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.”
This month, June 4 marked 29 years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Despite heavy rains, more than 100,000 people in Hong Kong remembered the massacre at the annual candlelight vigil. A growing localist sentiment meant that some student groups snubbed the memorial, arguing democracy on the mainland wasn’t their main concern. In Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen used the anniversary to call on China to embrace democracy: “if China could face up to what had happened it could become the bedrock for China’s own democratic transformation,” she wrote. Beijing was having none of it and rather nastily responded: “Taiwan should stop harping on about the same old thing.”
Naturally, China itself did not acknowledge the event, but families of the victims, the Tiananmen Mothers, sent an open letter to Xi Jinping asking him for the Party to accept responsibility for what happened in 1989. They wrote: “Our Chinese Dream is that the June Fourth tragedy will receive a clear accounting, and that justice will be done.”
And over at Global Voices, an interesting article uses the anniversary to ask the question: Who are China’s political prisoners? Around 1,000 were behind bars in 2017; over the years about 2/3 have been men, and a staggering half have been Tibetans.
Political re-education in Xinjiang
While the mass disappearances of Uighurs in Xinjiang into re-education camps continues, Chinafile invited scholars to offer suggestions on how the world should deal with what is “arguably the most serious human rights violation in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.” The consensus was a tough response: vocal criticism, naming and shaming, and sanctions (including using the Magnitsky Act). “[Xinjiang Party Secretary] Chen Quanguo is a clear example of exactly whom the Magnitsky Act was designed to target: an individual who is leading the incarceration of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of citizens simply because of their religious beliefs.” Foreign companies that assist this human rights violation can also be targeted. Heinz, for example, that sources tomatoes from Xinjiang for its ketchup: “will have to determine how much their products contribute to the maintenance of the totalitarian police state in Xinjiang.”
While there is still no official recognition of the campaign, RFA continues to trace numbers of people disappeared, village by village. In Qaraqash county, a local official said almost half of the 1,700 households had been rounded up into camps – which amounted to almost all the adult men. The official said they were following a directive that targets Uighurs “born in the 1980s and 1990s as ‘members of an unreliable and untrustworthy generation’.”
The key western scholar working on the re-education policy, Adrian Zenz, took two interviews this month. He talked with us here and Deutsche Welle here.
Forced confessions: Vietnam airs TV confession, Swedish press call for Gui Minhai release
In a chilling reminder that the rights abuses of China are so easily spread to its authoritarian neighbours, Vietnam aired the apology and confession of a detained US citizen on television. Speaking in Vietnamese, William Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese American who had been arrested at anti-China protests a week before, said: “”I understand that my acts violated the law I regret that I caused trouble for people heading to the airport.” The video of the confession is around 0:15 in, here.
Efforts to release detained Swedish citizen, Gui Minhai (桂敏海), who was made to appear in three forced confessions in China, continue. In early June, dozens of Swedish newspapers called for his release in an article published in 37 major newspapers and signed by Swedish scholars, journalists, politicians and actors. You can read the article here (in Swedish). The Diplomat made the observation that this move by the Swedish press illustrates just how passive the Swedish government has been in pushing for Mr. Gui’s release.
709 update: Wang Yu denied passport, more lawyers lose licenses, and new movie on 709 wives
China has again refused to give Lawyer Wang Yu (王宇) a passport – it was confiscated when she was detained back in July 2015 and never returned to her. Her husband Bao Longjun (包龙军) said: “They said they couldn’t process her passport application for reasons of national security.” Travel bans are frequently used to control former political detainees. For Lawyer Wang it means she is unable to visit her teenage son who is studying in Australia.
Two Hong Kong journalists have made a second film about the 709 Crackdown, released to mark the third anniversary of the event next month. The two-hour documentary, 709 The Other Shore, by Lo King-wah and Kong King-chu, focuses on 12 activists, lawyers and wives who fled into exile to escape harassment in China. Two of those who appear in the film are Jin Bianling (金變玲) , wife of rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) and Chen Guiqiu (陈桂秋), wife of rights lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳).
In recent months news that China is rounding up Muslims (mostly Uighurs) en masse in its northwestern Xinjiang region to political re-education camps has shocked many, although the story is still massively under-reported. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have been disappeared in a campaign with absolutely no due process. Victims can be held indefinitely. No one is safe. Even Uighur celebrities – a footballer and a pop singer – have been snatched.
Dr. Adrian Zenz is one of several scholars hunting down information on this secretive practice. He uses local government documents – construction bids, job listings, and other official postings – to piece together what is going on. Recently he talked with RSDLmonitor about what he has found out so far.
I don’t think there’s been any information on that. Which, of course, does not indicate an absence, just at least I have not heard about it.
Q: What is the legal status of the re-education camps in Xinjiang?
