Fighting Terror With Faith — The Road Walked by a Human Rights Defender’s Wife

Shi Minglei, March 8, 2021

On July 22, 2019, three staff members of a Chinese NGO known as “Changcha Funeng” (长沙富能)were arrested; as of today, they have been held by state security agents in Changsha for 596 days without any meaningful information concerning their case. The prosecutors and judges in Changsha have avoided seeing either lawyers representing the three or the family members. In March 2020, the families were notified that their own lawyers were dismissed and replaced by government-assigned lawyers. In September, 2020, one of the government-assigned lawyers revealed in a phone call made by the father of one of the detainees that the three had been tried, but to this day, there has been no announcement of sentences nor has any formal information been made available to the families. Founded in 2016, Changsha Fengneng has worked on discriminations in the workplace and in society at large, while Cheng Yuan (程渊), the head of the organization, has worked on civil rights defense cases for over ten years.  

Shi Minglei (施明磊) is Cheng Yuan’s wife. The original article was published on February 27, and the translation, through interviews with Minglei, expands on the circumstances of Cheng Yuan’s arrest and other details for clarity. — The Editors

Shi Minglei and Cheng Yuan

Today I turned 35 years old.

Going by the lifespan of an average human, I’ve lived half my years already.

On my 33rd birthday, I remembered that our Lord Jesus, who was on earth for 33 and a half years, was fulfilled at the age of 33. On that day, I had many sadnesses and lamentations. I had just walked through the deathly shadows of a dark valley in my marriage, and I thanked the Lord for saving my life in the midst of a crisis.

What I didn’t expect was that over the next 700 days or so, a bigger storm would sweep over me, and that the trajectory of my life would be altered completely.

I. 180 days of terror: Cheng Yuan is arrested, I am accused of subverting state power and placed under RSDL

July 22, 2019 is a date permanently engraved in my heart. It was a Monday like any other; I had an appointment with the company I was serving at the time to do consulting, and there was an important meeting that day. That day I wore a white shirt, a gray skirt, silver heels, and bright lipstick. Mondays are always too busy for working people, and I wanted to look energetic and full of energy.

As soon as I left the apartment, a man suddenly came out from the fire escape outside my home: “Boom!” A whole group appeared from behind him and swarmed forth. I was completely confused and let out a scream, “Ah!!!” Meanwhile, the thought that I was going to be abducted sprang to mind, but when I instinctively stepped back to close the door, they pushed it open and bore down on me, rapidly filling up the whole apartment. They were national security agents from Changsha.

At this point, they asked, “Where is Cheng Yuan?” I realized that they were coming for my husband. At that time, my husband was in the bedroom with our 3-year-old daughter. They rushed into the bedroom, where my daughter was changing her underwear as the intruders videotaped their raid.

Cheng Yuan said to them, “Please don’t hurt the child.” They surrounded Cheng Yuan in the living room, and I, handcuffed, was confined to one of the bedrooms. As they were getting ready to take Cheng Yuan away, he called out to me asking me to get a book for him. He wanted to take his copy of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice with him. With a mouth twitch, a bespectacled agent smacked said, “Spare this book of reactionary thoughts.” I hurriedly added, “Bring a Bible.” They said no, “No Chriastian books.” In the end, they let him take an essay collection by a Chinese writer that I was reading.

They took Cheng Yuan away, we didn’t speak, we didn’t see each other. No hugs. Nothing.

On that day, Cheng Yuan’s two colleagues, Wuge Jianxiong  (吴葛健雄) and Liu Yongze (刘永泽), were also arrested. They were NGO workers who had been working in the public interest field for the past ten years or so on equal-rights and anti-discrimination. Until that day, I had never perceived that the space for civil society in China had been so draconic that there was not even room for an advocacy NGO like theirs.

Three Changsha Funeng NGO workers (left to right): Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wuge Jianxiong.

