Lu’s lawyers were told the case is now a political one and has been escalated to the highest levels of government, according to Chad Bullard, the executive director of ChinaAid, a human rights nonprofit, who was present at the meeting.
Even if China has yet to formally comment on his case, Lu’s wife, Zhang Chunxiao, believes Beijing is almost certainly behind the detention and wants him returned to China.
“If my husband is sent back to China, it will be disastrous for him, our family and human rights lawyers,” Zhang said in an interview from the United States, where she now lives.
Behind Lu’s case is a greater struggle: human rights groups that facilitate safe passage for Chinese dissidents wanting to flee the country and the Chinese security forces that try to keep them at home, silence them overseas and — when possible — bring them back from abroad.
Southeast Asian countries are common choices for activists hoping to leave China because they are relatively easy to reach and have well-established networks of human rights groups that can help with political asylum applications. But these nations are also targets of Chinese efforts to build influence and security ties in the region through trade and investment.
If the extensive efforts to free Lu fail, Zhang said, it will be a serious blow for the Chinese human rights movement. “They will see that the United States and the international community can do nothing to rescue them,” said Zhang, who arrived in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to rally support for her husband.
Emilie Palamy Pradichit, executive director of the Manushya Foundation, a human rights group working on Laos, said the case underscores how the Southeast Asian country is no longer a viable transit point for Chinese dissidents trying to make their way to a safe haven.
China’s investments in the country have made Laos beholden to Beijing, and “means that China can easily interfere in Lao politics,” Pradichit said.
Since 2020, Lu has faced harassment from Chinese state security after he defended one of the 12 young Hong Kongers jailed by China for attempting to flee to Taiwan by boat.
Soon after his client, Kiu Ying-yu, was jailed, Lu was stripped of his license to practice law in China and Chinese security agents warned him against speaking publicly about the trial.
In May 2021, he tried to fly to the United States for a fellowship but discovered he was barred from leaving the country. Out of safety concerns, Zhang and his daughter fled to the United States in January last year, hoping Lu would be able to join them soon.
Before Xi Jinping, China’s president, came to power in 2012, Western governments could occasionally negotiate with China for the release of prominent human rights activists or dissidents. But that has almost entirely stopped under Xi.
“There is a reason more and more people are desperately attempting to escape through Southeast Asia,” said Jie Chen, a political scientist at the University of Western Australia. “Dissidents and rights lawyers know it is no longer possible for any Western government or U.S. Congress to put pressure on the Chinese government [for direct release]. That time has long gone.”
Under Xi, China is increasingly using exit bans to stop critics of the regime — citizens and foreigners alike — in the country, where they can be more easily surveilled and silenced.
To skirt these bans that prevent them flying out of China, some cross land borders into Laos, Myanmar or Vietnam, which they use as transit points to reach Thailand. Once in Thailand, they can apply for political asylum to countries such as Canada, Australia or the United States.
In recent years, China has stepped up efforts to stop dissidents escaping the country, fortifying the land border with fences and patrols, and promoting police cooperation in the name of combating human trafficking and the drug trade.
Security agents told Lu his exit ban should be lifted by March of this year. But when the deadline came around, Lu was again told there was a delay. At no point was he given formal documentation confirming the existence of a ban.
So he tried for a border crossing. Last month he obtained a tourist visa for Laos from an agent in Mohan, a border town in southwestern Yunnan province. He entered Laos without incident and planned to travel on to Thailand and eventually the United States.
But just as he prepared to take the train from Laos to Thailand on July 28, he was detained on the roadside by local authorities. His travel companions were at first only told there was a problem with his paperwork.
Friends, family and supporters, concerned Lu would be sent back to China and an almost certain prison sentence, immediately launched a high-profile campaign to secure his release.
Lu was traveling with a friend, former judge-turned-dissident Li Jianfeng. Li filmed the roadside incident where immigration officers surrounded Lu and pulled him toward a waiting vehicle. Lu tried to resist. Li said they later physically blocked him from getting closer when he asked to join Lu.
The incident reflects a risk that Laos will “give up a portion of its sovereignty” to improve relations with China, said Li, who also sees China’s fingerprints on his friend’s detention.
Neither China’s Foreign Ministry or the Laotian Embassy in Washington responded to a requests for comment. The Laotian Embassy in London told rights group last week that Lu had been detained on suspicion of using “fraudulent travel documents,” adding that if found guilty, he would be deported.
Both Li and Zhang maintain that Lu’s visas and travel documents were valid.
The fight to prevent Lu’s repatriation comes as a growing number of dissidents in Southeast Asia have been forcibly returned to China.
Another recent case has raised activists’ fears about China’s reach in Laos. Yang Zewei, who lobbied for the dismantling of the “great firewall” of Chinese censorship, disappeared from his Vientiane home at the end of May, according to a friend who found Yang’s apartment in a state of disarray.
Yang’s family recently said he was being held in Hengyang, a city in central China, Voice of America reported this week.
Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, and Lillian Yang in Aarhus, Denmark, contributed to this report.