Yu Wensheng 余文生

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Yu Wensheng  余文生

Yu Wensheng  余文生

2023 Detention:

Criminal charges: Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble

Length of Punishment:


Trial Date:

Sentencing Date:

Dates of Detention/Arrest: April 13, 2023 (detained); May 22, 2023 (arrested)

Place of Incarceration:

2018 Detention:

Criminal charges: Inciting subversion of state power

Length of Punishment: 4 years imprisonment and 3 years of deprivation of political rights

Court: Xuzhou City Intermediate People’s Court, Jiangsu Province

Trial Date: May 9, 2019

Sentencing Date: June 17, 2020

Dates of Detention/Arrest: January 19, 2018 (detained); January 20, 2018 (criminal detention); April 19, 2018 (formal arrest)

Place of Incarceration: Shijingshan Detention Center (Beijing Municipality); Xuzhou City Detention Center (Jiangsu Province) (January 2018-March 1, 2022)


Police seized lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生) outside his Beijing home on January 19, 2018, as he was taking his son to school. Yu reportedly was forced into a police vehicle after an altercation between him and at least one officer. State media outlets put out a heavily edited video after lawyer Yu was detained, and claimed Yu had attacked police who were trying to take him in for questioning. Yu was initially held on suspicion of “obstructing official duties” and detained at Shijingshan Detention Center. The day before police seized him, Yu had released an open letter recommending changes to China’s Constitution, including a call for fair elections and the creation of an oversight system for the Chinese Communist Party, among other reforms. Yu Wensheng has been deprived of any visits with a lawyer of his or his family’s choosing during his entire detention, and there have been ongoing concerns that Yu has been mistreated in custody.

In the days just before his detention, Yu was the victim of several retaliatory acts by authorities. He was denied permission to set up a law firm and banned from travelling overseas on “national security” grounds. In addition, the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau on January 16 de-registered (注销), or temporarily cancelled, Yu’s law license, essentially disbarring him; as justification, officials cited his lack of employment at a law firm over the previous six months. In July 2017, Beijing Daoheng Law Firm had dismissed Yu under pressure from authorities, who had refused to let Yu and the firm’s director, Liang Xiaojun, “pass” the annual license review for lawyers. That particular punishment appeared to be reprisal for Yu’s attempts to visit a client, detained lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), the longest-held individual in pre-trial detention from the 2015 crackdown on human rights lawyers.

On January 27, 2018, police summoned for questioning Xu Yan (许艳), Yu’s wife, who learned that police had added a severe criminal charge against him, “inciting subversion of state power.” By that time, Yu had reportedly been transferred to Xuzhou City Detention Center in Jiangsu, where police said he was under “residential surveillance at a designated location.”

On April 18, 2018, his lawyers, Chang Boyang (常伯阳) and Xie Yang (谢阳), went to Tongshan District Public Security Bureau in Xuzhou and requested to meet with Yu. Authorities denied the request and presented the lawyers with a note dated April 16, apparently written and signed by Yu, expressing his intent to dismiss the two lawyers and requesting his wife not replace them. Any such statement was likely coerced, as it follows the disturbing pattern of detained rights defenders in China being forced to “fire” their lawyers and take on government-assigned ones. Recognizing that he may one day meet the same fate, Yu had taken the initiative before being seized to prepare written and video testimonies stating that he would not voluntarily fire his legal counsel if he were ever detained.

Yu was formally arrested on April 19, 2018, and Xu Yan was granted a video call with him later that day. Afterward, Ms. Xu reported that the lawyer had lost weight and that his hair had grown long and was unkempt. When Xu asked her husband whether he had in fact written the note dismissing his lawyers, Yu was unable to give a clear response. In May, authorities rejected an appeal from Xu Yan to free the lawyer on bail, and police continued to refuse to allow independent lawyers to visit him.