The police then escorted my daughter and I to the kindergarten to drop off my daughter and escorted me back again, where I watched them ransacking our home.

Then something even more preposterous happened. I was put in a black hood, handcuffed; I was highly myopic, they confiscated my glasses and quickly put the black hood on me. Unable to see or feel, I stumbled as the plainclothes officers dragged me out. I had no idea where I was being taken. I was stuffed into a car, pinned down by four officers. The car drove around several times in an underground garage before I was finally taken to an unfamiliar room for interrogation (I didn’t realize it was a community police office until I was shown out the door at the end of the interrogation). I was interrogated by three case officers from Changsha State Security, Lin Shengxin (林圣新), Zhao Qian (赵倩), and another very young woman, almost a girl. The interrogation went on for nearly 20 hours, from just after 9:00 am to 4:00 am the next morning. By then, the agents said to each other, Cheng Yuan had already been brought from Shenzhen, where we live, to Changsha.

This was the first time I had ever been interrogated. All the legal knowledge and procedures that I had learned on TV and in books were useless. I realized that they were not following the law, but were more like a mafia gang. They used threats, taunts, ploys, insults and humiliation throughout the process. I was terrified. They did not allow me to pick up my daughter at the end of school day and repeatedly stressed that if I did not submit, they would take me away. Later, I realized that they had intended to arrest me and my husband simultaneously, but didn’t anticipate that I was taking care of my daughter with no nanny. The reason they intended to detain me too had absolutely nothing to do with any criminal act, but simply because it was the most effective means for them to force a confession from my husband.

At the end of the interrogation, I was told to write a letter of guarantee, which was dictated word by word by officer Lin Shengxin. The gist of the guarantee was that I was forbidden to contact the media, meet with anyone without permission, disclose anything that happened that day, and that I would have to surrender my ID documents into their custody.

In the afternoon, when they came to my house to pick up the guarantee, they suddenly put my name on an A4-sized document already bearing official stamps, then announced to me: I was to be placed under residential surveillance on suspicion of subversion of state power!

(Click to enlarge)

Shocked, I trembled in panic, asking, “What did I do to subvert? What did I do? I don’t agree with or accept this charge.” I was employed with a commercial firm, had never worked in a NGO, and had spent most of the past year raising my child and working part-time as a business consultant, so how could I “subvert” anything? I couldn’t accept it.

Officer Lin lost his temper immediately: “If you don’t accept the charge, we’ll have to renegotiate, and your guarantee won’t count. We have plenty of time, so let’s renegotiate.” The room was full of plainclothes, I said I had to pick up my daughter, who was already out of school.

It was the same whether I accepted the charge or not. They read out the notice of residential surveillance at a designated location (监视居住 or RSDL), then confiscated my ID card, passport, driver’s license, social insurance card, accumulated funds card, bank card, cell phone, work computer, headphones — almost everything. At my insistence, they left my mortgage card behind, and I asked to keep some money for me to make mortgage payments and cover my living expenses. On the spot, I provided my income certificate, certificate of personal income tax completion, and a document called “Bank Flow Details,” proving that every penny I had was my legal income from work. They didn’t check them in detail, saying that it was just a seizure for review, not to freeze my assets.

They lied to me. On July 23, my bank account was frozen. The people who went to the bank to freeze my bank account were Wu Zhao (吴钊) and Zhang Luhao (张鲁浩) from the Changsha State Security.

After confiscating my phone, they took me to procure a dumbphone and a new phone card for monitoring me. In an instant, I was back in the 2G era and lost all my contacts.

Notice of bank account freeze.

II. My journey through the deathly shadows of a dark valley – on fear and healing

Fear is the most difficult thing to talk about. Every time I talk about it feels like going through it again. But I try to tell about my fear, with tears and trembling, because to record is to fight against forgetting.

