Eight Years as a Mother

Wang Qiaoling, October 3, 2023

Wang Qiaoling and son in 2018.

(Audio on browser)

Since the 709 crackdown on human rights lawyers in 2015, I often introduced myself to others as Wang Qiaoling (王峭岭), wife of 709 lawyer Li Heping.

Starting from today, let me introduce myself in a new way. I am Wang Qiaoling, mother of Li Zeyuan (李泽远) and Li Jiamei (李佳美).

My son, Li Zeyuan, was 15 years old and had just started high school when the 709 crackdown happened in 2015. When Lawyer Li Heping was taken away by a large group of police, my daughter knew, but my son didn’t. He had been at a classmate’s house, and when he came home to find a throng of uniformed and plainclothes officers, he was visibly shaken. I told him the police were conducting a search and there was nothing to worry about. He went to his room.

After searching the apartment for several hours, the police took what they wanted and finally left. I reassured my son and daughter that everything would be fine. But the look on the 15-year-old boy’s face told me that he knew something was very wrong.

Next, because I was trying to find out my husband’s whereabouts as well as looking for a lawyer for him, I hardly had time to pay attention to my son.

Zeyuan performed excellently in the high school entrance exam and was admitted to the international department of the No. 2 Affiliated High School of Beijing Normal University. Because of his high entry score, his middle school awarded him five thousand yuan. At the matriculation ceremony, his high school awarded another one thousand yuan.

After starting high school, Zeyuan lived in the dormitory. During the first parent-teacher conference, I was in Tianjin with my lawyer demanding to see Li Heping. It was fruitless, and immediately afterward I rushed back to Beijing for the conference. I was so tired that I could hardly make out anything others were saying at the parent-teacher conference.

From then on, it happened that every time there was a parent-teacher conference, something related to 709 always came up, and I never made it to any of them.

When my son finished his second year of high school, it suddenly occurred to me to ask him if he had taken the TOEFL. He said he needed to pay the application fee with Alipay, and he had asked me once. I had Alipay, but he didn’t. He did mention it to me before, and I had responded with an “okay” at the time, but I was thinking about something else and forgot about it. Seeing how busy and tired I was, he had not brought it up again.

Guilt-ridden, I apologized to him, and urged him to register and pay for the exam. It was his first time taking the TOEFL, and without having any test-prep classes, he scored 78. Many of his classmates started taking it the first year in high school, scoring 40, 50, but continued to take it four or five times until, by the end of the second year, they could score over 100, ready to apply to universities overseas in the third and also last year in high school.

But I truly neglected it! I urged Zeyuan to sign up for a test-prep class and take it a second time, and transferred the tuition fee for the class to him. He enrolled in one, but the teacher refunded the fee, saying that the class focused on listening and speaking, which Zeyuan already scored well in. The teacher told Zeyuan to improve his vocabulary and work on his reading instead.

Starting from the third year of high school, I urged Zeyuan to apply for universities overseas. However, as the Spring Festival approached, I didn’t see any reply. I asked my son, “How are the applications going?” Zeyuan said, “It seems I have to pay application fees for some of the schools I want to apply to, so I looked for ones that don’t require fees.”

I was shocked when I heard this. I told my son, “We have the money to pay the fees.” He looked at me and said, “I think we should save money if we can.”

I asked again, “Have those schools you applied to responded?” Zeyuan said, “A few of them said they would give me an offer if I provided some additional materials, but I didn’t follow up.” I was flabbergasted, “Why not?” He looked at me and said, “Mom, forget it. Even if I get an offer, I can’t get a passport and go.”  [Translator’s Note: The family had been subject to an exit ban.]

Tears welled up in my eyes. Yes, even if we got an offer, we wouldn’t be able to go because there’s no way for Zeyuan to get a passport. Even if we had the money, we couldn’t go because we wouldn’t be able to leave China.

Friends offered suggestions, such as applying to Chinese universities as a non-graduate of high school, or going back to a public high school for another year to take the entrance exams for colleges in China. Every time I discussed these options with my son, it ended in tears.

Li Heping and Wang Qiaoling with their son Li Zeyuan at his high graduation ceremony.

Zeyuan didn’t want to pursue any of these paths. And honestly, I didn’t want him to either, because such efforts would inevitably be met with potential “political” obstacles because of his dad, 709 lawyer Li Heping. I now better understand my son’s unwillingness to make these trade-offs. He simply doesn’t want to settle for a humiliating compromise.

If I were 17, I would never bow down in order to get into the education system of a country that excludes me from normal participation.

It was early in 2017, in the deep of winter. That spring Li Heping was released after nearly two years of detention. My son’s aunt had been staying with us in Beijing for medical treatment since the fall. I looked after both Heping and his aunt, leaving little time to my 17-year-old son who was left alone contending with his own pain and struggle. Nor did I have any power to change anything for the better. I knew that a passport and freedom of movement could set this child free to go to the place he had longed for, but I could do nothing to help him. We prayed fervently, but God did not open a door for us.

I was in my forties at the time, and my life experiences allowed me to absorb hardships and difficulties. But for a 17-year-old, it was something else. Heping, who had returned from nearly two years of enforced disappearance, said: “I am completely disoriented myself, let alone helping resolve the difficult issues at home…”

My son put on a cheerful face. He said he could study on his own. I returned the sentiment and said, “Yes, you can study on your own. If God hasn’t opened the door, there must be a reason in His plan.”

I knew that, as a father, Heping’s concern for his son was like a huge stone pressing on his heart. I was also aware that my son was also tormented by a similar feeling.

My sorrow, worry, and resentment turn into tears, silently flowing when I was alone.

Heping has been afraid that our son would lose heart and become dispirited, and he constantly asks me to remind Zeyuan to stay strong. But I’ve been reluctant to place too many demands on Zeyuan that exacerbate his trauma.

I know I need to be considerate of Heping’s anxiety and offer him comfort. I also understand that I need to give our son space and not push him.

This has proved to be hard to balance in and of itself. Tears accompany my prayers, silently soaking my pillow in sleepless nights.

2018 was excruciatingly slow… 

“I can shave off my hair, but you can’t disregard the law” (我可以无发,你不能无法)

In the spring, we [a group of 709 wives] walked to Tianjin; in the winter, we stood at the gates of the Supreme People’s Court and cut our hair, staging “I can shave off my hair, but you can’t disregard the law” [in support of lawyer Wang Quanzhang]. My son, unable to obtain a passport, couldn’t attend the university that he longed to.

Perhaps people might say, “Why can’t he attend a university in China?”

To which I respond: Isn’t he free to choose where to study? Don’t tell me you are “governing the country according to the law” when you restrict a child’s freedom to study where he wants to. You are a farce.

Wang Qiaoling, September 28, 2023


Wang Qiaoling, Wife of Lawyer Li Heping, Reflects on Life, Faith and the 709 Crackdown, May 26, 2017.

‘Screw Your Suspended Sentence’: ‘The 709 Cases Are Far From Over,’ Says Li Heping’s Wife, China Change, April 28, 2017.

“My Name is Li Heping, and I Love Being a Lawyer”, Li Heping, Ai Weiwei, August 21, 2016.

The Anti-Torture Work of Lawyer Li Heping That Irked the Chinese Authorities, January 25, 2017.

One response to “Eight Years as a Mother”

  1. […] Eight Years as a Mother (1), Wang Qiaoling, October 3, 2023. […]

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