I’m not entirely sure. There is, of course, this ordinance [by the Xinjiang government, that came into force in April 2017]. This ordinance mandates the use of the “de-extremification (去极端化) measures” including re-education (教育转化). The document specifically mentions these but does not go into any detail. This is probably the most direct document of a legal nature that would speak into that. I would add that there is an existing system of re-education that was established, for example, to treat Falun Gong practitioners, and there is the existing coerced detoxification system for drug addicts. [Both have been around for several decades].
From what we can see in Xinjiang, re-education is taking a whole new number of shapes and forms. To an extent, it’s tucked onto existing facilities and systems but it’s also had outcroppings of its own nature. By extension, the de-extremification measures which have been mandated, I am sure, give legal leeway for political re-education. A lot of this can be interpreted broadly – the Chinese don’t necessarily stipulate all the details, and they do this on purpose, because if there are broad statements, it gives the authorities a lot of leeway.
There’s also the anti-terrorism law. Article 38 [of that] comes closest to a legal provision for extrajudicial re-education in Xinjiang. It stops short of mentioning that this may take place under internment-like conditions and for longer times, therefore pertaining more to pre-2017 style re-education.
The authorities, if they wanted, could probably try and construe some kind of legal umbrella [for the camps]. But I don’t think they feel the need.
Q: RSDL facilities are run by the police. Who runs Xinjiang’s re-education camps?
It is typically under the police or PSB ( 公安局) or the legal system, the justice bureau (司法局) also run some of the facilities — they are indicated as the host agency in a number of bids. And I believe that’s also consistent with how the former re-education through labour (劳教) was run. I think it’s been inherited from that.
Q: Who has oversight over how these places are run?
Good question. I’m not sure how much I’ve looked into this question. Of course, some of this is attached to the prison system. One document [in Chinese] from the Urumqi Party School, gives some context in how the centres are located.
I think there’s probably not a consistent body of oversight precisely because some of these things take different contexts. Some are extensions of criminal detention centres or police training centres and of course the detention system is under the oversight of the legal system. In some cases there have been reports where these detention centres themselves function in a re-education like setting, while they are waiting for their case to be decided. It’s a very messy situation.
Q: Are inmates to these centres dressed in prison clothing/have their heads shaved?
The official documentation that I’ve analysed does not discuss this, but in the recent AP piece by Gerry Shih, it does speak about wearing different colours.
The police then sent Bekali to a 10 by 10m(32- by 32-foot) cell in the prison with 17 others, their feet chained to the posts of two large beds. Some wore dark blue uniforms, while others wore orange for political crimes. Bekali was given orange. [AP]
And that’s almost the first time I’ve read about this. I think for this kind of information we have to rely on eye witness accounts. However, I would caution that this is very likely to be highly inconsistent. As I have said before, re-education takes places in different facilities in different contexts: it’s a huge system, it’s grown very rapidly. But the one thing I can say is that, for example, in the construction contracts, the tenders, the governing authorities are almost always the PSB or the justice bureau.
Q: Do we have any access to the teaching materials that are used in these camps?
No. I have not seen any document that shows the actual content – only reports – as cited in my report – that talk about the curriculum but not showing the actual curriculum.
Q: Do we find any evidence that these camps are also located outside Xinjiang, say for example in Tibet or other Muslim areas such as Ningxia?
Not specifically in this context. Like in Tibetan areas, typically, from anecdotal evidence that I’ve heard in the past some 10 years ago – so this is not current information – it basically occurs in the regular prison and detention centres. I don’t think you have a re-education network in Tibetan areas.
What you do have of course are [maybe] the existing Laojiao (劳动教育) facilities which were often converted into detoxification centres after the system was abolished in 2013 (this happened in Beijing). You don’t really know what is going on.
Q: How is the re-education system changing in Xinjiang?
In Xinjiang the system is so different because it’s not really being targeted any more. It used to target so-called extremists, but now the system is trying to round up entire percentages of the population, and that’s the reason why they’re having to use all kinds of facilities, and build new ones, convert existing ones, and it’s also the reason why there’s no consistent practice, because they themselves are being overwhelmed.
Q: What do they look like inside? Are there any religious facilities?
You can be sure that there are no facilities for praying. If they are praying, they will be punished. There are most certainly no rooms for prayer. If you look at the table of 73 bids that I have in my report — that’s about what I would be able to tell you – we see a lot of facilities for long-term stay, we see dormitories, we see dining halls, we see sanitary facilities – toilets bathrooms — we see teaching buildings, we see police rooms, guard rooms, or separate stations. Some are larger compounds that have different things, some have fire stations, one had a hospital and supermarket, although that might be an exception, we don’t know. Some have detention and re-education centres in the same compound, it might be for different purposes, there’s a great deal of variation but there’s usually a sleeping facility, eating facility and teaching facility.
Q: What do people who are allowed to leave do?
I’ve seen reports of some people who returned to their original place and said nothing, absolutely nothing about what happened. There’s this one media report that I cite in my report that talks about some of them being assigned to vegetable planting, and then others were given money to buy vegetables from them to help them have a livelihood. For some they are just training to take people away from the countryside – farmers, or people who do seasonal work – they try to get them out of that and into wage labour work – jobs in factories. That’s a big program that’s being run.