My three-year-old daughter’s fear and God’s healing

My daughter was three years old when her dad Cheng Yuan was arrested. Even now, my baby still remembers: “Mom, they videotaped me when I was changing my underwear and filmed my butt.” She was talking about the blinking law enforcement camera that was recording her.

She also remembers, “Mom, that day you went out, why did you yell?” “Mom, my dad was surrounded by a group of them.”

“Mom, that day there were two women and three men, following us to my kindergarten. You said you would pick me up in the afternoon, but the woman wouldn’t let you, saying she would pick me up instead. Why? Why would she come to pick me up? Where would she take me?”

“Mom, that day you didn’t come to pick me up, I was so scared. My teacher’s wife came to pick me up, but I didn’t know her, I didn’t want to go back with her to her house. I kept waiting for you to pick me up, but I waited and waited and waited, you didn’t come to pick me up all night. I couldn’t fall asleep at my teacher’s house, I couldn’t sleep for a second without you.” The tiny 3-and-a-half-year-old’s eyes were drenched in tears as she spoke, her mouth was twisted in grievance.

She kept telling people this, whether it was my friends, brothers and sisters from church, strangers at the playground, or the owner of the fruit store outside our door.

In addition to telling others, she screamed, kicked her feet, and cried during sleep. Once we were at a church service and she was lying asleep in the arms of a sister when she suddenly burst into tears. When I brought her over, she stomped her feet desperately, screamed, cried, and could not be soothed. It terrified me whenever I saw this reaction from her. She was so little, yet she experienced such a horrible scene. I was afraid that this experience would become a nightmare for her that could not be repaired.

One of the worst things as a parent is to fail to provide your children an environment free of fear, so I cannot forgive those who attempt to use my daughter as a means to subdue my husband. Later, the pastor prayed over her. She behaved and lay down on the church’s foam mat, letting the pastor pray for her. After the pastor finished, she opened her mouth and told him, “Pastor, I had a dream that two dragons were fighting. A red dragon was breathing fire and it was chasing me, trying to spray me with fire. I began crying.” The priest told her that she was a little angel of God, and that God had given her the sword of the Holy Spirit, a shield for her heart, and armor, and that our God protected her at all times. She quieted down after that.

Our God favored us, and He did the healing work Himself. In the love of brothers and sisters, and in the countless prayers of the pastor and all the brothers and sisters, she too found comfort in faith. She began to regain her angelic appearance, began to laugh again as she should at her innocent age, and began to seek the help of her Heavenly Father in times of fear.

Taking away my freedom of body and spirit

On July 27, 2019, the fifth day after Cheng Yuan was taken away, I made the arrest public, and I was scared when I made it public because I was afraid they would come to my door to retaliate.

Sure enough, Shenzhen National Security agents came rushing to my house overnight, this time with five people, three men and two women, led by Shenzhen National Security officer surnamed Han (韩) . When I heard the doorbell ring and they appeared in the door monitor, I was so scared that I didn’t know how they would deal with me this time, especially since my daughter was still at home. I was worried that she would be traumatized again.

I didn’t want to open the door, but had no choice. When I opened it, they burst in, rushed to the study, and told me to leave my daughter in the living room while the two female agents watched her. I was sitting surrounded on the couch in the den, shivering, with them forming a circle around me. “Sit still!” “Put your feet down!” I was taken aback by the unanticipated command and involuntarily put my feet down. “Sit up! Sit forward!” I sat there, defenseless, and did as I was told.

They threatened me, saying I needed to be honest with them; that if I sent out any more information without their permission, there would be serious consequences.

“I’m warning you: anywhere you go, anyone you meet, anyone you call, you have to get my permission for all of them, or else we’ll change enforcement measures on you!” I understood what the “change” meant, it was a change from residential surveillance to arrest, and although I had done nothing, I had been charged with subversion of state power simply to deter my husband as well as to shut me up. What these unidentified people were saying was serious.

