One lawyer, one scholar and one Swedish human rights advocate share the same fate: they were all kidnapped and disappeared by the Chinese state. Locked for weeks and months in secret jails, completely cut off from the world and forced to confess on camera for crimes they did not commit.
Earlier this month, CNN reported their stories in the context of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ramped up crackdown on human rights. This is the story of China’s “legalized” Black Jails.
Legal name: Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (or Place); RSDL; and in Chinese, 指定居所监视居住
Well-known victims: Ai Weiwei, Gao Zhisheng, Liu Xiaobo, Wang Yu, the Hong Kong booksellers, Peter Dahlin, Lee Ming-che
Related human rights issues: Torture, threats to family, denial of access to lawyer, forced medication, sleep and food deprivation, delayed sentencing, forced confessions pre-trial and at trial, secret trial, delayed trial, and non-release release
RSDL in Chinese law (articles 72 to 77 are relevant): ChinaLawTranslate,: Criminal Procedure Law (2012), 8 April 2013
Oversight of RSDL in Chinese law: ChinaLawTranslate: Provisions on People’s Procuratorates’ Oversight of Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location, 14 July 2016
What You Need to Know About China’s ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place’, Yaqiu Wang, Chinachange, 2 August 2015
New Type of Detention Marks China’s Intensifying Crackdown on Civil Society, Jojje Olsson, Taiwan Sentinel, 15 May 2017
Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place, Wikipedia
Arrested, Detained: A Guide to Navigating China’s Police Powers, Stanley Lubman, Wall Street Journal, 12 August 2014
Human rights reviews & reports
Congressional-Executive Commission on China annual reports, 2016 and 2017 include dedicated sections on RSDL under Criminal Justice chapter
Prevention of Torture: concerns with the use of ‘residential confinement in a designated residence’, report by the Rights Practice in relation to the fifth periodic report from China, submitted to the Committee Against Torture, 56 Session, Sep- Dec 2015
6 December 2017 – The main driving force behind this new book of first-person stories of China’s state-sanctioned kidnappings is Michael Caster, a US human rights advocate and researcher. While Michael himself was never detained, he used to work with Swedish rights activist Peter Dahlin, whose own story of abuse under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) is detailed in Chapter 5 in The People’s Republic of the Disappeared. The two men ran a legal aid NGO called China Action from Beijing, which helped provide funding and logistical support for barefoot lawyers.
Here Michael explains why he thinks it is so important for this book to be made now and why we should all start caring about this new chilling tool of abuse.
Q: You were the main driving force behind this book. Can you explain why The People’s Republic of the Disappearedwas written and published now?
The driving force was to help the world see that RSDL is far from a softer form of detention but another piece in China’s totalitarian apparatus of terror and control.
Q: The people who volunteered their stories for The People’s Republic of the Disappeared did so at considerable risk to themselves. Can you tell us why you think they agreed in the end?
At the end of her chapter, (human rights lawyer) Wang Yu writes:
I have often wanted to write about my experiences. But so often, after picking up my pen, I found myself just putting it down again. I always felt that they were memories hard to look back upon, but that if I didn’t record them in time, eventually they would fade away. So I forced myself to write this time.
These stories are about memorialization, about providing testimony against the abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government against its own people. And they are about healing.
Those who agreed to share their stories are people who have already made great sacrifices as rights defenders, and in agreeing to share their stories they have continued to make sacrifices for others. These stories provide great context for international condemnation and advocacy, in that by showing the systematic nature of abuses they fuel international pressure for China to abolish RSDL. But, they also provide some guidance, some insight for those rights defenders who still might find themselves picked up and disappeared into the RSDL system. And in that sense they offer some degree of protection.
Q: The people in this book are human rights defenders – lawyers, activists and so on. What kinds of things do they do that make the authorities put them into RSDL?
In an authoritarian system, the law exists, where it exists at all, to protect and further the interests of the Party. What these rights defenders have done to end up inside RSDL is merely to have attempted to work within the confines of the law to protect the rights of Chinese citizens.
“Under international law there are no circumstances that permit for enforced disappearances, and yet that is exactly what China has done with RSDL.” [Michael Caster].
Q: Who is RSDL targeted at? And roughly since 2013 how many people have been subjected to this chilling practice?
In principle, RSDL is reserved for crimes related to endangering national security, involving terrorist activities, or those involving significant bribes. The stories of RSDL in this book show that it is clearly being used to target the human rights community. It is a calculated tool of repression.
I think what is more important to emphasize than the total number of people to have passed through RSDL is the systematic nature of RSDL. Especially in these stories, we see a certain predictability of suffering, in both means and consequences. It is not as much a matter of how many people have been subjected to this chilling practice, but the cold, calculated, planning behind its legislation and implementation.
Q: China legalized RSDL in 2013. Can you briefly explain why you think it did this?
For more than a decade, China has been experimenting with administrative, criminal, and extrajudicial procedures to remove, silence, detain, imprison, and disappear regime opponents, from the Custody and Repatriation system of the early 2000s or the use of Black Jails that followed. Effectively RSDL represents China’s effort to mask enforced disappearances behind the veneer of the rule of law.