The state basically sees southern Xinjiang as a big problem area and a concentration of difficult-to-control populations. They want people in regular wage jobs and also in different places in Xinjiang where they are under much more control and in very non-religious settings. They want people to secularize and to modernize.
Q: Can this really win the hearts and minds of the people in Xinjiang?
I would say firstly that this type of re-education is a classic ingredient of Communism. Communism is all about ideological change and especially away from religion — which is thought to be opium for the masses. It’s a classic and has basically been used by all Communist regimes. It’s a belief that you can change a person and liberate them… I think the particular combination of communism and Chinese culture is particularly potent in thinking that this can actually be done and that there’s determination. Yes, there’ll be some cost on the way but in the end, I think they generally believe this will work.
Q: Do you think it will work?
[laughs!] Well, define work!
I think a side effect of this is that a good number of Uighurs will become very cautious about anything religious; they will become extremely intimidated about what they will do. They will try to stay out of trouble and on the surface it may seem to “work”. But the long-term cost is quite evident, I think, some people for sure will be turned towards extremism – who would otherwise have not become extremist – the long-term cost I am very sure is that it will make things much worse than if it had never been done.
Q: How about Hui ethnic group? (the other main Muslim group)
There’s very little information about the Hui in Xinjiang. For example, in public recruitment notices, the Hui are often very similarly treated to the Han – traditionally, they’re considered a non-problem. The Hui do publicly practice their religion, and any practice of Islam in Xinjiang is a problem, so in that way they may be caught up more in it than in the past. There’s very little detail on that.
We don’t have [any information if Hui are being held] but we can suspect that anyone who practices their religion quite actively, goes to a mosque, owns a Koran will be caught up. These regulations of course apply in general. So even though there might have been more leeway with the Hui in the past from everything that I have seen, I have my feelings that this leeway has shrunk considerably.
Q: When will this end?
If you look at the construction bids, there definitely was a peak in construction and these facilities are now being used. There is some extension also some vocational training – like a continuum of re-education, so some expansion is still happening, though not as rapid as last year. So currently, there’s no end in sight.
But a lot of these people are not being released. I know several people who have been taken … some over a year. It’s very inconsistent and there’s no telling when people will be released or when the campaign will be over. I think they are taking a long-term perspective on this, they are looking for a real definitive solution to this Uighur question, they want to settle it once and for all. That’s what it seems to me. And if it takes 3-5 years, that’s nothing for them.
While attention for the past few years has been focused on the shocking footage of pre-trial detainees being forced to confess on China’s state broadcaster CCTV, including that of many foreigners, China has been opening up new forms of forced public confessions. This can only be interpreted as an attempt to normalize and popularize the forced public confession in China despite it being reminiscent of the excesses of the Mao era and a stark move away from any pretense at a rule of law.
Confessions are being disseminated across a number of platforms from court Weibo accounts to TV entertainment programs. The most typical confessions reported on have been the Forced TV Confessions before trial (and often before formal arrest). Our report Scripted and Staged: behind the scenes of China’s forced confessions provides by far the most comprehensive information on this phenomenon (we just released a full Chinese translation of that report here.)
Confessions are king in China
Confessions have a long history dating back to the imperial age, even more so, so they lie at the core of control in Communist China both for furthering the political grip and in ideological reform. A discussion on this can be read here and here.
One thing of note is that the re-emergence of public confessions — especially in their new form of televised and online dissemination — has coincided with the rise of Xi Jinping. In tandem, the legal system has also undergone an overhaul to massively legalise what would formerly have been extra-legal detentions. The two new systems are RSDL and liuzhi. Many of those who were forced to give TV confessions were held in RSDL. These confessions are suspended in an area midway between the legal and the propaganda systems.
China’s first televised courtroom confession was the trial of the Gang of Four in 1980 in which Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (江青), did the opposite of a confession – she accused the court of putting Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution on trial, hurled abuse at the court, called Chinese leaders fascists and revisionists and dared them to chop off her head.
Such theatrics are rare these days, instead televised portions of courtroom procedures are typically used to showcase the repentance and confession of the defendant. These are often initially broadcast (edited clips) on the court’s Weibo, or the court’s webpage and excerpts may be later aired on state TV.
Some of the more notable ones in recent years have been:
Their “confessions” are worded in a remarkably similar fashion to those of the pre-trial detainee confessions. For example, Mr. Lee expressed remorse, thanked his prosecutors, and said he has seen the error of his ways. Because Mr. Lee is Taiwanese there was an extra element to this confession, a “message” to Taiwan from the CCP, an expression of support for cross-strait reunification from Mr. Lee’s lips. A sentiment that Mr. Lee, a pro-democracy activist, is highly unlikely to have made without being coerced.