After about an hour or so, it was finally over. I looked at the statement as I was signing it, and they didn’t leave their names. Then they left. During that time my daughter ran in and was again recorded on the law enforcement camera.

Afterwards, and confirming that my fears were not without cause, a Changsha National Security case officer told our lawyers that if it weren’t out of consideration for my daughter’s young age, he guaranteed “one thousand percent” that I would have been in custody because I didn’t shut up as they’d ordered me to.

On August 13, 2019, Changsha officers Lin Shengxin and Zhao Qian came to my door again. They played a video of Cheng Yuan in the detention center. “Your husband wants you to stay out of his business,” they said.

In the video, Cheng Yuan was incredibly thin and had dark circles under his eyes. He wore a long-sleeved shirt, wrapped up tightly, and his eyes were full of fear and worry. He said, “Honey, I’m sorry, I didn’t expect to implicate you. Listen carefully, from now on, don’t worry about me, you take care of yourself and our child……” After watching it, I forced myself to calm down and recorded a video to tell him about God’s righteousness and power: “God is absolutely righteous, we have to do what God considers righteous, and if it is to His liking, He will keep looking after us. I’m fine, you don’t have to worry about me ……”

After recording the video, the Changsha officers asked me to sign a confidentiality agreement, forbidding me to say anything about the video to the public. If I failed to do so, the consequences would be severe. Once again, I was forced to write a guarantee statement. After they left, I cried my heart out, knowing that my daughter and I had become hostages.

During those 180 days of being under RSDL at my own home, I lived in constant fear that the officers could show up at any moment.

These people did not show their papers, I did not know their identities or names, and they hid behind the state apparatus to do whatever they wanted. They followed me like a shadow, they could appear at any time when I was on the phone, when I was out, at my daughter’s kindergarten, in the garage. I was terrified.

“Your phone calls are tapped; your iCloud photos can be accessed at any time; your WeChat is viewable at any time; your home can be invaded at any time; your children could be used as a threat against you at any time.” I was desperate to the point of despair, and my husband must be feeling the same.

How to overcome this terror? One day, I read Who Am I?, a poem by Deitrich Bonhoeffer:

 Who am I? They often tell me
 I stepped from my cells confinement
 Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
 Like a Squire from his country house.
 Who am I? They often tell me
 I used to speak to my warders
 Freely and friendly and clearly,
 As thought it were mine to command.
 Who am I? They also tell me
 I bore the days of misfortune
 Equably, smilingly, proudly,
 like one accustomed to win.
 Am I then really that which other men tell of?
 Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
 Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
 Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
 Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
 Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
 Tossing in expectations of great events,
 Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
 Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
 Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
 Who am I? This or the Other?
 Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
 Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
 And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
 Or is something within me still like a beaten army
 Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
 Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
 Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine! 

At that moment, I felt that what he described was me. The world sees me as a brave wife, but I know I am “restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat.” I’m by nature a very insecure and sensitive person, responding strongly to little things around me. So in the past, I often needed to be supported and cared for. But during that time, my friends couldn’t find me and I lost contact with my family who do not live in the same city. Looking back now, I just can’t imagine how I got through those 180 days.

Cheng Yuan and daughter walking in their neighborhood in Shenzheng.
The Lord’s miracles are unfathomable; He gave me the courage to face terror

“Protect my sister as you protect the pupil of your eye, and hide her under the shade of your wings. She is your daughter, your treasure, your beloved, who has been given the place of your princess; never allow that which is of darkness to harm her, never allow that which is of evil to have dominion over her.”

One day a church sister prayed for me, and when I heard her prayer, I cried out, and my heart, which had been ruled by the fear created by tyranny, was finally released. That night, I was no longer afraid. Every night, my little girl and I prayed and slept in peace. In the mornings, we took the bus to the subway together, and on the way we sang hymns together and praised God out loud. I began to learn how to live with my fears and how to walk through this trying time.