Q: Before it was legalized, China’s enforced disappearances still took place in Black Jails and other locations. Why is RSDL worse than this situation?
Black Jails were an extrajudicial system for detaining and disappearing regime opponents. They existed purely in the shadows. But RSDL is worse in that it represents the efforts of the state to legalize the impermissible. Under international law there are no circumstances that permit for enforced disappearances, and yet that is exactly what China has done with RSDL.
Q: At the 19th Party Congress in late 2017, president Xi Jinping said he would scrap the secret internal disciplinary system of shuanggui – a kind of RSDL for Party members. Does that give you any hope that RSDL will be abandoned?
No. As we have seen many times before, when one system of abuse is abandoned another simply comes in its place. Even if Shuanggui is scrapped, something else will rise in its place. And as for RSDL, the vocabulary in the National Human Rights Action Plan (2016-2020), and the noted expansion of facilities dedicated to RSDL, indicate there is little intention to slow the use of RSDL in Xi Jinping’s second term.
Q: Some people may argue while enforced disappearances appears repugnant to many outside China, it is a legal custodial system under Chinese law and there is not a lot we can do about it. On what legal basis can other countries and international bodies urge Beijing to change?
Slavery was legal in the United States long after it had been criminalized by much of the rest of the world. Apartheid was legal in South Africa and yet the world galvanized in opposition to its repulsiveness. Slavery, torture, enforced disappearances, these are considered so vile that they are an insult to humanity at large. There is a universal obligation to speak out against them, and in some circumstances a universal obligation to intervene. This is all the more pressing in cases where torture has taken place, and torture is certainly systematic within RSDL.
Q: What do you hope that this book will achieve?
I hope this book will shine a light onto the abuses of the Chinese state, and encourage more people around the world to demand action from their leaders in holding the Chinese state accountable to its flagrant violations of human rights law and cruelty toward its people. The point of this book was to provide a thorough picture of what it means to disappear in China because frankly too many people were still unaware or indifferent to what RSDL actually represented.
Updated 2 January 2018. Two weeks after its launch in English, the Chinese language edition of The People’s Republic of the Disappeared was published for the first time today. The Chinese edition is available from this website in PDF and MOBI versions, for free, and also as paperback for U.S, U.K., Europe and more at Amazon.
The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, with a foreword by Dr. Teng Biao, provides a comprehensive and chilling portrait of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) through the first-person accounts of 11 of its victims.
The English language edition is aimed at a global readership and focused on raising attention about this grave and little understood human rights violation. The target audience of this new Chinese edition is Chinese citizens – human rights defenders, lawyers, activists, bloggers, and, most crucially, their families – to help them better understand and prepare for the possibility of themselves becoming victims.
In the two weeks since its English-language release, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared has garnered some impressive reviews and coverage. Here is a sample:
The New York Times called the stories in the book “rare in detail,” describing RSDL as “a widespread practice of whisking people into secret detention — ‘disappearing’ them into a labyrinth where China’s stunted legal protections can do little to prevent abuse.”
South China Morning Post reviews the book, saying “At just over 200 pages, the book can almost be finished in one sitting, but it would make for a very heavy session.”
Radio France International’s Spotlight ran an extensive interview with the book’s editor Michael Caster, who spoke about how the legalization of RSDL demonstrates China’s “chilling reliance on enforced disappearances.”
ABC radio interviewed The People’s Republic of the Disappeared editor, Michael Caster. He talked about the key victims of RSDL – front-line rights defenders in China, how they help others to defend their rights, and why they are so feared by the state.
QUARTZ focused on our chapter written by Wang Yu, covering the abuses she suffered under RSDL such as being forced to strip and taunting her about her son’s safety, and why she finally agreed to write about her terrible ordeal.
CNN ran a longer piece titled The Disappeared both on TV and in webprint, after a year’s work interviewing several of the people whose full accounts appear in the book.
The 11 people who have shared their stories in this book have done so at considerable risk to themselves, many others have faced reprisals from the Chinese state for speaking out in the past. It has also been painful for them to relive the horrors of their experience. They have made this sacrifice because there is a real need to expose the grave human rights violation of China’s “legalized” system of enforced disappearances, or Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location. And also to empower the inevitable future victims.
These people are mothers and fathers, lawyers and activists, boyfriends and girlfriends. Real people with real lives who were taken by the Chinese state for their conviction in human rights.
The lawyer who campaigned against hated re-education camps
Tang Jitian (唐吉田) is one of China’s most well-known rights defense lawyers. He has taken on many politically sensitive cases including representing rights defenders and Falun Gong practitioners. He also campaigned to end the hated Re-education Through Labor system. In 2010, the government revoked Tang’s lawyer’s license, a common way to attack rights lawyers, but he continues to fight for human rights in China.
The wife, the husband, and the man who tried to save their son
Wang Yu (王宇) is one of China’s most respected human rights lawyers. Her most high-profile cases include defending Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 as punishment for encouraging ethnic unity. Wang’s courageous rights defense work has won her several international human rights awards and nominations.
