RSDL round-up for March

This is a monthly round-up of all news related to Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) in China. It includes updates on victims, legal developments and commentary on China’s legalized practice of “Enforced Disappearances.”


Appeals for 2 prisoners – Jiang Tianyong & Zhen Jianghua

Visiting rights – Yu Wensheng denied & Lee Ming-che granted

Activist Xu Qin detained under RSDL

Feared police chief made minister of justice

National Supervision Commission signed into law

Under 40s targeted for RSDL-style camps in Xinjiang

Remembering Lawyer Li Baiguang – a spark of fire in our journey through the night


Appeals for 2 prisoners — Jiang Tianyong & Zhen Jianghua

Following news in February that imprisoned human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) was suffering from memory loss and raising fears the authorities might be forcibly medicating him, six United Nations human rights experts on March 23 issued a joint appeal calling on China to give him proper medical care, in what Reuters calls a “rare joint statement.” Lawyer Jiang is serving a two-year sentence for inciting state subversion.

Online activist Zhen Jianghua’s (甄江华) six-month RSDL detention came to an end on March 30, when authorities formally charged him with inciting state subversion. His lawyer said he has not been given access to him based on a national security clause.  The six-month deadline for RSDL prompted two press freedom NGO’s  the International Federation of Journalists  and Reporters Without Borders to call for his release.


Visiting rights — Yu Wensheng denied & Lee Ming-che granted

Chinese authorities are continuing to deny the lawyers and family of human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生) access to see him or even to know where he is being held. Since Lawyer Yu was transferred into RSDL on January 27 by Xuzhou security, the other side of the country to Beijing where he lives, no news of his whereabouts or condition have been released.  In mid-March his wife, Xu Yan, his lawyer and some friends travelled to Tongshan District police in Xuzhou to request access, but were turned away.

After being barred in January from visiting her husband, Taiwanese democracy activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲),  Lee Ching-yu, was allowed to visit him in Hunan at the end of March. She told reporters that Lee, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for state subversion looks physically well but is forced to work in a hat factory every day from 7am to 5pm. Ms. Lee plans to apply to see him again next month.


Activist Xu Qin detained under RSDL

Charges against human rights activist Xu Qin (徐秦) have been changed to inciting subversion of state power. RFA reported that her lawyer Peng Jian was denied access to his client on the grounds that the charges were now more serious. A week earlier, Frontline Defenders reported that she was being held under RSDL.  Xu worked with the China Human Rights Observer group, founded by detained veteran dissident Qin Yongmin, and had recently spoken out in support of Yu Wensheng.


Feared police chief made minister of justice

Human rights groups greeted with dismay the news that former Beijing police chief and deputy minister of public security, Fu Zhenghua (傅政华), has been elected as Minister of Justice. “Fu Zhenghua has presided over a number of serious human rights violations throughout his career,” Chinese Human Rights Defenders Frances Eve’s told Reuters. “Fu’s appointment is a sign that the Xi Jinping regime is not going to back down on its suppression of human rights.” Human rights lawyer Cao Shunli died in police custody under Fu’s watch. Others argue that China’s new Supervision Commission means that the Fu’s new position is essentially powerless. “[Justice minister Fu Zhenghua] has no real power any more,” democracy activist Xiang Lin told RFA.”All the justice ministry does now is administer lawyers and the court system. He’s nowhere near as powerful as the public security minister.”


National Supervision Commission signed into law

As expected, China’s NPC passed the National Supervision Commission (NSC) into law in March. This controversial all-powerful agency will have the power to investigate, detain and punish any Party members and civil servants (including the staff of hospitals and schools) on charges linked with corruption. “The agency ranks higher than the supreme court and will be in charge of supervision, investigation and also punishment,” wrote the BBC. It will essentially provide for an RSDL system – called liuzhi. Amnesty International condemned the move, saying, “It places tens of millions of people at the mercy of a secretive and virtually unaccountable system that is above the law. It by-passes judicial institutions by establishing a parallel system solely run by the Chinese Communist Party with no outside checks and balances.”

