In a case that has shaken anti-discrimination rights defense circles inside China and overseas, state security detained on July 22 three disability rights legal advocates working in Changsha—Cheng Yuan (程渊), Liu Yongze (刘永泽), and Wu Gejianxiong (吴葛健雄)—on suspicion of “subversion of state power.” They are currently held in the Hunan Provincial State Security Bureau Detention Center in Changsha and have been denied visits by lawyers and families.
The day the activists were detained, Cheng’s wife, Shi Minglei (施明磊), was also taken by state security officers who forced a black hood on her and handcuffed and interrogated her for 18 hours. The interrogators pressed her to provide details of Cheng’s work and made threats involving her 3-year-old daughter. She said that she did not know about the specifics of her husband’s work.
Shi recounts the rough treatment and threats she received in a complaint she recently filed with Changsha and Hunan provincial authorities seeking redress:
“. . . [T]he interrogators threatened to bring my three-year-old child in to interrogate alongside me if I did not provide satisfactory answers. . . . [They] also threatened to detain a female colleague of Cheng Yuan’s who had just given birth . . . Are they really going to separate a mother from her newborn child? . . .
“What shocked me even more was that during the forced interrogation, the officers abused their power and announced that they were placing me under ‘residential surveillance,’ with full knowledge that I have no connection with my husband’s case, and confiscated my various identity documents, bank cards, cell phone, and computer and, in doing so, deprived me of my personal freedom.”
The detained activists are part of an NGO called Changsha Funeng (长沙富能), cofounded by Cheng Yuan, that is focused on advocacy for the rights for persons with disabilities and efforts to combat employment discrimination against HIV and Hepatitis B carriers.
For more than a decade, Cheng Yuan has led ground-breaking impact litigation focused on the rights of people living with HIV as well as other health rights, first at Tianxiagong, an NGO in Nanjing, and later at Changsha Funeng. Two of his landmark cases, in 2013 and 2016, won damages for teachers who lost their jobs due to their HIV-positive status. Cheng Yuan has also led work on Hepatitis B anti-discrimination litigation, advocated forcefully for the rights of persons with disabilities and for an end to China's One Child Policy, worked to promote freedom of information and rule of law, and more.
Family members of Cheng Yuan have publicly expressed their disbelief that his public interest work could have led to a charge of subversion. In a tweet on July 25, Cheng’s brother Cheng Hao (程浩) said:
“As far as I know, Cheng Yuan’s work over these many years has been completely out in the public, and all his work and advocacy are in accordance with the law—good work that shows concern for and helps the vulnerable groups, and are actions beneficial to the society and the country. My family and I are stunned by such serious criminal allegations.”
Further intimidation of family members is evident. After posting the message above, Cheng Hao received a phone call from someone who identified himself as a policeman telling him to stop posting online and speaking to the media. On August 8, he was taken to the Zhonghuamen police station in Nanjing where he was questioned for several hours.
Wu’s father, Wu Youshui (吴有水), a lawyer in Zhejiang, was reportedly threatened as well. He told a reporter in July: "[T]here are very strict regulations on me right now, and I'm not allowed to give any interviews to foreign media."
On July 30, more than 200 NGOs and individuals worldwide signed a joint letter to the People’s Republic of China Delegation to the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB)—with cc’s to world health and human rights authorities, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, and UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention—to urge the Chinese authorities to release Cheng, Liu, and Wu immediately and drop all charges against them.