There is a joke among human rights activists in China: the primary qualification is “single, parents dead.” Given how often Chinese authorities treat family members of people opposing government rights abuses as “guilty by association,” it’s better not to have any family. 

Wang Liqin, holding a sign that calls for the release of her husband, activist Wang Zhang. © 2020 Private

It used to be that authorities harassed, intimidated, and monitored activists’ partners. But increasingly they are being detained and charged with crimes themselves.

On September 9, Beijing authorities detained publisher and producer Geng Xiaonan and her husband, Qin Zhen, accusing them of “illegal business operations.” Geng is a longtime supporter of independent scholars and activists, and recently spoke up publicly for her friend Xu Zhangrun, a prominent law professor detained for publishing articles critical of President Xi Jinping.

In March, Yunnan authorities forcibly disappeared artist and activist Wang Zang. Three months later, after Wang’s wife, Wang Liqin, called for her husband’s release on Twitter, she was also disappeared, leaving their four small children without their parents. This month, people close to the couple found out that both have been formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion.”

In February, Guangzhou police detained prominent and previously imprisoned legal activist Xu Zhiyong. Hours later, his girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based women’s rights and labor rights activist, also went missing. Accusing her of “subversion,” authorities held Li for four months under “residential surveillance,” a form of enforced disappearance in which police can hold individuals in undisclosed locations for up to six months.

In July 2019, Hunan authorities detained Cheng Yuan, a staff member of the anti-discrimination group Changsha Funeng, on “subversion” charges. The next day, authorities placed Cheng’s wife Shi Minglei, a business executive, under “residential surveillance” for six months, also for “subversion.”

In December 2018, Sichuan police detained Wang Yi, a prominent Christian pastor, and a court later sentenced him to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion.” Wang’s wife Jiang Rong, who was taken away with Wang, was detained in a secret location for six months.

Many activists in China have told me that they can themselves endure official retribution, but can’t bear their loved ones suffering for their activities. The Chinese government knows that well and exploits it to silence them. Nothing undermines Beijing’s claims to respect the rule of law more than this undisguised cruelty.