By July 2018, Yu’s case had been recommended by Xuzhou police for indictment. He had reportedly met with state-appointed attorneys, who had also been in contact with Xu Yan, while lawyers Chang and Xie were not being allowed access to Yu or any case materials. In early September, Xuzhou prosecutors sent Yu’s case back to police for further investigation, thus delaying his possible criminal prosecution. In October, police again sent the case to prosecutors, recommending indictment. Prosecutors indicted Yu on February 1, 2019 on the sole charge of “inciting subversion of state power,” dropping the charge of “obstructing official duties.”

Yu Wensheng’s wife Xu Yan released a statement on May 11, 2019, stating she had been informed that her husband had been put on trial in secret on May 9, 2019, though authorities had not informed her, the two lawyers she had hired, nor had they posted a public notice. On June 17, 2020, Xu Yan received a call from the Xuzhou City Procuratorate that Yu Wensheng had been sentenced to four years imprisonment and three years of deprivation of political rights.

On August 14, 2020, Xu Yan tweeted that Yu Wensheng’s lawyer Lu Siwei visited Yu on August 13, the first time Yu was allowed to meet his lawyer since he was first detained on Janaury 19, 2018. The lawyer found that Yu’s teeth had serious problems and his right hand kept trembling and he could no longer write with it. On October 13, 2020, Yu Wensheng’s other lawyer Lin Qilei and lawyer Lu Siwei visited him again. During the two-hour meeting, in addition to discussing the arrangement for his appeal, the lawyers found that Yu’s health condition had further deteriorated. Yu had had a continuous cough for over 20 days, his right front tooth had fallen out, his left front tooth was loose, and he had difficulty chewing food. Yu had repeatedly requested dental treatment, but the officers in the detention center rejected his requests. Officers also forced Yu to sit on a stool for long periods, which he protested and refused to do after it was making his body stiff. As punishment, the officers in the detention center took away his books two months prior to their visit, depriving him of reading materials. His health and physical condition were also affected by not having any exposure to sunlight and a lack of hot water in the detention center in the evenings.

In August 2020, seven UN independent human rights experts wrote to the Chinese government about Yu’s ongoing arbitrary detention and expressed concern about the 4-year sentence against him handed down in a secret trial in June 2020.

On January 26, 2021, Yu Wensheng was transferred from the Xuzhou Municipal Detention Center to Nanjing Prison. His family was not notified, and only after repeatedly calling various departments in early February did Xu Yan learn of his transfer. Xu Yan visited Yu on March 15, 2021 and learned that the condition of his right hand had worsened dramatically compared to when his lawyers had last seen him in August 2020: Yu’s right hand was now too weak to use chopsticks properly, and so he now also had difficulty eating. His left hand had also begun shaking. Xu Yan stated that Yu risked becoming permanently disabled if the shaking in his hands was not properly treated. Yu had also lost four teeth in total after his repeated requests for dental care were refused.

On April 15, 2021, Xu Yan and Yu Wensheng’s brother were able to speak with Yu over a video call in Nanjing Prison. Yu reported that when he was initially transferred to Nanjing Prison, he had been physically assaulted by a group of people, including blows and kicks to the head hard enough that he was dazed for some time afterward. He also stated that he had been examined by orthopedic and neurological specialists in a hospital. The orthopedic specialist had informed him that due to injuries he had received, his nerves had been damaged and prescribed vitamin B12 for treatment. Yu had also been transferred to an area for the incarceration of the elderly where the prisoners were assigned a lighter workload for which they were unable to earn work points, and so he was no longer able to purchase enough food for himself. On June 10, Xu Yan visited Yu Wensheng and reported that his hands were shaking so much that he could not use chopsticks or brush his teeth. He had suffered a kidney stone and problems with his spine. He had not been given new teeth for the ones that had fallen out.

Yu Wensheng was finally released on March 1, 2022. He was reunited with his wife, although their ability to travel freely appears to be limited.  On April 1, 2022, Yu Wensheng and his wife had attempted to set out on a 7-10 day vacation. However, their car was not allowed to enter the highway, and they were forced to go back to Beijing. (To what extent this was due to legitimate COVID-19 restrictions was unclear).

