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Yaqiu Wang – a voice for justice

Yaqiu Wang, Senior Researcher China at Human Rights Watch

When asked about the motivation behind her human rights activism in China, Yaqiu Wang, Senior China Researcher at Human Rights Watch, frowns slightly: “My birth was already a human rights issue.” As the third-born at the time of the one-child policy, she quickly learned what it meant to live under state control and repression.

She learned early on that her mother had to hide with relatives during her pregnancy to avoid forced abortion. Luckily, this was successful, but led to Wang growing up in poverty, as her family was fined for not having an abortion.

On top of that, she was largely alone with her problems and her shame. Because at school, she couldn’t reveal anything about her family situation for fear of stigmatization and ostracism. “I felt so voiceless, I felt unfree. But because of state indoctrination, I didn’t even have the language to express that.”

During her college years in China, she realized that this situation did not have to be permanent when she discovered the depths of the Internet – for her at the time a “historical treasure trove” that held such finds like a critical account of the Tiananmen massacre.

Defender of freedom of expression

In 2012, Wang returned to the People’s Republic from the USA after earning her master’s degree. She was confident that she would be able to support China’s path toward a constitutional democracy on the ground. But immediately upon arrival, she was detained: “I was literally a nobody! That spoke volumes about the extensive surveillance that all Chinese around the world are subjected to.”

Consequently, for her own safety, she couldn’t work in this China. However, she has not abandoned her ideals to this day. She has just pursued them since 2017 from New York, where the headquarters of Human Rights Watch China is located.

At the moment, Wang’s work focuses on censorship, the protection of human rights activists and women’s rights. She primarily works on current issues, but also deals with people who are in immediate danger.

But she also has her sights on longer-term trends: “We’re all about making effective change, so we have to be adaptable.” Because even if there’s no prominent place in the news cycle for the fact that men are explicitly favored in many job postings, it’s vital to also address such injustices. After all, no fewer than several hundred million women are affected.

Those with a voice have a responsibility

Although Wang conducts most of her research online in New York, she is globally connected through Human Rights Watch’s many offices and contacts. Naturally, also to China.

But when it comes to matters such as reports of forced labor in the factories of German companies in Xinjiang, she can ask the Berlin office to get her an appointment with the German government or the companies in question. Whether she then brings these requests to a wider audience through her confidants in the media depends on the situation, because “greater publicity does not necessarily equate to greater effectiveness”.

She is well aware that her mostly harsh criticism of China could be picked up and distorted by some to stir up racist resentment. However, Wang knows no intimidation: “But at least I have a voice here, the Uyghurs have none. I would never hold my tongue regarding China for fear of being instrumentalized.” Julius Schwarzwaelder


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