The short clip of the trial of another victim of the 709 Crackdown, activist Wu Gan (吴淦), illustrates what the CCP has to resort to do when its prisoners resist. Mr. Wu (who like Mr. Zhou was given a closed-door trial) refused to confess, and even according to his lawyer gave sarcastic thanks to the court for his sentencing. In the short clip that was released, we don’t see Mr. Wu speak, he just stands there, while the judges make their statements.
The televising of courtroom proceedings has a legal foundation, and appears to have really started in earnest around 2013 (although live broadcasts began back in 1998) and at about the same time as the pre-trial TV confession launched onto the scene and Xi Jinping became secretary general of the CCP. According to the People’s Courtroom Rules (Amendment 2015):
In any of the following situations, for trial activities that are conducted openly in accordance with law, the people’s courts may use television, the internet or other public media to broadcast or record images, audio or videos. (1) a high degree of public concern; (2) a larger social influence; (3) the value for legal publicity and education is quite strong. (Translation: China Law Translate).
Some trials are uploaded to a centralized website tingshen.court.gov.cn, which is surprisingly user friendly for a Chinese official website. It features a map of China, where the provinces/regions/municipalities are clickable to home in on the courthouse of one’s choice. The islands in the South China Sea and Taiwan are in there for good measure, but (as yet) not clickable.
While the number of broadcast trials may sound huge, 45,000 in 2013, that’s only a tiny fraction of the millions of cases heard throughout the year.
At about the same time as the pre-trial TV confessions were in full swing, CCTV began airing the confessions of CCP officials who were serving their sentences or had been charged with crimes of corruption. In October 2016, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CDIC) partnered with CCTV to make Always on the Road (永遠在路上), an eight-part TV series. The black-and-white slick broadcast gives officials screen-time to repent and many broke down in tears. The series was also uploaded to the CDIC website.
While Always on the Road is flashier with post-production effects and music, there are parallels with the televised confessions studied in Scripted and Staged– they both feature the confessor being escorted by the police, signing a confession, and expressions of repentance. Their confessions focus on introspective self-criticisms, statements of regret and apologies to the CCP.
One of the key purposes of the televised confessions of detainees was to use their “confession” to denounce others. Even when the individual is free, they can be pressured with threats of being detained again or their family being harmed, to appear on television and denounce others.
For example in August 2016, rights lawyer Zhang Kai (张凯) said he was forced to appear on Phoenix TV to voice support for the trials of key 709 Crackdown lawyers — Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Hu Shigen (胡石根) and Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民). Later, Zhang used his Weibo account to say: “My elderly parents were living in fear and worry during the six months of detention in which I was held in darkness. [I was] powerless to resist the pressure imposed by a strong regime.”
One of the Hong Kong booksellers, Lee Bo (李波), also appeared on Phoenix TV after he had been released from detention in China to say that he had not been abducted by Chinese agents from Hong Kong and that he was considering giving up his British passport in an interview that many consider forced and untrue.
Weibo and WeChat, China’s two biggest social media platforms, have also emerged as popular platforms for confessions. While not, potentially, having the same audience numbers as TV, they remain an increasingly used channel that shares similarities with the confession broadcasts.
One of the biggest “confession” stories this year was in April when Zhang Yiming (张一鸣), the founder and CEO of the Toutiao news app that fell foul of the authorities for allowing off-colour jokes on its platform, posted an “apology” on WeChat that shares language strikingly similar to the confessions.
In the same month, after the police had arrested several members of the National Tourism Chat (全国旅游群) WeChat group that raised money for political prisoners and their families, one of the founders, Dai Xiangnan (戴湘南), and also one of those who had been arrested, sent a “confession” message to the group. He said he was guilty of engaging in illegal fundraising activities, inciting others in the group to donate money and sign petitions, and disturbing social order. In the ensuing days, three more members also made similar confession statements to the group. At least three of those sent messages while in custody.
A new phenomenon in recent years is the CCP’s use of manipulated video to counter accusations against it. These are often circulated “unofficially”, uploaded anonymously or leaked to media. These heavily edited clips often include undated, unclear, and ambiguous footage. They also clearly violate the privacy rights of the people being filmed.
The most famous of these, are the repugnant series of videos which were released while China’s most famous dissident Liu Xiaobo was dying of liver cancer in prison. The first (which can be seen here) shows Mr. Liu in prison and in hospital, in an apparent effort to “prove” that he was being well treated. Shortly afterwards another upsetting video (which can be seen here) was aired showing the visit of two foreign doctors to Mr. Liu’s bedside. Germany later expressed their anger at the video’s release saying : “These recordings were made against the expressed wishes of the German side, which were communicated in writing prior to the visit.” Mr. Liu’s hurried funeral and burial at sea were also filmed and released.
Two more recent examples are a video of police detaining rights lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生) as he took his son to school in January 2018. It was aired on The Paper (which also broadcast right lawyer Wang Yu’s (王宇) August 2016 forced confession). The time stamps are not smooth showing it has been heavily edited and likely as a means to delete footage showing police aggression towards Lawyer Yu.
