WANG Yu went about her business knowing full well she was being watched by China. She didn’t expect them to turn on her so quickly.
Described as “mild mannered” and “brave” by her supporters, the Chinese government viewed her instead as a thorn in their side. She was outspoken, critical and a supporter of those who couldn’t speak up for themselves. For her efforts, she was beaten, thrown in prison and handed a life sentence.
Ms Wang has been in prison since July 9. Earlier, she had waved her son and husband goodbye at the airport. They were on their way to Australia — her teenage boy was to complete his education here. But the day didn’t end the way she had planned, as she was arrested alongside more than 100 other lawyers in a crackdown some compared to those that followed the Arab Spring. Her husband Bao Longjun and son never made their flight either — they were detained at the airport, and now Mr Bao has been charged with ‘incitement to subvert state power.’
It’s not Ms Wang’s first stint in prison. In 2008, after being denied entry onto a train in Tianjin, the 44-year-old was assaulted by a group of men. She had a ticket but they had an agenda.
Months later, for her part in the altercation, Ms Wang was charged with assault and spent more than two years behind bars. The experience taught her more about the legal system in “The Motherland” than she could learn in any book.
She witnessed prisoners being tortured, mistreated and forced to work for no pay. When she emerged her resolve was steeled and her temperament was hardened but her freedom would not last.
Between 2011 and 2014 Ms Wang represented a prominent intellectual who was sentenced to life in prison for “advocating separatism” and stood beside the “Feminist Five,” a group of women charged in March with disturbing the peace.
She took to Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, to advocate for change in China shortly before her arrest on July 9 this year.
“I think she really made the government angry,” Teng Biao, one of China’s best-known civil rights lawyers, told the Washington Post.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a group that markets itself as “promoting and empowering grassroots activism”, said Ms Wang’s arrest was completely over the top.
“In the early hours of July 9, authorities abducted Ms Wang from her residence in Beijing after they apparently had cut the power in her home,” the group said in a statement.
“Ms Wang had returned home that morning after taking her husband and teenage son to the Beijing airport. She sent out alerts through her phone about unidentified people trying to break the lock on her apartment around 4am and has since been out of contact. According to neighbours, guards told them the heavy police presence was a raid on drug dealers and that one person was detained.”
The texts read: “I looked outside through the peephole but it was all dark. Some people were speaking in low voices but I couldn’t hear them clearly. Neither my husband nor my son picked up their phones.”
The group said the director of the law firm which employed Ms Wang was also abducted “with his head covered”.
This week, Ms Wang’s story took another twist when the US intervened and demanded her release. As China tries to hide the story from the public, America made Ms Wang the most well-known political prisoner in the world.
The US on Tuesday started a campaign to highlight the plight of 20 women around the world unfairly imprisoned for their views on political activism. The “Free the 20” campaign is designed to be tied in to the 20th anniversary of the Beijing declaration, which was signed by 189 countries to promote women’s rights as human rights.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said Ms Wang has been harassed, threatened and smeared in the state-run media” and “the truth cannot be long hidden”.
“In raising Ms Wang’s case today and others like it in the days to come, we aim to help her and others expose some of that truth,” she said.
“We will continue to repeat Wang Yu’s name and that of other women like her over the coming days.”
Ms Wang is the face of a bigger problem in China. At least 146 lawyers were arrested across 24 cities during the July raids. Of those, 22 were still in custody last month.
Feng Zhenghu, a prominent human rights activist and lawyer based in Shanghai, was briefly arrested and questioned. He told CNN he was told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business.
“The government asked us not to poke our nose in, to ignore the missing lawyers,” he said.
“They wanted us to know that they don’t want us to post or repost anything on this matter on the internet.”
President Xi Jinping, who took power in 2012, is viewed by many as the reason for increased tensions between human rights activists and the government.
Mr Xi is scheduled to visit the US this month. Some have urged the White House to cancel his reception. Short of that, he can expect an icy welcome from those rallying for Ms Wang’s release.