On August 3, 2019, I sent a complaint to the Changsha Municipal Procuratorate to initiate a suit against the case officers of the Changsha National Security Bureau for abuse of power, manipulating the law for personal gain, and handling the case in a criminal manner. I demanded that the RSDL I was unlawfully subjected to be lifted, that my documents and all my belongings be returned, and that I be compensated by the state for the trauma they inflicted on me.

At the end of August 2019, I went to Changsha to demand my confiscated documents and items, and again went to the municipal procuratorate to file a complaint. There, officer Lin warned me to leave Changsha immediately, return to Shenzhen, and not come back, or else he’d resort to “stricter enforcement measures” (i.e. put me under arrest). He also called my lawyer to deliver him the same warning.

On September 29, 2019, Shenzhen National Security officer Han came to my home again, accompanied by another man, to interrogate me and warn me that I could not violate the rules of residential surveillance. I asked him, “What acts of subversion did I commit? What did I do that constituted subversion?” Officer Han replied, “I am only responsible for your residential surveillance, don’t ask me why.” I then asked, “This residential surveillance is illegal, why are you enforcing it?” Officer Han replied, “I’m talking to you about politics, but you’re trying to talk law with me!” I asked, “You didn’t arrest my husband according to the law, but according to politics? Is it according to the rule of law? Or is it according to politics?”

On October 1, 2019, during the National Day holidays, I was unable to return to Nanjing to reunite with my children’s grandfather and other relatives because Shenzhen National Security Officer Han refused to return my ID card to me, and I was forced to stay in Shenzhen during the week-long vacation. After I made this information public, he called me again to threaten me: “Take down your posts and don’t cause yourself any trouble!” I was terrified, thinking they’d come for me any time.

In November 2019, prosecutors Deng Feng (邓峰) and Yi Dan (易丹) from Changsha Procuratorate came to Shenzhen and claimed they were investigating my lawsuit against Changsha National Security Bureau. But in fact, they spent the whole time distorting the situation and threatening me. Deng even asked me to carefully study Article 77 of the Criminal Procedure Law. I looked into it and found that “if provisions are violated during the period of residential surveillance, the measures can be changed to compulsory enforcement entailing arrest or detention.” It was dejecting to find that the prosecutor’s office was in cahoots with the case officers.

In December 2019, my husband’s sister went to Changsha with Wuge Jianxiong’s mother and was threatened by Changsha National Security officers: “Your sister-in-law will harm herself if she keeps going on like this, not only herself, but her daughter, you and your daughter as well.” This provocation was interspersed with threats, and my sister-in-law said that the Changsha National Security officer had referred to her daughter by name.

On January 15, 2020, I was released from residential surveillance, and Changsha National Security officer Zhang Lei (张磊) and another case officer came to Shenzhen to return my documents and seized items. I again asked, “What did I do that constituted subversion?” He replied, “Don’t ask me that question, I’m only responsible for returning your things, and if you don’t sign, I’ll take them away.”

On February 1, 2020, I took my daughter to Changsha amidst the pandemic, standing outside the gate of the detention center to demand the release of the three public interest workers.

On February 3, 2020, after I posted on Twitter a video calling for the release of the three detainees, I received a phone call from an cyberpolice officer who introduced himself as Zhou Zihao (周子豪, transliterated name), who warned me to delete the video and asked me to report my identity, current address, and contact information. After I refused, Zhou said that because of my husband Cheng Yuan’s case, I was a person under key surveillance and was required to provide this information.

On March 16, 2020, all three families received phone calls from Changsha National Security, notifying us that the six lawyers representing the three detained NGO workers were collectively discharged of their duties. They have never been allowed to see their clients.

On March 17, 2020, Shen Qing (沈青) of Shenzhen National Security asked me via WeChat for a “talk,” the purpose of which was to threaten me. I refused, telling him to show legal procedures and legal reasons, otherwise I would consider it harassment. He was furious: “You are in my jurisdiction, under my control! I don’t need any formalities to talk to you.” I realized, right, these are secret police, what formalities are needed? They can do whatever they want and there is no safety for any citizen.