In May, Beijing police released another heavily edited video to dispute accusations that a Hong Kong reporter had been roughed up by security agents as he attempted to cover rights lawyer Xie Yanyi’s (谢燕益) hearing at a lawyer’s federation. In this case there was footage from bystanders and the TV station itself which showed the journalist being grabbed and pushed to the floor by five men – a remarkably different picture to the official clip.
We are pleased to announce that the only in-depth study of China’s illegal TV confessions, Scripted and Staged, is now available in Chinese, allowing readers for the first time access to the testimony of Chinese victims in their original language.
This ground-breaking report, exposes the lies and the abuse behind China’s illegal practice of coercing detainees to confess on television and calls on governments to take steps to pressure China to abandon this practice, and put into place safeguards so that detainees are protected against such abuse in the future.
We are using the report to campaign for sanctions or restrictions on Chinese state media that broadcast these illegal and rights abusing confessions. This is an urgent issue right now as China aggressively expands its media overseas – the latest reports suggest CGTN (CCTV’s global arm) is planning to hire 350 new journalists for a massive new media centre in London.
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.”
At the end of last month, it was confirmed that well-known Hunanese rights activist Zhu Chengzhi (朱承志), who had disappeared at the end of April, has been placed under RSDL at an unknown location. His daughter, who received his RSDL notice, said she believes he is being kept somewhere in Suzhou but has not been informed of his whereabouts. Suzhou police rejected Zhu’s lawyer’s request to visit his client. This is the second time that Zhu has been held under RSDL; his first spell was in January 2013, and his is thought to have been the first ever RSDL case after the custodial practice was legalized on 1 January 2013.
There are also reports that at the end of April, Nanjing-born human rights defender Wang Jian (王健) was moved into RSDL at an unknown location. Police had detained him on 18 April on suspicion of “disorderly behaviour.”
CCP goes after lawyers’ licenses
Following the 709 Crackdown of 2015 against human rights lawyers – mass arrests, many disappeared into RSDL, with some ending in lengthy prison sentences — the CCP now appears to be trying to neutralize the remaining lawyers en masse by preventing them from working through the revoking of their licenses or blocking them from getting work at a law firm. Lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) faces imminent revocation of his license, while this month Lawyer Wen Donghai (文东海), Xie’s own lawyer and Lawyer Li Heping (李和平) were notified that their licenses were being revoked.
In mid-May the Beijing Lawyers’ Association’s held a hearing on Lawyer Xie’s alleged violations during a case earlier this year for a Falun Gong client. In Beijing that day both Lawyer Xie and a Hong Kong journalist were roughed up and detained briefly outside by security. An account of that day, written by Lawyer Xie was posted on China Change.
First death in Liuzhi is reported
The first death under liuzhi (留置), a new custodial system in China over Communist Party members and government workers that is completely outside judicial control was reported on 8 May by Caixin. Chen Yong (陈勇), a former driver for the Jianyang district government in Fujian province died during an interrogation. His sister said they had identified the body but were shocked to see that his face was disfigured. Mr. Chen’s case highlights the fact that you do not currently have to be a CCP member or government worker to be detained under liuzhi – Chen left his job in 2016. No lawyer access is allowed under the system.
New evidence on Xinjiang’s political education camps
There has been a flurry of scholarly and journalistic efforts to provide more evidence of, and information on, the mass incarceration of Muslims (mainly Uighur) in political re-education camps in the Xinjiang region. The AP ran an interview with a former Kazakh inmate at one of these camps in which “hour upon hour, day upon day, … [detainees]… had to disavow their Islamic beliefs, criticize themselves and their loved ones and give thanks to the ruling Communist Party.”
The interview with Omir Bekali can be viewed below:
Scholar Adrian Zenz released his (pre-peer reviewed) paper which offers some of the most comprehensive evidence for the extent of these camps to date. With official silence on the very existence of these camps, Dr. Zenz uses government procurement and construction bids, budget reports and recruitment notices to give a fuller picture of what’s going on. He identified 73 separate bids for re-education facilities and estimates that anything between several hundred thousand and one million people have been disappeared into these camps.
Law student Shawn Zhang on Medium shares his research putting together satellite imagery to identify locations and the scale of these secretive camps. A summary of his results is given in this news report by the Jordanian newssite Al Bawaba. In a powerful opinion piece for the New York Times, Rian Thum writes: “The camps are also tools of punishment, and of course, a threat. Few detainees are formally charged, much less sentenced. Some are told how long a term they will serve; others are simply held indefinitely. This uncertainty — the arbitrary logic of detention — instills fear in the entire population.”
