This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
State security police surrounded the home of rights activist Li Wenzu and her rights lawyer husband Wang Quanzhang on International Women’s Day, as a U.S.-based rights group hit out at the country’s intimidation and harassment of dissidents.
“They sent people to start blocking our door, and not allowing us to go out, from about 5 a.m.,” Wang said from the couple’s home in Beijing’s Shunyi district on Thursday. “They used open umbrellas and shone their flashlights at our security cameras to stop themselves being captured.”
“Our camera shot some blurry footage of them and found out later that they’d stuck some kind of medicinal plaster over the lens,” he said.
But the harassment didn’t stop there, said Wang, a prominent target of a nationwide police operation that detained hundreds of rights lawyers, law firm staff and activists starting on July 9, 2015, and who later sued the authorities over his treatment in detention.
“At around 7:30 a.m., they started knocking on the door,” he said, adding that when he had opened the door to speak with them, they said they were there due to “special circumstances,” as it was International Women’s Day.
“There were around 20 of them, front and back, with several of their vehicles parked outside the door,” said Wang, who also found that the tires of his car were flat on the same day.
“This happened on Human Rights Day last year too, so I’m even more sure that someone is doing this stuff deliberately,” he said. “Other lawyers [in my chat group] told me they had also found their tires punctured.”
Passport application denied
The harassment of Wang and his family comes as the ruling Chinese Communist Party steps up “stability maintenance” measures during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
But fellow rights activist Wang Qiaoling said she believes the harassment could be linked to the fact that Li, who won the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in 2019, had planned to file an administrative review against her denied application for a passport, to mark International Women’s Day.
“We were planning to go to the Beijing municipal government to submit an application for an administrative review [of that decision], which is actually a pretty common legal procedure,” Wang Qiaoling said. “I don’t understand why they had to go to such lengths [to stop it].”
As the state security police stood guard over Wang and Li, a report from the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House showed that China remains at the bottom of its global survey of freedoms, one of the few countries to have been described as “Not free” for five consecutive decades.
“China ranks near the absolute bottom in terms of overall political rights and civil liberties,” according to the “Freedom in the World 2023” report, which described the country as unmatched in its ability to deploy technology in the service of a surveillance state. “Those who criticized the party received severe penalties.”
It said no country could match the scale and sophistication of the Chinese surveillance state.
“Residents’ activities are invasively monitored by public security cameras, urban grid managers, and automated systems that detect suspicious and banned behavior, including innocuous expressions of ethnic and religious identity,” the report said.
“Those identified as dissidents can face consequences including forced disappearance and torture,” it said. “Protesters continued to encounter pervasive surveillance, abusive interrogations, and intimidation at the hands of authorities.”
Zhou Fengsuo, executive director of the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights in China, said there is still plenty of resistance to abuses of power by the government, citing the white paper movement of November 2022 that prompted a swift retreat from the rolling lockdowns, mass quarantine and compulsory testing of supreme leader Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy.
“On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Party stepped up controls and concentrated its power, and its darkness reached a peak,” Zhou said.
“But on the other hand, there was also unprecedented resistance to trouble the waters, particularly in the second half of the year,” he said. “Eventually, that culminated in the white paper movement of late November.”