Bao Longjun (包龙军) is a long-time legal rights activist; he worked for the Feng Rui Law firm in Beijing with his wife, the rights lawyer Wang Yu (see above). Bao was seized at Beijing airport with his teenage son before they could board a plane to Australia, where his son was planning to attend school in the summer of 2015. That same night, security agents raided his Beijing home and abducted his wife.
Tang Zhishun (唐志顺) was inspired to get involved in civil rights activism after facing (and stopping) the illegal demolition of his own home. Since them, Tang has helped other victims of forced evictions on how to better protect their rights. Police seized Tang and barefoot lawyer Xing Qingxian in Myanmar as they were helping Bao Zhuoxuan, the teenaged son of detained rights lawyer Wang Yu and Bao Longjun leave the country.
The lawyer who lost his wife to the police
Liu Shuhui (刘士辉) is a lawyer and long-time human rights defender. The authorities have barred him from renewing his lawyer’s license since 2010 because of his rights defense work. In 2011, Liu was placed under Residential Surveillance amid calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China, when they deported his Vietnam-born wife. He was also disappeared during the 2015 “709 Crackdown.”
The lawyer who defends rights defenders
Chen Zhixiu (not his real name) (陈志修) is a human rights lawyer who has represented some of China’s most marginalized citizens. Along with investigating human rights violations and acting as legal counsel for rights defenders at risk, he has also researched and taught others in more effective ways to use the law in China.
The Swedish rights activist and his girlfriend
Peter Dahlin is a Swedish human rights activist and co-founder of China Action, an NGO that provided legal and financial assistance to rights defenders at risk. Security agents detained Dahlin in early January 2016 and placed him under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location in a secret custom-built facility in the outskirts of Beijing. After being made to appear in a nationally-televised forced confession, Dahlin was deported and banned from re-entering China.
Pan Jinling’s (潘锦玲) only connection with human rights works was her relationship with her boyfriend, Peter Dahlin. Even so, security agents abducted her at night from her home and placed her under Residential Surveillance, where she was interrogated and held in solitary confinement for 23 days until the authorities deported her boyfriend.
The lawyer who was tortured until he thought he would die in detention
Xie Yang (谢阳) is a prominent rights defense lawyer; he has represented members of the civil rights group New Citizens’ Movement as well as persecuted Christians and victims of illegal land grabs. In 2015, the authorities targeted Xie in the “709 Crackdown” against lawyers and activists. Stories of Xie’s horrific torture while under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location hit global headlines in 2016.
The petitioner who helps others seek justice
Jiang Xiaoyu (not his real name) (江孝宇) got involved with rights work in the early 2000s when he himself was a petitioner. Because he could speak fluent English, he started helping Chinese human rights defenders communicate with foreign journalists and diplomats. Security agents seized Jiang in 2016 and starved and beat him for a weekend in an underground prison in the outskirts of Beijing.
The human rights lawyer who won’t give up
Lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) is well known for his work defending other rights activists, including fellow human rights lawyer Guo Feixiong. The authorities have subjected Sui to repeated attacks, including fines and beatings, because of his work on politically sensitive cases. He was also swept up in the “709 Crackdown” in the summer of 2015 and placed under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location. Even after he was released in 2016, unlike some other other victims of RSDL, Sui has continued taking on human rights cases.
14 November 2017 – Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) is China’s attempt to mask its systematic use of enforced disappearances of human rights defenders behind the veneer of the rule of law. Under RSDL, the state can take anyone, deny them access to a lawyer, and refuse the outside world any information about their fate or whereabouts for up to six months. The state Prosecutor is even denied the right to visit the victim or provide oversight against maltreatment. Torture is common. There is no legal review or appeal. Once inside RSDL, you simply disappear.
“You are now under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location.
Your only right is to obey.”
from Chapter 7, Xie Yang
The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, with a foreword by Dr. Teng Biao, provides a comprehensive and chilling portrait of RSDL through the first-person accounts of 11 of its victims. Wang Yu, the renowned rights defense lawyer, kidnapped in the middle of the night, speaks for the first time about her six month’s of disappearance. Tang Zhishun, taken in Myanmar and illegally brought back to China, laughs at the absurdity of being charged with subversion. One author recounts being forced to sing the national anthem naked in his cell, while another tells how the police threatened him with permanent disappearance.
Through these 11 stories, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared charts the common experiences of abuse inside RSDL, from prolonged solitary confinement, extended sleep and food deprivation, and beatings, to the use of threats against loved ones. It portrays a system designed with one intention: to break you. The book concludes with a comprehensive analysis of relevant domestic Chinese and international law.
China’s normalization of enforced disappearances is a direct challenge to the international human rights system. The world’s media have so far effectively ignored RSDL, and in China itself even many rights defenders remain uncertain about what it really is. This book will change that.
“Direct and compelling, these first-person accounts give us a sense of the terrors…”
Eva Pils, King’s College London
“…the most comprehensive collective portrait to date”
Terence Halliday, American Bar Foundation