Pressure mounts for Liu Xia’s release as she says she wants to die
There have been growing calls for the release of Liu Xia (刘霞), the wife of deceased Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who has been under house arrest and effectively disappeared since her husband’s funeral last summer – although she has never been charged with a crime. In one phone call to a dissident friend living in exile in Germany at the beginning of the month, Ms. Liu, audibly weeping, said she would rather die than continue living under these conditions. “If I can’t leave, I’ll die in my home. Xiaobo is gone, and there’s nothing in the world for me now. It’s easier to die than live,” she said.
Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk, who campaigned for schools to teach in the Tibetan language was handed a five-year sentence for separatism in a court in Qinghai province. Chillingly, the New York Times video Tashi made to explain his campaign was used as evidence at the trial that he had “deliberately incited separatism by trying to discredit the government’s international image and treatment of ethnic minorities.” Tashi made it clear in that interview he was not seeking independence for Tibet, just a school where his niece could learn in her mother tongue.
In the spring of 2017, a number of lawyers got together in China to investigate how they could better represent clients who had been tortured. They wanted to explore how they could give them real help. Out of this came a practical manual – sponsored by our parent NGO Safeguard Defenders — on feasible actions lawyers in China could take that would have a real impact and counter the rampant use of torture in the country.
The lawyers had the freedom to explore this subject in any way they wanted. Their mission was to draw up a manual based entirely on their findings.
That Chinese-language manual is now being distributed quietly inside China. The fact that this manual cannot be published in the public domain is testament to the dire state of the rule of law in China.
The English-language report found that torture is still endemic and officers practice it with near impunity because of China’s failure to make proper legal reforms (legal reforms they are required to make after they ratified the UN’s Convention Against Torture). The legal definition is still too narrow and only actions undertaken by security officers collecting evidence or extracting confessions can be deemed torture.
The issue is compounded by the recent introduction of two new custodial systems, which themselves herald the likely expansion of the practice. Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) and Liuzhi are two similar extrajudicial custodial systems that effectively shield officers from any oversight and put detainees in solitary confinement with no access to legal counsel or family contact for months on end.
The report also includes testimony from victims of torture to illustrate the different forms employed in China’s detention centres and prisons and under RSDL.
Research undertaken by Safeguard Defenders on human rights defender victims of RSDL, which was legalized in 2013, and is being exploited to harass lawyers and activists, reveal widespread and often shocking stories of torture and maltreatment. Liuzhi, a custodial system that replaces (and expands on) the old shuanggui system, was officially launched this March, and is used to extract confessions from Party members and government workers involved in corruption cases.
The definition of torture is too narrow – for it to be considered torture it must have a direct physical consequence (torturers often conceal this, for example inflicting beatings on the torso or beating so that the body does not bruise).
It does not include psychological torture
It does not include torture by anyone except investigating officers
It does not include torture inflicted in any other circumstances other than collecting evidence or a confession.
It is extremely difficult for lawyers to collect evidence, police routinely block access to clients and if the client is under an extra-judicial custodial system, such as RSDL or liuzhi than there can be no access at all
The lawyers in our study group concluded that the only way to practically help clients who are victims of torture is to use evidence of that to discard any evidence or confessions extracted through torture at trial.
Types of torture
Torture in China has been well documented by first-hand victim accounts, including most famously by lawyer Gao Zhisheng, but also in our book on RSDL, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, as well as in research conducted by other human rights organizations.
This short report lists some of the most common forms: stress positions – such as being hung up by the wrists, strapped into a Tiger Bench, handcuffed and shackled until limbs swell painfully, electric shocks and asphyxiation. Mental torture (which is largely not criminalized in Chinese law) include sleep deprivation, food and water deprivation, prolonged interrogations and forced medication. Sexual torture, including assault, rape and humiliation, have also been documented.
Our RSDL database, which we first announced here, forms one part of the report’s evidence. Every respondent has so far described being tortured in RSDL, with sizeable numbers also describing how their family were threatened, how they were forcibly medicated, shackled, and beaten. The dangling chair — a tall stack of stools on which victims are told to sit for hours on end with their feet unable to touch the floor, and which causes excruciating pain in the legs and spine — was the most commonly reported torture. None of them had lawyer access in RSDL.
The first death under liuzhi (留置), a new custodial system in China over Communist Party members and government workers that is completely outside judicial control was reported on 8 May by Caixin. [The story has since been removed]. A cached version can be read here.
The brief article described how Chen Yong (陈勇), 45, from Nanping city in Fujian province had been detained for 26 days under liuzhi on a bribery case when the family received notification that he was dead. They said his torso was covered in bruises. They have requested an investigation into the death. Liuzhi was legalized along with the new National Supervision Commission (NSC) this March.
Caixin reported that Mr. Chen was formerly a driver to a local leader. The family told the news site that Mr. Chen was taken from his home on 9 April by officers from the Jianyang district’s Supervision Commission (the local branch of the NSC). That evening the family received an official notice from the Supervision Commission that he had been taken into liuzhi.
