Billionaires and Zhongnanhai Families — China’s Newest Breed of ‘Rights Defenders’

China Change, June 29, 2019

Photo: Chen Yixuan (陈以轩)

On June 6, Ms. Huang Wan (黄婉) received her “certificate of release from community correction” (解除社区矫正证明书) from the Justice Bureau of Chaoyang District in Beijing. From that day on, she was a free woman, and she had made plans to travel to the United States for a long-waited reunion with her aging parents.

“From December 1, 2013,” she wrote on her Twitter the same day. “I have been subject to two days of detention without due process, 319 days of residential surveillance at a designated place (指定地点监视居住), 590 days in a detention center, 10 days of release pending investigation (取保候审), and 1095 days of community correction, making a total of 2016 days that I have been without freedom.”

But on June 4, just two days before the release was to take effect, Huang received notice of a civil lawsuit — supposedly over a rental disagreement — in which she was one of the defendants. The court used this as grounds to file a request with the “relevant departments” to deny Huang permission to exit China. The request was approved immediately. Moreover, the court refused to give her a written notice of this restriction.

Huang Wan was enraged, and decided to stand up for herself. Last week, she engaged Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), a well-known human rights lawyer in Beijing, to represent her in the litigation that had been inexplicably brought against her. She also asked Chen to file an appeal to the criminal charges that had been previously applied to her, as she believed it was a miscarriage of justice.

Huang Wan is a unique “rights activist,” being the daughter-in-law of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), a disgraced former member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee and erstwhile chairman of the CCP’s formidable Political and Legal Affairs Commission (PLAC, 政法委). Huang is also a U.S. citizen, and her husband Zhou Bin (周滨) is currently serving his 18-year prison sentence for alleged corruption in the outskirts of Beijing. On June 25, Huang Wan met with her lawyer and discussed the details of the civil lawsuit against her. She publicized the content of their talk the same day.

According to the case files as well as Huang’s own description, the rental contract dispute involved the demands of a village cooperative in Chaoyang for rental compensation of 2.1 million yuan from the Beijing Huisheng Yangguang Investment Management Company (北京汇盛阳光投资管理公司). Huang Wan was the third and the last defendant accused of “bearing joint responsibility for the repayment.” She got on the list of defendants because her mother is a shareholder in the investment company being sued. Apart from this, however, Huang Wan said she has no relation to the company, or to the plaintiff.

She told lawyer Chen: “this is really the doing of the Chinese government, it’s the Chinese government trying to illegally persecute me by prohibiting me from returning to the United States to see my family. [The government] has exhausted all lawful measures to keep me in China, so now they have arranged this civil lawsuit, which is ludicrous however you look at it, to restrict me.”

Ms. Huang Wan seems determined to tell all. Starting June 27, she began discussing the background of her criminal case with lawyer Chen, and as before, published her notes from their meeting. In this discussion, Chen mostly focused his inquiry on Huang’s personal circumstances and story, as well as her overall reflections on the criminal charges placed against her over the past five years.

Huang was born in 1971. In the 1980s, the Chiense government sent her parents to the United States to serve as trade representatives, so at a young age she followed them to America. Later the family distanced themselves from the Chinese government and became U.S. citizens in 1998. Her paternal grandfather Huang Jiqing (黄汲清) was one of China’s first geologists, a member of the Academia Sinica during the republican era. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he was a member of the Chinese Academy of Science. His theory on the terrestrial facies of petroleum aided China in the discovery of its first oilfields, earning him a reputation as “the father of Chinese oil.”

According to Ms. Huang Wan, she and Zhou Bin met in the United States during the 1990s and were married. At the time, Zhou was a graduate student, and his father Zhou Yongkang was Deputy Minister of Petroleum Industry (石油工业部)[1]. Upon graduation, Zhou Bin worked for an oil company in Dallas, and in 1999 went to New York to work for Goldman Sachs. In 2001 the young couple returned to China, and Zhou Bin became an executive at Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. Huang Wan claimed: “We made it entirely on our own, with no relation to Zhou Yongkang’s position.”