On April 13 at approximately 4:00 pm, human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his wife Xu Yan left their home in Beijing to travel by subway to attend an event at the European Delegation. They were invited to an event with the EU’s Ambassador to China Jorge Toledo Albiñana and an unnamed senior EU official, according to Politico.

However, Yu and Xu were prevented from accessing the subway by four plainclothes police officers. One of the officers, a state security police officer, told them that they were being summoned to a police station, which Yu Wensheng announced on Twitter. The four police officers took them to the Shijingshan Bajiao police station.

Human rights lawyers Wang QuanzhangLi Heping, and Bao Longjun were also harassed by authorities during this period.

The EU Delegation to China tweeted on April 13, “We demand their immediate, unconditional release. We have lodged a protest with MFA [China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs] against this unacceptable treatment.”

According to Rights and Livelihood Watch, on April 15 in the evening, approximately seven police officers came to Yu Wensheng and Xu Yan’s home, and they orally read a criminal detention notice to the couple’s son, who had just turned 18 years old. The pair were criminally detained on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Police would not allow the son to take photos, nor would they give him the criminal detention notice. Also, even though no warrant was presented, police proceeded to search the home and carried off many items.

On April 16, two lawyers, Song Yusheng and Peng Jian, paid a visit to Yu and Xu’s son to bring him fruit, and fill out paperwork to obtain legal status to represent Yu and Xu.  There were two people guarding the door of Yu and Xu’s home. Lawyer Song knocked on the door, and it was answered by the son, but the lawyer saw that in the home there were also two officers inside, one plainclothes and one wearing a uniform. The plainclothes officer, who said his name was Lu Kai, asked what they wanted. The lawyers said that they were there to visit the son and have him sign an agreement (委托书) to entrust them as lawyers. However, the plainclothes police officers said that Yu Wensheng told them that he “doesn’t want to have lawyers at this stage” and that Xu Yan had already found two lawyers.

Yu Wensheng’s detention may also be related to his condemnation of the sentencing of Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, two prominent pro-democracy figures. On April 12, Yu Wensheng wrote on Twitter that he had been visited at his home by Shijingshan police for a tweet he had sent out on April 9 that said, “[I] strongly condemn the Chinese authorities heavy sentence of scholar Xu Zhiyong to 14 years and of Lawyer Ding Jiaxi to 12 years! I pay my respects to Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, who have worked hard in the struggle for freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. I believe that one day the Dream of a Beautiful China will be realized.”

On May 22, the brother of Yu Wensheng said that Yu Wensheng and Xu Yan had been arrested on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Police would not give him a copy of the arrest notice or let him take a picture. On May 24, lawyer He Wei, who had received family authorization to act as their lawyer, was denied the ability to visit Yu and Xu by police.

On May 31, authorities charged Xu Yan with “inciting subversion of state power,” and Yu faced this new charge as well. Meanwhile, their 18-year-old son has been in a state of house arrest.

Born in Beijing on November 11, 1967, Yu Wensheng has represented victims of the Chinese government’s assault on civil liberties, including petitioners, activists, and his fellow rights lawyers. Yu has also been an advocate for change in multiple areas of Chinese society; for example, he was among a group of lawyers in 2016 to sue the government over air pollution. Before his current detention, Yu had long faced state harassment and intimidation, such as when he was detained for over three months in 2014 after publicly expressing support for Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement.

Further Information

Mandates of Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and 5 UN Special Rapporteurs to Chinese Government on Yu Wensheng’s Case, August 13, 2020

China: Free Arbitrarily Imprisoned Rights Lawyer Yu Wensheng, June 17, 2020, CHRD

Working Group on Arbitrary Detention opinion No. 15/2019 (China) on Yu Wensheng, May 29, 2019

Submission to UN on Yu Wensheng, November 8, 2018, CHRD

Communication on Mr. Yu Wensheng: Mandates of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, March 6, 2018 (response from the Chinese government, March 11, 2018)

China Strips Rights Lawyers’ Licenses in Reprisal Against Their Push for Rule of Law, January 24, 2018, CHRD

Individuals Detained in Mainland China for Supporting Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protests, CHRD

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