great length, but Wei could not recall a single question his brother had asked.

Only the shock of his mother’s death seemed to pull Xie briefly back to Earth. Wei hesitated to broach the subject, and he hoped somehow to avoid it. But the police officers interjected, reminding him of their deal. Wei reluctantly delivered the news. At first, Xie did not believe it. Wei moved to a chair beside his brother and held both his arms. ‘‘I explained it was a heart attack,’’ Wei says. ‘‘He thought it was cruel to tell him about this.’’ Xie began to cry, and no one spoke for several minutes. When Xie regained his composure, he said that the first thing he would do upon his release was visit his mother’s grave.

Once the news had been delivered, the meeting quickly ended. As Xie was taken away, Wei asked the police officers if it would be possible to meet again. Before they could reply, Xie responded that there was no need. ‘‘You have your own work, and it’s very tiring to come to Tianjin,’’ he said. Wei asked again, and the police officers said that they would request approval. ‘‘There’s no need,’’ Xie repeated. ‘‘I can handle this by myself.’’ He was led away by several guards and disappeared behind an iron gate.

Later, when Yuan heard Wei describe the meeting, she remained mostly silent. But at the end, she leaned forward and spoke with pride about her husband’s determination. ‘‘He’s ready to spend his life in prison,’’ she said. ‘‘He will take his case as a sacrifice to democracy and rule of law in China.’’ Before his capture, Yuan said, her husband had wrestled with finding his purpose. ‘‘Now it seems he’s found his way.’’

Liang, too, seemed bolstered by the news. ‘‘I’m very happy after what I just heard,’’ he told Yuan and Wei. ‘‘But it’s not a surprise to me. I know he’s a man with a powerful heart.’’

Privately, though, Liang was more skeptical. ‘‘Xie is talking philosophy; we are dealing with his case,’’ Liang told me after Yuan and Wei had left. The idea that Xie had given up the struggle, even while so many others continued to fight and long for his freedom, was difficult to accept.

Liang needed to get back to work. Yuan had asked him to prepare for the possibility of a trial, and he had begun drafting a statement of defense. But now he was unsure what to say, or how to proceed. It seemed that perhaps his client — his friend — was more lost than Liang had realized.

‘‘We know we can’t win. We can’t do anything to make our clients not guilty. For human rights lawyers, our job is to meet with them, to encourage them, to deliver their message to the outside.’’

One afternoon, I found Liang hunched over his office desk, flipping through a yellowed, dog-eared copy of the Chinese criminal-procedure law, hoping to find a new way forward on Xie’s case. As I entered, Liang put down the law book and rubbed his temples. Over the last several months, his spirals of gray hair, once limited to beside his ears, had spread upward toward the crown of his head. ‘‘We know we can’t win,’’ he said, slowly and quietly. ‘‘We can’t do anything to make our clients not guilty. For human rights lawyers, our job is to meet with them, to encourage them, to deliver their message to the outside. Only lawyers can do this. And so I continue to defend them.’’ Liang paused and touched a cup of tea cooling on the desk. ‘‘Maybe in the future, after many years, when we look back at the sacrifice of Xie and other lawyers, we will see it was worth it. That they used their sacrifice to push forward Chinese human rights, to expose the government’s rule of law as fake.’’ He stood up from his desk and turned back toward me. We were the only ones left in the office. ‘‘But who will remember his name?’’

Since the trials of the 709 detainees began last summer, the news for Liang and his fellow rights defense lawyers has largely been bleak. At trial, lawyers were forced to recant in humili­ating ways. ‘‘I want to remind everybody to wipe their eyes and clearly see the ugly faces of hostile forces overseas,’’ one said, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency. ‘‘Never be fooled by their ideas of ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights’ and ‘benefiting the public.’ ’’ When Wang Yu, the first lawyer detained, was freed on bail, her release was accompanied by a video in which Wang conspicuously refused several prizes she was awarded while in prison, including one from the American Bar Association. ‘‘I am Chinese,’’ she said, ‘‘and I only accept the Chinese government’s leadership.’’