Asia Times profiled the new head of the NSC, Yang Xiaodu, a hardliner who has warned “that failure to root out corruption could result in a ‘change of color for the red country.’” But with no oversight, there are fears that the NSC could simply be used to snuff out any critics of Party Secretary Xi Jinping.


Under 40s targeted for RSDL-style camps in Xinjiang

The latest from Xinjiang on the mass internment of Uighurs into political re-education camps is that the authorities in some parts of the region are reportedly targeting anyone under 40 years old, reports RFA. “Those born after 1980 are considered ‘violent’ and ‘untrustworthy,’” it quoted anonymous officials as saying. Previously people were being round up and sent to these camps on suspicions of being connected with radicalism – now it appears, just being under 40 years old is grounds enough. Scholar Jerome Cohen wrote on his blog that: “This is a horrendous situation that makes a mockery of the Party’s claim that it is pursuing the ‘rule of law.’ It invites comparisons with the early years of Hitler’s attack on the Jews.”


Remembering Lawyer Li Baiguang – a spark of fire in our journey through the night

It was with great sadness that we reported the untimely death of renowned human rights lawyer Li Baiguang (李柏光) in February. Yaxue Cao wrote a detailed two-part obituary to Lawyer Li for the China Change website, in which his life’s dedication to human rights is documented. “All I want to do now is actually see implemented the laws that they themselves wrote, and win for victims the rights and freedoms that they should enjoy,” Lawyer Li said back in 2010. He would also give legal trainings to barefoot lawyers and others – the last one in Henan this January where he taught his students lying down because he had injured his leg. This long tribute ends with: “The night is long; the worst is yet to come. Li Baiguang has died, like Liu Xiaobo, like Yang Tianshui, like Cao Shunli and all those who have fallen in the dark, but they live on; they are sparks of fire in the journey through the night.”

Read part one here, and part two here.

Foreigners, torture, and televised confessions: RSDLmonitor launches RSDL prisoner database

In the first ever database on the use of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), initial data shows that many victims were not from mainland China, were forced to appear in a televised confession and reported being subjected to torture.

These results come from RSDLmonitor’s long-term project to build up a detailed database on the use of RSDL. It will be used to explore how widely RSDL is being employed and what human rights violations – such as torture and lack of prosecutorial oversight – are being systematically abused. The database has 91 cases so far.

For more on how the database is being built and to contribute please click here.


Some initial results


  • About one third (or 29) of the 91 cases were handled in Beijing or Tianjin.
  • There were three grouped cases: Guangdong (a group of petitioners); Jiangsu (activists caught up during the 2016 G20 meeting); and Zhejiang (members of a house church).
  • So far, 20 confirmed cases were overseen by the Ministry of State Security (particularly those cases involving foreigners).



  • More than one third were investigated for Endangering State Security crimes; another 10 cases were connected to state or military secrets.
  • Another quarter were investigated for public order crimes. Although illegal under Chinese law, these RSDL cases had lawyer and family access and prosecutor oversight denied to the detainee.



  • Most victims of RSDL are men; just 15 women have been identified so far.
  • 10 of the 91 cases are not from mainland China (Sweden, UK, Canada, US, Taiwan and Hong Kong).



  • All except one of the 25 victims of RSDL that we have information on their treatment, were subjected to various degrees of mental or physical torture. Examples of tortures endured were: sleep deprivation, forced into stress positions, prolonged solitary confinement, and threats to loved ones. Less frequent but still common were: beatings, being shackled into painful positions, and threats to the victim, including death threats.
  • In 19 cases – that’s more than one in five, the victim was made to record a televised confession.
  • Another 26 victims reported that they were forced to fire their own choice of lawyer.
  • Of the 20 cases that provided information on prosecutor oversight, not a single one said they had received a visit.
  • Of the 50 cases that provided information on RSDL notification, 30 said their family had been given written notification – although often delayed – while another 11 said notification had only been verbal (in violation of the law). In another 10 cases, the family had not been notified at all.