Later Zhou Bin founded the Zhongxu Yangguang Company (中旭阳光公司), which “provided computing services mainly focusing on the pump calculators at gas stations,” according to Huang. Meanwhile, Huang teamed up with one of her husband’s business partners to found the Beijing Boshang Cultural Promotion LLC (北京博尚文化传播有限公司), producing television programs. 

On December 1, 2013, dozens of armed police entered Huang Wan’s home and arrested her entire family, including their drivers. She said that during her arrest, she was subject to torture, and coerced by a prosecutor and a public security investigator into writing a “statement of repentance” (悔过书). Huang said that she was convicted of “embezzlement” (职务侵占), but it was a case with “no victim, criminal act, or breach of relegation. The sentence was completely fabricated.” She said that the persecution she incurred was purely on account of her being part of Zhou Yongklang’s family.

Huang told the lawyer that she wanted to “set in order the true and the false” in these two cases and fight for her human rights.

Huang’s two series of notes attracted widespread attention after they were publicized on Twitter, with reactions falling broadly into two categories: those who supported Huang Wan’s efforts and hoped she would soon be able to win her freedom, and those commenting that her ordeal was deserved retribution for the Zhou family, as Zhou Yongkang himself is a perpetrator of human rights abuses.

Lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军) said that the real events were probably not as “innocent” as Huang had depicted them in her account. “We hope to see an ample and fruitful account. This is a kind of oral history, and its significance extends far beyond a legal case.”

From 2002 to 2007, Zhou Yongkang helmed the Ministry of Public Security, and was secretary of the CCP Political and Legal Affairs Commission from October 2007 to November 2012.  During his tenure, Zhou played a key role in facilitating severe human rights violations and oversaw significant expansion of the Chinese police state.

This February, Ms. Huang distanced herself from her father-in-law, tweeting that “as a relative of Zhou Yongkang, I wish to extend apologies to everyone who suffered unjust treatment during the time that Zhou Yongkang was in charge of the PLAC. You’ve gone through arduous hardships in your quest to defend your rights, a quest that I’ve now taken up as well. I call upon every serving Chinese official to think it over: is your post higher than that of Zhou Yongkang? He was unable to protect his family; when it’s your turn one day, will you be able to protect yours? Sound and effective rule of law is the only way to guarantee all citizen’s rights!”

Huang Wan is apparently able to make regular prison visits to Zhou Bin.

Thus far, both Huang Wan and Chen Jiangang have declined interviews with the media. It’s worth mentioning that Chen himself has been restricted from exiting China in the last few years. This April 1, when Chen was about to travel to the United States to take part in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, he was stopped at the Beijing Airport and given spoken notice that his leaving China could “endanger national security.”

Around the same time that Huang Wan had begun to publicize information about her case, on June 25, the mother of billionaire former CEO of Anbang Insurance Group Wu Xiaohui (吴小晖) published her “appeal of tears and blood” in which she demanded to see her incarcerated son. She said that in the year since Wu Xiaohui was imprisoned, she has had 20 requests to see her son turned down on account of various excuses, filling her with concern as to whether or not her son is still alive. In her letter of appeal, she also rejected the 18-year prison term to which Wu had been sentenced.

In April, Wu’s mother protested on the street in front of the prison management department in Shanghai, unfurling a banner with the words “I want to see my son Wu Xiaohui” — just like those among China’s millions-strong underclass have been doing for years in their attempts to speak out about their grievances. 

Wu Xiaohui is the former grandson-in-law of Deng Xiaoping. Representing Wu are Zhou Ze (周泽) and Li Jinxing (李金星), two noted “die-hard lawyers” (死磕律师) — lawyers who doggedly navigate the minutiae of the law to challenge the court, which tramples legality at will and scoffs at procedures.

These kind of lawyers themselves have suffered ongoing suppression. In the last two years alone, the Chinese regime has used various flagrant methods to disbar more than 20 human rights lawyers.

Ms. Huang Wan is expected to continue her revelations.

[1] She might have mixed up Zhou Yongkang’s title: at the time the Ministry of Petroleum Industry had been reorganized as the China National Petroleum Corporation, and Zhou Yongkang was the deputy general manager of CNPC.    

Support Our Work


At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.