Li Fangping (李方平), born in 1974, is a prominent human rights lawyer who works for a Beijing law firm. He has represented several high profile clients including imprisoned scholar Ilham Tohti, human rights activist Hu Jia and the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who now lives in exile in the US. He was also part of a team of lawyers who offered pro bono work to families who were victims of the melamine milk scandal and campaigned to end the hated Re-education Through Labour system. (Photo credit: Li Fangping)
In early 2011, as fears in China grew of a potential “Jasmine Revolution”, the police began rounding up lawyers and activists. On April 29, unidentified State Security officers kidnapped Li Fangping in broad daylight on a Beijing street. His family frantic, Li was only released a little under a week later.
As the following will show, Li Fangping’s early experience of RSDL, although brief, contains many of the elements common to subsequent accounts of RSDL as exposed in our book, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared. That is: physical violence, denial of adequate food and sleep, threats to family, hiding the location of the facility from the detainee through the use of black-hooding when transporting and covering of all windows in the “cell”, 24-hours guard, and the finale of forced and videoed confessions to secure release.
The following account is based on a 2017 interview with Lawyer Li in which he describes his ordeal under the precursor to Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL); effectively he was kidnapped by the state. Li was never given any documentation nor told with what legal basis he was taken. As far as the system is concerned, it never happened.
On 29 April 2011, Li Fangping walked out of the office of the (anti-discrimination) Yirenping NGO when he saw a group of unidentified men waiting for him. One of them asked: “Are you Li Fangbing?” As soon as he said yes, they grabbed him. After one of them had made a phone call, they dragged him to a car. Inside, they placed a black hood over his head. Just before the hood was on he noticed that another car had joined them. During the ride they kept asking: “Everyone else has gone missing. How come you haven’t yet?”
Two people were in the front of the car, while Li was lodged between two in the back. He remembers it taking about two hours before they arrived at the facility.
Once there, they waited until he was inside a room before they removed the black hood. During that walk, he remembers climbing some stairs and they needed to shout out instructions to him to lift his feet because he was blinded from the hood. Once the hood was taken off, he saw a row of people standing in front of him.
They immediately began berating him. If he said something they didn’t like, they would slap him around.
That day they only gave him a little bit of food and he was forced to keep standing, with two guards watching over him until 2am. He was exhausted. The next day, they repeated this treatment.
Around 10 guards were posted to watch him, and five or six policemen interrogated him. Some of the officers played “nice cop”, others played “bad cop”. One of them said he was in charge. Li said they didn’t seem to have a specific reason for taking him. It looked like they were just grabbing people from a list of names.
Li believes that they just wanted to extract some information on lawyers in general, and also to scare him so that he would help the police in the future.They asked him to provide information on other rights defence lawyers. They were interested in how they would meet and what they would talk about. One interrogation lasted for 30 hours straight. They threatened him that if he did not cooperate they could keep him as long as they wanted, and could even put his family members in prison. If they didn’t like his answers, they would slap him around.
He slept with one hand tightly handcuffed to a chair next to the mattress. He always had to keep both hands and his head above the covers. He was watched 24 hours a day by at least two guards, who usually took six-hour shifts. What was worse was that the lights were kept on all the time. During the day, his mattress was leant against the wall. Other than that, the room only had a chair and a writing desk.
He never knew exactly where he had been secretly detained, but he thinks it was somewhere in the chain of mountains north of Beijing. Although the curtain in his room was kept tightly closed at all times, he could make out the outlines of mountains through the small window in the bathroom.
A little less than a week since he had been abducted, he was told he would be released but not before he had met some conditions. First, he had to promise to explain his disappearance by saying he had just been travelling. He was also forced to write a statement saying he would not give interviews to foreign media and to stop attending meetings with other rights defence lawyers. Writing the statement was not enough; they also forced him to read it out in front of a video camera. They threatened to release that recording if he disobeyed them in the future.
They dropped him off alongside Beijing’s North Third Ring Road and Li had to find his own way home. They didn’t give him any documentation to explain why he had been taken. There was absolutely no legal basis to the “Enforced Disappearance” of Lawyer Li Fangping.
The experience taught him he had to take his phone and computer security more seriously; for example by deleting records of sensitive communications on message APPs and emails. Perhaps more than that, he realized the importance of staying calm in such situations. Although he was very afraid, Li’s RSDL ordeal ultimately helped him become better at controlling his fear.