In September, the Ministry of Justice announced new measures expressly targeting the types of extrajudicial activism that had made the rights defense movement so potent and powerful. Under the revised regulations, activities like ‘‘conducting sit-ins, holding banners or placards, shouting slogans’’ and ‘‘expressing solidarity’’ were all forbidden. So, too, was ‘‘generating pressure through public opinion’’ by ‘‘forming groups, organizing joint signature campaigns, issuing open letters’’ or ‘‘gathering online in chat groups.’’ Firms were expected to dismiss lawyers who disobeyed or risk having their licenses revoked. Later that fall, three more rights activists disappeared into state custody.

Then, in January, the first detailed account of a 709 lawyer’s arrest and detention became public. In transcripts released by his lawyers, Xie Yang — a human rights lawyer unrelated to Xie Yanyi with a history of working politically sensitive cases — described months of torture and mental abuse at the hands of a rotating cast of police officers, prosecutors and detention-center officials. During marathon interrogation sessions, Xie Yang said, his captors threatened his family — ‘‘Your wife and children need to pay attention to traffic safety when they’re out in the car; there are a lot of traffic accidents these days’’ — and told him that his detention had been authorized at the highest levels of the central government. If he wanted the interrogations to end, there was only one answer: ‘‘Let me tell you, filing a complaint will do you no good,’’ he was told. ‘‘This case comes from Beijing. We’re handling your case on behalf of Party Central.’’ When he refused, the torture began. ‘‘I’m going to torture you until you go insane,’’ one interrogator said. ‘‘You’re going to be a cripple.’’

Amid the tide of dark news, there was one bit of hope for Liang. In early January, almost a year after Yuan first reached out to him to ask for his help, he received another surprising message from her. Xie Yanyi had been released on bail and moved from the detention center to a nearby hotel under house arrest. The Tianjin prosecutor had declined to pursue the case.

Two weeks later, Xie returned home. The family released a statement, thanking their supporters and stating that ‘‘due to his health and current situation,’’ Xie would not be accepting visitors or interviews or participating in any public affairs. Instead he would focus on spending time with his family; his first priority was picking a name for his 11-month-old daughter.

It was not until early May that Xie began to emerge from his home and Liang finally had a chance to see him. The pair met at a KFC near a busy subway station in downtown Beijing. They chatted about their families and about Xie’s gradual readjustment to life outside the detention center. His freedom was imperfect and tightly controlled — a government minder, unobtrusive but obvious, trailed Xie wherever he went. But Liang noticed subtler changes in his friend, signs that his time in custody had chipped away at his spirit. Xie remained optimistic and pugnacious, but he was also calmer, more aloof. Still, Xie pressed on. He and his wife had finally chosen a name for his daughter: Xie Xin’ai, ‘‘thanks to love.’’ He had also taken his first case, representing members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Despite his wife’s protestations and the dire state of human rights law, Xie was eager to get back to work. ‘‘He has no fear,’’ Liang says.

Yet Xie’s hard-won freedom belied a wider retreat of human rights. In July, when Liu Xiaobo died in government custody, foreign governments and heads of state issued perfunctory messages praising and mourning him, but the global reaction was muted. The world had turned its attention elsewhere — to economic growth, terrorism, North Korea and other issues on which China’s cooperation was essential. Human rights was an unwelcome intrusion. The United States would no longer ‘‘tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship,’’ President Trump said, in a speech in Saudi Arabia. Liu died isolated and imprisoned ‘‘while the whole world watched,’’ says Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

In the days just before and after Liu Xiaobo’s death, Liang retweeted a string of messages from friends and colleagues, eulogizing Liu and grieving his loss. But Liang was circumspect about the potential for Liu’s death to spark change inside China. ‘‘I think there will be a big reaction in the democracy movement,’’ he said. ‘‘But the government will probably shut down news about this, or dilute it, so it won’t have too much impact domestically.’’ Nine years as a Chinese human rights lawyer had taught Liang that losses like Liu’s death were the norm. They could not be prevented, only endured.

Alex W. Palmer is a writer based in Beijing. He last wrote for the magazine about the rise and fall of a Chinese hedge-fund titan.

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