Yes, we live in a present where power is unchecked, the law is trampled on at will, judicial officers do not follow the law at all, and the secret police have unlimited, unsupervised authority. It’s terrible! We unwittingly censor ourselves at all times, having fallen into an abyss of fear from which there is no extricating ourselves.

Yes, we also live in a present where the one who kills the body cannot kill the soul, and even though we are in darkness, we cannot be prevented from sending out light; even though we are smothered, our hearts can still pray, and the Holy Spirit prays for us with an indescribable sigh; even though we are cut off from everything, even if we are cut off from others, the depths of our lives are connected to each other, loving each other, supporting each other, and thus being united with each other.

It turns out that there is a bravery that comes not from not knowing fear and getting rid of it, but from living with it and having courage. And this bravery comes from the knowledge of my identity, that no matter how trying the external conditions may be, I am of you. My identity, always, is the precious daughter of God, the pupil of your eyes, your princess, the one you love. In Christ, we become complete.

Oh, Lord, I belong to you!

III. For what do we live?

One sunny day eight years ago, my manager and I were talking about careers. I had just come to faith at that time and was very enthusiastic. I said I wanted to be good enough in my profession to make something of it, and when I made enough money, I would go to seminary and do seminary work full time. He smiled and laughed, showing his approval.

But in the years that followed, I never made good on that idea. I was busy working every day, and the pursuit of achievement filled my whole life. My time, other than eating and sleeping, was 10-12 hours a day at work. I was too eager to prove myself, hoping I was the elite in the workplace in the eyes of others, a big winner in life.

Two years ago, I was still jumping at the chance to start my own business and to have new achievements in my professional field. Now, if you were to ask me at this moment my plans for the future, I really wouldn’t be able to answer you. Friends keep recommending job opportunities for me, those concerned about me have called me up proposing we start a business together, but I am Cheng Yuan’s wife, my husband is still suffering, and the three NGO workers have been arbitrarily detained for 585 days, 20 months, without any news, and their lawyers are deprived of virtually all means of meeting with and communicating with them. It is impossible for me to stop speaking out for them. I am also a mother, and my daughter witnessed her dad disappearing from her life. How I will help her cope is a challenge I must also handle.

But what about myself? Who am I? What are my life values? Where am I headed? These are the questions that keep coming at me. Perhaps, this is a question that most people who are going through a similar experience to me will encounter. There is no standard answer to it, and so far for me, at age 35, I don’t know the answer.

But what I have learned is that, even though I don’t know what tomorrow holds, I do know who is in charge of tomorrow. I place myself in God’s hands and lean on Him completely. I am a wife, a mother, a victim of tyranny, an internet professional, a working woman, but none of these are my “factory settings.” My only factory setting is that of Jesus’ lamb, redeemed by Him at a great price, a daughter of the Father.

I also know with certainty that none of what we experience today has been suffered in vain, and in the process I have come to realize that there is nothing other than faith and love that cannot be surrendered. I used to think that I needed a lot, but now I realize how little I actually need.

He who loses his life, gains it instead. For the rest of my life, I ask the Lord for guidance!

To conclude with the words of a brother who has returned to his home in heaven:

“Life has hit bottom, why bounce back? Wave goodbye to the past, no need to be an elite.”

Hallelujah, thanks, praise, and glory to our Father who is in heaven!


‘He Committed Ideological Crimes’: Wife Recounts How Chinese Police Suppress the Family, Preventing Them From Speaking Out and Threatening Her Job After Human Rights Lawyer Chang Weiping’s Detention, Chen Zijuan, February 15, 2021.

120 Days in Secret Detention, Li Qiaochu, January 11, 2021.

Ding Jiaxi and Alfred, Luo Shengchun, August 31, 2020.

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