The database

The database asks wide-ranging questions that cover basic data on the case (suspected crime, location, duration); treatment inside RSDL (forms of torture, lawyer and family access, forced confessions); the ministry responsible and outcomes; and post-RSDL (continued surveillance, physical and mental issues).  This is an ongoing project and will generate rich data on this grave human rights violation. For more details see below.

The database (which is not being made public because of security concerns for the participants) is compiled by soliciting victims or their families to complete a questionnaire and/or online research.

This research is important because neither the Chinese Supreme Court’s nor the Supreme Procurator’s official databases include more than the occasional entry for cases where RSDL has been employed. Furthermore, there is a tendency for human rights groups to only report on cases which involve human rights defenders. The state’s use of RSDL goes much wider than that.


Can you help?

Have you or someone you know been a victim of RSDL since it was legalized (1 January 2013)? If so, please contact RSDLmonitor at with any information, even if it’s just a name. All information will be kept strictly confidential. If it’s possible to fill in the questionnaire, you may download it here: (RSDL Questionnaire form (EN)).

The Chinese version of this questionnaire can be found on this page.

Details on the database

There are four data areas:

  • Dataset 1: Basic data on the victim: alleged crime, location of RSDL, date in, release date, duration and what form notification was given if any.
  • Dataset 2: Treatment inside RSDL: forms of maltreatment and torture, lawyer access, family notification of whereabouts, forced to relinquish rights to see own lawyer, and forced to record a TV confession.
  • Dataset 3: Data on law enforcement side: entry and exit points, ministry responsible (state security or domestic security), whether sent to trial, form of sentencing, form of release.
  • Dataset 4: Data on post-RSDL: house arrest, surveillance, and mental/physical consequences and treatment.

Why do they add that extra layer of cruelty?

The most chilling aspect of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) is the fact that it’s allowed under the law, according to Chinese independent journalist and writer Zhao Sile (赵思乐) . “This thing is legal. It’s in the Chinese law; it’s too frightening.”


How can you protest something, she asks, when the procedure is legal? “The government can simply answer any criticism with – ‘It’s according to our law.’”


State-sanctioned enforced disappearances are not new in China, but since 2013, the police have the right to disappear someone, hold them in solitary confinement, and deny them access to family and lawyers for up to six months.


“RSDL is more frightening than being in jail. You can’t talk with anyone in RSDL. You’re in a place where people don’t know where you are.”


Zhao is talking from Taipei where she recently published a new book about women activists, social movements and political repression in China called 她们的征途 (Her Battles in English).


Once someone has disappeared into RSDL they’re lost, and they may be lost forever, she says. “The most terrifying part is [the family] doesn’t know where they are – they can’t send a lawyer to check on them to see if they’ve been tortured.. I think what makes people afraid the most is the not knowing.”


They maintain the secrecy, she says, as a cloak to buy time. “If they don’t inform the family, they can keep them for longer.” But this lack of information is unbearably cruel on loved ones.


“RSDL is more frightening than being in jail. You can’t talk with anyone in RSDL. You’re in a place where people don’t know where you are.”


“Why do they add that extra layer of cruelty by keeping the family in the dark?” she asks.


She points to the largely unreported case of Zhao Suli (素利), the wife of dissident Qin Yongming, who disappeared without a trace more than three years ago. “No one talks about this case – her children can’t find her – she just disappeared…We’re afraid some accident happened to her. Maybe she just died under RSDL. The police are allowed not to tell families where they are being held so you can just disappear people this way.


“They don’t know where to look for her…”


Since this interview Zhao Suli has resurfaced – she was allowed a brief visit with her family in early February but is still not free – she is now being held at her own home, according to this report by Radio Free Asia.