A US-based Chinese language website – aboluowang – reported that he died on the 5 April and that the story had been widely reported on Chinese media but later scrubbed. The website also says his wife had requested recordings of the interrogations but was refused. Mr. Chen was said to be in good health and ex-military. Until 2016, he was the driver for Lin Qiang (林强), the deputy district chief of Jianyang, who is also being investigated by the Supervision Commission.
Liuzhi replaces the much feared and extremely secretive shuanggui system for CCP party members, but has expanded its reach to include all party and government workers. Theoretically, even teachers, nurses and doctors could be detained under Liuzhi. The legal framework for the system is very similar to Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), a system for secret, prolonged, incommunicado detention that has so far mostly been used on lawyers, journalists and rights defenders.
The news of this first death under liuzhi is extremely concerning. Like RSDL, the new liuzhi system will likely significantly expand cases of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and maltreatment.
Data on use of RSDL, shuanggui and the new Liuzhi system is most often kept secret, and reporting on victims of the system has been very limited. The book The People’s Republic of the Disappeared contains extensive first person reporting on RSDL experiences.
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.”
Before we start this month’s round-up, a quick recap of what RSDLMonitor has been doing: On 10 April we released our in-depth report, Scripted and Staged: behind the scenes of China’s forced TV confessions which attracted intense media interest, and has sparked a discussion on how journalists should ethically report this human rights abuse here (CDT) and in this piece by Swedish scholar Magnus Fiskesjö here (Made in China). Alarmingly, less than two weeks after the release of our report, Chinese state TV broadcast yet another confession, this time of two Chinese brothers, thought to both have Canadian citizenship, linked to the case of Chinese tycoon Guo Wengui.
Yu Wensheng out of RSDL, video released indicates torture
On 19 April, exactly three months after being scooped off the street by a police SWAT team, Lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生) was formally charged with inciting subversion of state power and obstructing public service. His formal arrest is an indication his period of RSDL was over, finally allowing him access to legal counsel. When the two lawyers appointed by his family were apparently dismissed by Lawyer Yu, his wife then released videos (and below) of her husband indicating that he was likely tortured or threatened to force him to fire his lawyers, or that Lawyer Yu’s signature was forged. The videos, recorded last year, show Lawyer Yu saying that the only reason he would accept government-appointed lawyers would be if he was tortured.
After disappeared human rights lawyer, Wang Quanzhang (余文生) passed the 1,000 day mark in incommunicado detention, his wife Li Wenzu (李文足) and supporters began a protest march from Beijing where she lives to the No.2 Detention Centre in Tianjin, where Lawyer Wang is supposed to be held to demand information about his condition. Less than a week into the march, police forced everyone to return to Beijing and for a day or so Ms. Li was kept under house arrest. According to a ChinaChange translation of her second day she wrote: “The plainclothes police at the door told us that if we go out the door, they will kill us.” Ms. Li remains defiant telling RFA that : “I definitely won’t stop speaking out … for as long as Wang Quanzhang doesn’t come home and the authorities fail to deal with his case according to law.” Curiously, at the end of April, Tianjin police travelled across the country to Kunming to question Lawyer Lin Qinlei (蔺其磊) about an old court case connected with Lawyer Wang.
US may take action on Uighur abuses, number of prisoners rise
Finally signs the US may take action against grave human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region. In mid-April, a top US official said they were considering using the Magnitsky Act to sanction Chinese officials for a brutal crackdown on local Muslims, including the detention of at least tens of thousands of people into political re-education camps where they can be held indefinitely completely outside the judicial process. “The U.S. was particularly concerned about the detained family members of six journalists — four U.S. citizens and two U.S. permanent residents who have reported on Xinjiang” for RFA.
A detailed report from AFP at the end of April exposed how one work team (usually made up of officials or university staff) that was tasked to investigate suspect villagers would interrogate families as well as spread propaganda and do some poverty alleviation work. “The work team is resolute,” one university team wrote on social media. “We can completely take the lid off Akeqie Kanle [a village in Xinjiang], look behind the curtain, and eradicate its tumours.” In just a few months, 100 adults in that village (1/5 of its population) were bundled off to the camps. “The detentions have become so widespread that schools offer support programmes for children with missing parents, and work teams help those left behind with heavy farm chores.” Even so, the report adds, local officials are worried about rising resentment for the unceasing political persecution.
Court rejects Wu Gan’s appeal
As expected, rights activist Wu Gan (吴淦) who was dealt the harshest sentence of all those swept up in the 709 Crackdown, failed in his attempt to overturn his verdict – eight years for incitement to subvert state power. The Tianjin Higher People’s upheld the original verdict on April 17. His lawyers had argued that Mr. Wu had only thought about subverting the state, and thoughts were not a crime.
Zhen Jianghua denied lawyer access
In a case very similar to Lawyer Yu Wensheng’s above, online activist Zhen Jianghua’s (甄江华) lawyers were also dismissed in mid-April. In Mr. Zhen’s case, he had given written testimony before his detention that he would never voluntarily dismiss his choice of legal counsel or accept government-apoointed lawyers. Frontline Defenders reports that Mr. Zhen has been in incommunicado detention (including RSDL) since 2 September 2017.
