In a gloomy storm of hail, Li Wenzu set out on a 75-mile march from Beijing on Wednesday.
Wife of missing Chinese lawyer marches for answers
She is demanding answers.
Her destination is the neighboring city of Tianjin, where she believes that authorities are holding her husband, Wang Quanzhang.
Wang has been missing for 1,000 days.
He is one of the more than 200 human rights lawyers and activists who were arrested by the Chinese authorities in a crackdown on rights lawyers in 2015.
Many of them have now been sentenced or released on bail on charges such as “subverting the state.”
Wang is the only one of those arrested in 2015 who remains incommunicado. He appears to have been detained without trial or access to lawyers of his own choosing.
“We have tried every legal method possible to find out what’s going on with him, but all of our efforts were to no avail,” Li told Inkstone.
She has a five-year-old son with Wang.
“Angry, worried, heartbroken – not one word can describe my feelings now,” Li said. “We don’t know if he’s alive or dead.”
She’s heading for the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court to appeal for answers.
It’s a 10-day trek in 48-degree weather.
What happened to Wang Quanzhang?
William Nee, a researcher on China at Amnesty International, told Inkstone there’s no reliable information about what is happening to Wang Quanzhang.
“He’s probably holding out and saying he’s innocent,” Nee said. “The other possibility, although less likely, is that he’s been tortured severely and he looks so different they don’t want to present him yet.”
Last year Li Heping, another human rights lawyer arrested in the 2015 crackdown, was released after spending two years in jail.
His wife Wang Qiaoling told the BBC that Li had been handcuffed and shackled at all times for an entire month, so he could only stoop – even while trying to sleep.
Li Wenzu is worried that her husband is receiving the same treatment, or worse. She suggests that he hasn’t been released like the others because he’s refusing to show remorse, even after 1,000 days in detention.
“He’s very persistent and stubborn,” said Li. “He did his job as a lawyer and he will never think of himself as someone who’s broken the law.”
“Not once in 1,000 days," she emphasized.
Subverting the state
Wang Quanzhang was arrested in 2015 on charges of “subverting the state.”
Several other lawyers, including the founder of Beijing Fengrui, Wang’s law firm, were also detained.
The founder, Zhou Shifeng, was later sentenced to seven years in prison on the same charge.
Beijing Fengrui was known for defending human rights activists and representing underdogs in sensitive political cases.
The Chinese authorities, however, describe the firm as a “well-organized criminal group” who make “meticulous plans to sensationalize more than 40 sensitive cases, causing severe public disorder”.
Since the crackdown in 2015, many lawyers and activists have made public confessions during the course of their imprisonment.
Many believe they did so in exchange for more lenient sentencing.
In a publicly televised trial in 2016 Zhai Yanmin, an activist who’s worked for Beijing Fengrui, admitted to sensationalizing sensitive cases by paying for and organizing protesters.
Zhai also confessed that human rights lawyers raised money online or from overseas to pay these protesters. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
“The Chinese government puts a huge emphasis on ensuring that people confess and that the trials go according to plan in a scripted manner,” Amnesty International’s Nee said.
“It speaks a lot to the ‘rule of law’ under President Xi Jinping,” Nee added. “It’s more about manifesting the Party’s power.”
Wang Quanzhang’s wife Li Wenzu is determined to challenge that power with her 10-day march to Tianjin.
It’s unclear whether she’ll get the answers she needs, though.
After all – 1,000 days later, there’s no official record of a Wang Quanzhang in any Chinese prison.