Zhao Sile has spent many months interviewing the wives of the 709 lawyers, many of whom were victims of RSDL, and for Her Battles she also talked with NGO worker Kou Yanding (寇延丁) who spent 128 days in RSDL (for an extract from Kou Yanding’s own book about her ordeal please see Kou Yanding: You must get our approval for everything).  Kou, she said, was still so distressed from her RSDL experience that she found it difficult to talk about it at length, even though several years had passed.


Several of Zhao’s friends have also been disappeared, she says sadly, so she has first hand experience of this fear.


“One of my friends is now in RSDL. I’m really concerned about him; his name is Zhen Jianghua (甄江华).”


Zhen, an online human rights campaigner, was detained on 1 September last year, and is now being held under RSDL on suspicion of inciting state subversion. The latest news in Zhen’s case came in early February, when his lawyer said his application to see Zhen had been denied.


Zhao describes how activists, like Zhen before he was detained, have been trying toughen themselves up so they can cope better with the torturous experience of RSDL.


“Some young people I know, they’re shutting themselves in some little room, without windows, and they don’t communicate with anyone else for days and keep the light on 24-7 to train themselves for RSDL.  They told me that after two or three days they feel like they’re going crazy. It’s hard to imagine how someone can survive these kinds of conditions for six months. It’s terrible. You can hardly imagine how anyone can endure it… Those who’ve been through RSDL and didn’t give up are supermen – like [now jailed activist] Wu Gan (吴淦) and [missing rights lawyer] Wang Quanzhang (王全璋).”


“Some young people I know, they’re shutting themselves in some little room, without windows, and they don’t communicate with anyone else for days and keep the light on 24-7 to train themselves for RSDL.”


But however terrible RSDL is, laments Zhao, the world is not paying attention so books like our The People’s Republic of the Disappeared (11 first person-accounts of RSDL), are crucial.


“I think it’s a very important work and it’s also a work that is an avant-guard work. It’s refusing to look away from the dark side of China’s human rights crisis when the world is looking away.”


The fact that the world is not paying attention is “terrifying,” she says.


“[German leader] Angela Merkel is now looking away but many people thought she was one of the few leaders that would not look away, that she would care about human rights. And Norway – they didn’t say anything about [Chinese dissident] Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) even when he was dying in prison.


“What I see is the whole world is looking away, so this book which is trying to uncover the darkest issues in China’s human rights situation is doing respectable and significant work.”


RSDL round-up for February

This is a monthly round-up of all news related to Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) in China. It includes updates on victims, legal developments and commentary on China’s legalized practice of “Enforced Disappearances.”

Proposal to scrap presidential term limits

Lawyer Li Baiguang dies under mysterious circumstances

Two human rights reports out

Extra-legal detention camps in Xinjiang

Liuzhi – RSDL for officials

Gui Minhai makes third TV forced confession

Lawyer Jiang Tianyong suffers memory loss in jail


Proposal to scrap presidential term limits

Of course the biggest news out of China last month was the proposal to scrap term limits for the president (currently there are norms that only allow two five-year terms), potentially meaning tenure for life for Xi Jinping. This is disappointing news for those who uphold human rights as it likely means more of the same or more of even worse abuses, including a widening of the systematization and legalization of RSDL-type detention. The Internet is awash with commentary on this long-expected but nonetheless consequential development. Here are just two: on his blog, Jerome Cohen writes that it heralds the “return of one-man dictatorship,” and “signals the likelihood of another long period of severe repression;” while for Evan Osnas, writing in The New Yorker, “The decision marks the clearest expression of Xi’s core beliefs—his impatience with affectations of liberalism, his belief in the Communist Party’s moral superiority, and his unromantic conception of politics as a contest between force and the forced.”



Lawyer Li Baiguang dies under suspicious circumstances

Respected and award-winning human rights lawyer Li Baiguang sadly died on 26 February at a military hospital in Nanjing. His death was sudden, happening just a few hours after he had been admitted complaining of stomach pains. Lawyer Li was just 49 years old. His friends and supporters said they suspect foul play, pointing to the fact that he was beaten in custody last year,. Some reports have Lawyer Li suffering from late-stage liver cancer – the same disease that imprisoned dissident Li Xiaobo died of in prison last year.



