On July 9, 2015, the Chinese government began to purge human rights lawyers, activists, and legal personnel by illegally sending them to prison. This became known as the 709 crackdown.
Wen Donghai is a human rights lawyer who started his career as a police officer and teacher. In early 2015, he began handling human rights cases and later became the defense lawyer for Wang Yu in the 709 incident. He was forcibly dismissed from the case by the authorities in 2016. Recently, Wen Donghai accepted an interview with a reporter and talked about his own journey from policeman to teacher to lawyer.
Reporter: You used to be a police officer. What gave you the idea to become a lawyer, and furthermore a human rights lawyer?
Wen Donghai: I was born in the 1970s. We were in a village up in the mountains. The environment was relatively closed off and information was hard to come by. I learned from information from the outside from an early age. At that time, the ideal future was being a police officer or a soldier. I thought that being a police officer was quite honorable. After graduating from high school, I was admitted to the police school, Hunan Public Security College. After graduation, I became a police officer at the Changsha Public Security Bureau.
Initially, I was quite enthusiastic. In school, we learned that being a policeman helps to maintain justice. After a while, I found that it was a common job, basic, and boring: We did not have enough to do and played a lot of mahjong at work. I disliked many things I had to do at work and became depressed. I did not want to live such an ordinary life. So, in 2000, I went to Beijing Public Security University to study administrative management and later was admitted to the Public Security University graduate school, but my police unit did not support my decision. Thus, I resigned and studied at my own expense.
After finishing my postgraduate studies, I taught at a university and later obtained a lawyer’s license. In 2009, I became a lawyer. I started to pick up some ordinary cases. In 2014, a lawyer was arrested in Beijing. I saw someone in the WeChat group drafting documentary support and I left my phone number and my signature.
Subsequently, I was brought into a human rights lawyer group. I found that these people were different from my previous contacts. These lawyers were not only courageous, but also very serious about their work. They dared to argue about public prosecution law and didn’t yield. I think they are real lawyers. I caught the bug slowly and began to get involved with some rights cases.
When I was doing business cases previously, there were always some compromises. I felt very uncomfortable with the judges and prosecutors. They thought that I was asking favors from them and they ignored me intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes, I really did have to ask favors from them, so it became impossible not to accommodate them. When a lawyer has to rely on a personal relationship to do the work, it just doesn’t make much sense.
After I contacted the rights lawyer group, I felt very close to them. I liked that circle of people and slowly became friends with them. Since 2014, I have been paying attention to some human rights cases and slowly began to support other public cases. In July 2015, as one of the defenders of Tang Jingling, Yuan Chaoyang, and Wang Qingying, known as the “Guangdong Democratic Three Musketeers” for “inciting subversion of state power,” I handled a rights protection case for the first time.
I feel that lawyers should behave like this. Although sometimes there are risks, lawyers should be adventurous. Especially living in China, you can become sensitive to everything you do. It is this society that is too abnormal.
While bragging is not part of my personality, there is a tiny bit of the ancient knight character in my bones. I love to fight for the weak and am willing to speak positively for the public welfare of society. In this era, instead of living and suffering, I might as well stand up and work hard with everyone to push this society in a better direction. My efforts may not be so great, but I am working hard so that I will have no regrets later. I should also be responsible for future generations. I cannot leave all the problems to the next generation, and lawyers are in the spirit of advocating democracy and the rule of law. Fundamentally, I am the same, and I also hope that China will move toward democracy and the rule of law.
I am very happy to be able to stand on the front line and promote something and do something today.
I don’t believe China will always be like this because if a country’s lawyers are in such a position, this country has no hope. Despite this, I believe that China will have a way out. This is a necessary process that must be experienced. Once we have experienced it, the next generation has no need to go through it again. That is something we must accept.
Reporter: You are the defense lawyer for Wang Yu in the 709 incident; can you talk about some of your experiences during this process?
Wen Donghai: In the 709 lawyers arrest, I was the first to stand up. At that time, my attitude was very clear. I told the police that Zhou Shifeng and Wang Yu were not guilty and should not be arrested. They should not be smeared by CCTV state media. Later, the police asked me to talk, and my reaction was very strong. After that, I was interviewed at Radio Free Asia and publicly aired my thoughts.
After a month, someone found me and asked me to represent Wang. At first, I was hesitant. On the one hand, I had no experience. On the other hand, the situation was really terrible at that time: The police arrested people everywhere and the environment was tense. Later, I thought that if the environment did not change, more people would be arrested, so after hesitating for a week, I promised to be the defender of Wang Yu.
At first, I was forced to talk about it. They didn’t want me to speak online. I wanted to show my perspective, for I am seeking the truth and facts. In order to maintain a lawyer’s professional dignity and my own personal dignity, I constantly challenged some things and constantly broke through some restrictions. Now, in retrospect, I did my duty. That period was very important to me, and I have gradually grown into a true human rights lawyer, but, as a result, I am not allowed to leave the country and I can’t practice in Hong Kong or Macau.
I encountered many difficulties that I had never imagined before. I was not allowed to meet my client, could not receive information on the progress of the case, and could not communicate with my client. My client was almost completely invisible. Later, the authorities surprised us even more by simply dismissing me.
The ironic thing is that after they dismissed me, they introduced new regulations to protect the rights of lawyers. Almost every rule shows that the police arresting the lawyers was against the law. But they did not care about the law.
Since January 8, 2016, they have successively dismissed lawyers one after another. Wang Yu’s mother authorized me to be her lawyer. My defense procedures were complete, and my defense lawyer status was approved by the police, including the Tianjin local government and district government, Tianjin Public Security Bureau, and Tianjin courts. Despite this, they dismissed me without any legal documents.
Reporter: How do you feel about the 709 crackdown?
Wen Donghai: Before the 709 crackdown, I still had high hopes for China’s laws. I still believe that China has hope and can embark on democracy and the rule of law. However, I felt completely disappointed after the 709 incident. Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China has no hope and cannot follow the rule of law.
Among more than 100 countries in the world, how many are Communist countries? Just one or two, so the democratic legal system is the trend because dictatorships and the rule of democracy are inherently opposite to each other.
Reporter: How do you see the significance of the 709 crackdown?
Wen Donghai: After 709, the rights lawyer group was getting bigger and stronger instead of smaller. Although the authorities strictly guarded the defense lawyers so that they were unable to function properly and were not allowed to appear in court, the defense lawyers fully displayed their talents in the big court of society.
The 709 family members’ protests surprised the authorities. They expressed their appeals to society and sought support from the international community. The family members’ performance in the 709 crackdown exceeded all expectations of our defense lawyers and may even surpass their relatives in jail. They were brave and very wise, truly an eye opener!
I heard from lawyers who were released saying that they had been tortured in custody. It was the defense lawyers and their family members who were constantly protesting outside, so the authorities realized that there was no good way to end it. Consequently, they were let out alive.
Translator: Yi Ming