On 16 April, six days after the release of the report, we asked the Swedish Foreign Ministry for a response since two of the victims – Gui Minhai and Peter Dahlin – are Swedish citizens. Mr. Gui, who has given three confessions, is still disappeared in China.
To this request we added a question:
“CGTN, which operates in the EU, broadcast many of these TV confessions. Will Sweden reassess whether CGTN, part of China’s state-owned, Chinese Communist Party-run, media be allowed to operate in Sweden without further scrutiny?”
In their reply, which came after about a week, they said they were not planning to take any action, either an investigation into or sanctions against, Chinese state media in Sweden or EU-wide, for the forced TV confessions but added:
It is unacceptable to force persons deprived of their liberty to be paraded on TV. This has been conveyed to our Chinese counterparts by both Sweden and the EU.
SCMP ignore report
Scripted and Staged was covered by major media around the world from The New York Times in the US, The Guardian in the UK, Le Monde in France to the Asahi Shimbun in Japan. In Hong Kong it was covered by at least four Chinese language-media including Apple Daily and Mingpao and the English-language Hong Kong Free Press. The story is clearly in the public interest globally, but nowhere more so, arguably, than Hong Kong with four victims and three media collaborators from the city. But the leading English-language daily, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) chose to ignore the report.
Yes, our report named and shamed the SCMP for making Mr. Gui’s third confession in February 2018, but it is essential for media – if they are to do their job with integrity and serve the public – to report on all stories even those where they are criticized. There are 45 confessions in this report.
As part of making this report, Safeguard Defenders reached out to Phila Sui, the reporter who covered Mr. Gui’s confession, in March for an interview. He did not respond. Leaving us to conclude that an invitation from Ningpo police to take part in a gross violation of human rights was more appealing than an email exchange with a human rights NGO.
Depuis son arrivée au pouvoir en 2012, le numéro un chinois, Xi Jinping, a remis au goût du jour les autocritiques en vigueur à l’époque maoïste. Seule différence : ces « confessions forcées » de Chinois, mais aussi d’étrangers, sont diffusées aux heures de grande écoute par la télévision publique CCTV.
China has said it will take action to stop enforced disappearances and torture yet both are still endemic largely because of the 2013 introduction of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) – a custodial system that lends itself to both rights violations.
At the end of last month, Safeguard Defenders made a submission on RSDL to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process on China saying that the state has not only failed to take legislative action to stop enforced disappearances, but that the legalisation of RSDL has enabled its expanded used and that of torture. What is the UPR?
China has not yet made torture itself a punishable offence.
RSDL’s legal framework allows the state to deny knowledge of a suspect’s whereabouts, to conceal the judicial process from public view, deny the detainee access to legal representation, to keep them in solitary confinement, and without mandatory supervision by the prosecutor.
Between the previous cycle’s review of China (October 2014), up until this submission (March 2018), 87 cases of the use of RSDL were recorded.
The maximum time limit for placement in RSDL is 6 months. Data on 92 cases of known RSDL victims since 2013 shows the average time to be 128 days, and more than one-third is placed in RSDL the full 180 days/6 months.
Examples of torture in RSDL include: prolonged solitary confinement (2 weeks to 6 months), forced medication, stress positions, the painful ‘dangling chair’, prolonged sleep and/or food deprivation, beatings, and threats to the physical wellbeing of the victim, threats to family members, relatives and loved ones.
Our submission, in the jargon called an NGO stakeholder report, is in direct response to a number of UN reports and recommendations on China and the country’s own legal commitments. The most important in the context of this submission is China’s own report presented for the UPR review cycle in October 2013 (previous cycle) when it said that it would work to improve and perfect laws to prevent using torture to extract confessions or self-incrimination.
However, since then, the use of torture in China remains prevalent, and measures to protect against the use of torture are regularly ignored. Another report by Safeguard Defenders, on the lack of protections against torture, will be released soon.
Since that UPR 2013 review, the legal framework concerning enforced disappearances has been significantly weakened, and the state’s use of mechanisms that qualify as leading to enforced disappearances has expanded significantly.
Our list of recommendations includes urging China to abolish RSDL in all its forms, to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and revise the language in domestic law to explicitly make torture illegal.
What is the UPR?
The UPR, the Universal Periodic Review, is a UN mechanism for reviewing a country’s full commitments under the United Nations and International Law. Every country is reviewed every four years. The country in question submits its own report on how it views its progress, the UN compiles its own report from various UN organs, and civil society can submit their reports, often on a specific subject. These stand as the basis for a full review of that country, and all other UN member states can ask questions and make recommendations for how that country needs to improve any aspect of their commitment under international obligations. China was last reviewed in 2013, and will be reviewed again this year.