Two human rights reports out

Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) published their annual report, Repression and Resilience: Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2017) at the end of February. The report noted that evidence from victims confirms RSDL is being used as a “cover for torture and other forms of mistreatment;” that 17 lawyers and activists have been held since the 709 Crackdown in 2015 under RSDL; and it also gave a list of 12 activists who had protested outside a courthouse in Suzhou who were held in RSDL between November 2016 and March 2017. Download a copy of the report here. Amnesty International also published its annual report in February, noting that RSDL was “used to curb the activities of human rights defenders, including lawyers, activists and religious practitioners.”



Extra-legal detention camps in Xinjiang

While the number of people being held under China’s RSDL is not known – the numbers of Uighurs reported to be kept in extra-legal detention in the western region of Xinjiang are staggering. In January, reports from Xinjiang were all about the rise of a surveillance state, this month the focus has been on the hundreds of thousands of Uighurs (estimates of up to 800,000 have been reported) caught up in China’s “war on terror” and sent to vast re-education camps where they are held indefinitely without charge. Writing in Foreign Policy one writer described how a classmate – Iman, a Uighur student studying in the US – went home to Xinjiang to see his mother and was detained at one of these camps for several weeks possibly because he was studying overseas. When the police placed handcuffs on Iman, he asked if they were necessary. “‘Don’t ask questions,’ one officer demanded. ‘We are being lenient — you are supposed to be shackled, too.’” A report by Human Rights Watch details how who gets sent to these camps is based on predictive policing techniques and big data using a system called Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) or 一体化联合作战平台 in Chinese. The report said IJOP uses several sources of data including CCTV cameras, security checkpoints, an individual’s own files and information collected by local “research” groups who ask questions about religious behaviour. The system is up and running in Kashgar already, the resport said.




Liuzhi – RSDL for officials

As well as scrapping presidential term limits, the National People’s Congress meeting in March, is expected to approve the formation of the National Supervision Commission which would formalize an RSDL-like detention procedure – operating outside of the Criminal Procedure Law, called liuzhi, 留置 in Chinese, for all government employees if suspected of corruption or other wrong-doing. The head of Beijing’s Supervision Commission defended the move with the rather dubious argument: “Major crimes related to official duties are not the same as normal crimes and the investigations cannot be done in the same way.” China Law professor Stanley Lubman told The Diplomat that the system reflects: the Party’s “deep commitment to control over Chinese society.”




Gui Minhai makes third forced TV confession

Just weeks after the Swedish bookseller was taken for the second time by the Chinese state,  prompting an international outcry – including a stern statement from Sweden itself – Gui Minhai appeared in his third forced confession, this time in front of a crowd of pliant media including the increasingly pro-Beijing South China Morning Post. Flanked by security officers, Gui accused Sweden of using him in the jarring video, which is widely accepted to have been staged and coerced. Peter Dahlin, himself a former victim of China’s televised forced confessions, urges media to behave more responsibly when reporting obviously forced confessions. In an op-ed for Hong Kong Free Press he writes: “Was Gui Minhai’s latest, his third, scripted by the Chinese police? Was he told what to say? Was he forced to do so with threats to himself or loved ones? Yes. End of discussion. His words hold no value whatsoever, except perhaps the final part, where he offers his love to his daughter and family.”




Lawyer Jiang Tianyong suffers memory loss in jail

Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who is serving two years for incitement to subvert state power is suffering from memory loss, according to his wife after a family visit to his detention centre, reported Radio Free Asia (RFA). His family suspect that Jiang, who is also a victim of RSDL, is being force fed medication which could impair memory function. There have been several reports of human rights lawyers being forcibly medicated, including Li Heping and Xie Yanyi. Lawyer Xie told RFA that the police “may be even more unscrupulous when it comes to Jiang Tianyong.”