Li Heping spent his career trying to hold Chinese Communist Party officials accountable for their darkest behavior. He believed in an authority higher than the party — China’s own legal system. And for that, he suffered tremendously.
Since the late ’90s, Li, a 46-year-old human rights lawyer, had defended China’s most persecuted groups: dissidents, petitioners, victims of land grabs and forced demolitions, church leaders, practitioners of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong. Then came the “709” crackdown — named for July 9, 2015, the night it began — when authorities detained or interrogated more than 300 lawyers and their associates, including Li. They held Li without charge for nearly two years. And this May, they let him go — on the condition he remain silent.
“What my husband has gone through during that 22 months in jail was relentless, inhuman, perverted and unthinkable,” said his wife, Wang Qiaoling, 44, who has emerged as an outspoken advocate for rule of law amid her husband’s enforced silence. “The police will torture you till the edge of death, both physically and mentally.”
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping ascended to power in 2012, he has both amassed extraordinary power — analysts routinely call him China’s strongest leader since Mao Tse-tung — and ratcheted up repression to its highest levels since the early 1990s.
This week, a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress is almost certain to grant him another five-year term. Yet beyond the congress’ displays of pageantry and protocol — its chandeliers, identical black suits and long, turgid speeches — Li’s experience is a vivid reminder of the party’s propensity for maintaining its grip on power through violence and fear.
The Communist Party, under Xi, has introduced new, draconian legislation tightening control over religion, foreign non-governmental organizations and the internet. Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption drive has “punished” more than a million officials and suppressed competing party factions. He has repeatedly vowed to preside over a “national rejuvenation” — one that categorically rejects “Western values” such as democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech. The media has been neutered. Scores of lawyers, activists and journalists have been jailed.
“After several hundred years, the Western model is showing its age,” the state-run New China News Agency said in a Tuesday commentary.
China’s Communist Party leaders have “determined that they must not drop their guard on being in control,” said Stein Ringen, emeritus professor at the University of Oxford and author of “The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century.” “During the 1980s, when things were relatively open, and people felt like things were moving in a direction of greater openness — that was because there was disagreement. There were different factions in the party leadership, and a debate about what direction the party would take.
“Now there is no debate,” he continued. “It’s absolutely hierarchical.”
Li knew the party’s wrath long before the 2015 crackdown. In 2007, as Beijing prepared to host the Olympics, plainclothes men abducted Li, held him for eight hours, beat him and shocked him with electric batons. They warned him to leave the city and dumped him in the woods. For years, authorities had kept his home under constant surveillance.
But the 2015 crackdown was different — more comprehensive, and more severe.
On July 10 that year, police took Li into custody and ransacked his home and office for files, computers and external hard drives. For the first six months, Wang said, they kept him in solitary confinement. Two guards forced him to stand between them for 15 to 16 hours a day, giving him about eight inches of space.
“Once you move, they would slap, kick and beat you,” Wang said. “They would also write down every detail about your movements, such as, ‘You moved your nose,’ ‘You frowned’ and so on.”
People dressed like doctors forced Li to take drugs — at least half a dose daily, and at least six types altogether. He believed they were blood pressure medications, hallucinogens and sedatives. They made him dizzy and fatigued. “The damage it has on a person’s brain is unthinkable,” Wang said. “You behave like a psychiatric patient. Your brain starts to lose control of how you behave and what you say.
“These types of physical torture are less bloody and violent, yet the damage they do to your body is relentless,” she continued. “Most normal people cannot bear it at all.”
In 2016, authorities transferred Li to an ordinary detention facility in the city of Tianjin, near Beijing, where he lived on a long hall with other prisoners. The torture didn’t stop — authorities shackled his wrists to his ankles for a month. They made him sit on a stool for 16 hours straight.
On April 28, 2017, they gave him a rushed, secret trial. According to authorities, he pleaded guilty to attacking China and its government via social media and interviews with the foreign press. A judge convicted him of “subversion of state power” and released him on a suspended sentence, meaning even a minor infraction could send him back to jail.
At home, Li looked in a mirror for the first time in 22 months. The gaunt, gray-haired skeleton staring back shocked him.
“He can no longer work as a normal person,” Wang said. “His lawyer’s license has been [invalidated], and he lost his physical freedom to go outside Beijing.”
Other victims of the 709 crackdown have made what appears to be forced pre-trial confessions on state television. Virtually all of them cast their legal work as criminal, anti-China and supported by hostile “foreign forces.” Under Xi, these confessions — a relic of Cultural Revolution-era public humiliations — have spiked. At least 40 were broadcast between 2013 and 2016.
Only one lawyer, Wang Quanzhang — a 41-year-old advocate for marginalized groups — still awaits trial. Authorities have not explained the delay. His wife, Li Wenzu, who has not seen him since his detention, believes he may simply be unwilling to bend.
“The government is aiming to punish current arrested activists, and also to frighten the potential activists of the future,” said Li, 32. “Since the  cases are fundamentally made up by the government, it’s also difficult for the government to find any evidence that proves them guilty.”
In March, Li and her 4-year-old son, Wang Guangwei, moved in with Wang (and her 6-year-old daughter, Li Jiamei) at her three-bedroom apartment in southern Beijing. They still visit the police and judicial organs — as well as foreign embassies — to advocate for Wang’s release.
“The human rights lawyers’ circle is very small, but we all help each other and cooperate each other and support each other,” she said.
China’s human rights activists “certainly haven’t been crushed,” said Eva Pils, a human rights expert from King’s College London who knows many of the lawyers. “Even in the most desperate situations, they’re resisting in small but significant ways.”
A revolving cast of up to 20 security guards around Li and Wang’s apartment restricts their movement, and state security agents have harassed Li’s aging parents in central China’s Hubei province.
“I don’t believe the situation will change in the short term,” Li said. “But I believe this is a natural reaction — to fight to save my husband, and for his freedom, without any hesitation, no matter the price I have to pay.”