Teng Biao | China Change
This article was first published on ChinaChange website on December 7, 2017
This is the Foreword to The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories From Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances, a newly published book about China’s “Residential Surveillance at a designated location.”
Those holding unchecked power often seek to hide their cruelty behind euphemisms. In China, classic examples range from “land reform” to the “Cultural Revolution.” You can’t easily see the cruelty from the surface of such words. Expressions like “the three-year natural disaster,” used by the Communist Party to describe the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961 in which tens of millions died, or the “6/4 counterrevolutionary riot,” the description of the Tiananmen Democracy movement, are shameless acts of misrepresenting history and reversing right and wrong. Do “Legal Education Centers” really have anything to do with law or education? No. They are Black Jails for arbitrarily detaining and tormenting politically sensitive groups around the country.
“Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL) is the latest euphemism.
Tyranny is not only reflected in murder, evil laws, and crackdowns; it is reflected even more in the minor details. This book is a collection of details, vividly reflecting China’s cruelty.
Much remains unknown about RSDL, and for that reason, this book is an invaluable look into the rarely exposed systematic tyranny behind the euphemism of “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location.”
Looking into its legislative history, RSDL was first envisioned in the 1997 Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), which dictated a special form of Residential Surveillance to be applied to those suspects without a fixed residence. However, with police having near unlimited powers, it is little wonder that the regulation has been used for repression.
The most famous democracy advocate in China, the deceased Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, was placed under Residential Surveillance after he was taken in December 2008. His crime had been signing “Charter 08,” a petition calling for democracy and political liberalization in China. Obviously, Liu Xiaobo did not belong to the category of “suspects without fixed residence” and should have been allowed to serve his Residential Surveillance with his family at his home. His lawyer should have been allowed to visit him anytime. Instead, Liu was effectively disappeared during his seven months of Residential Surveillance, before being sentenced in a mockery of a trial to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion of state power. On 13 July 2017, Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer, likely treatable had he not been a prisoner of the state. His wife, Liu Xia, has also been disappeared at times, denied contact with the outside world with no legal basis or justification.
During the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution,” (inspired by the revolt in Tunisia, 2011) the authorities kidnapped and secretly detained human rights defenders on a large scale, in a gangland act of criminality under the banner of “National Security.” Human rights lawyer Liu Shihui (Chapter 2) reflected on his secret detention. “I was beaten so badly that I needed stitches. My ribs were in extreme pain, which continued to interrupt my sleep for days. I wished that I would be transferred to a detention center.”
Similarly, [activist] Tang Jingling was not allowed to sleep for upwards of ten days. In the end, he felt “trembling, numbness of hands, and a bad feeling in his heart, that his life was in great danger, and only then did the police just allow him to sleep one or two hours a day.”
Writer Ye Du was held in a Guangzhou Police Training Center for 96 days, like lawyer Sui Muqing (Chapter 10). Ye recalled, “I didn’t see sunlight for over a month. I was subjected to 22 hours of interrogation every day. I was given one hour for eating, one hour for sleeping, until the 7th day when my stomach had massive bleeding.”
Hua Ze’s book, In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon, published in 2013, records the experiences of 47 activists caught up during the Jasmine Revolution. I was one of them.
After I was kidnapped, I was detained in secret for 70 days. I was told that I was being placed under Residential Surveillance. No one ever told me their name, department, or position. Nobody ever showed me a work permit, search warrant, or any legal documents. I suffered. During this time, I was beaten, deprived of sleep, forced to maintain stress positions, forced to wear handcuffs for 24 hours a day for 36 days, threatened, abused, forced to write a confession, and otherwise ill-treated. Even now, years later, it is hard to put it into words.
RSDL is classified as a non-custodial coercive measure, but in reality, it has not only became a system for prolonged, pre-trial detention outside a formal, legal location but has also become a more severe, more terrible, coercive measure than normal criminal detention. RSDL is not limited by detention center regulations, nor any real supervision at all. The chances of torture are greatly increased; in fact, torture has become rampant under RSDL.
The authorities must find RSDL to be a very convenient and effective way of dealing with rights defenders, judging by its indiscriminate use since the CPL was revised in 2012.
Article 73 of the CPL, stipulates that “Residential Surveillance shall be enforced in the residence of the suspect or defendant. For those without a fixed residence, it may be enforced in a designated location. When… enforcement in the residence might impede the investigation, it may also be enforced in a designated location upon the approval of the People’s Procuratorate or Public Security organ at the level above.”
The police can decide for themselves if someone is to be placed in RSDL, which means the police decide who is to be disappeared.
It is little wonder that this was one of the most controversial articles during legislative reform, leading many commentators, myself included, to call it the “Jasmine Article.” This is because it appeared to legalize enforced disappearances, which had become more common during the Jasmine Revolution crackdown.
The CPL stipulates that RSDL “must not be enforced in a detention center or special case-handling area;” but in reality, all RSDL is enforced at special case-handling areas run by the Public or State Security Bureaus, or it is carried out at euphemistically named “training centers,” “prevention bases,” “anti-corruption education bases,” or sometimes even hotels that have been specially converted into secret detention facilities known as Black Jails.
The law permits for exceptions where family members don’t even need to be informed and allow the state to deny access to a lawyer. These exceptions, which have now become the norm, have turned RSDL into a de facto enforced disappearance, exactly what the RSDL system seeks to achieve.
During the suppression of the “Jasmine Revolution” in 2011 and the “709 Crackdown” starting in 2015, terrifying enforced disappearances became common experiences within the human rights community. The most serious example is lawyer Wang Quanzhang. While I am writing this, Wang’s fate and whereabouts have remained uncertain for over two years. The cruelty and brutality of RSDL are clearly visible for the world to see.
In 2010, the Chinese government refused to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This was an irresponsible act but far from surprising. Enforced disappearances are nothing new in China. High-profile examples include the 17 May 1995 disappearance of the then six-year-old Panchen Lama, who had been confirmed by the Dalai Lama, and the widespread disappearance of Uyghurs following the July 2009 Urumqi riots. Still, the legalization of enforced disappearances in the CPL is shameful.
According to the original intention of the law, Residential Surveillance should only be a monitoring location. It is not to be used for interrogation or custodial purposes. However, the facilities used for RSDL have not only become specialized interrogation facilities, they have become even harsher than prisons and detention centers.
These custom-built prisons, spread across China, which are not allowed to be called prisons, have become terrifying torture centers where all manner of abuse is common: long periods of sleep deprivation, beatings, electrocution, forcibly handcuffed and shackled, confined to tiger stools and dangling chairs for long and painful periods, subjected to fumigation of the eyes by smoke, subjected to stress positions, denial of food and water, denied hygiene, extensive and continuous interrogation sessions, threats of violence, or threats to family. Everyone placed in RSDL is kept in solitary confinement.
Torture during many disappearances is well documented in a number of high profile cases. The accounts have sometimes been too much for people to bear reading about. Many rights defenders related to the 709 Crackdown, such as Li Heping, Li Chunfu, Xie Yanyi, Li Shuyun, and Gou Hongguo, have explained how they were forcibly fed unidentified medicine, leading to different painful symptoms.
Families of some of the 709 lawyers published an open letter in which they wrote, “Lawyer Li Chunfu, Xie Yanyi, Xie Yang, and Li Heping were all tortured to such a degree that they became different people from who they were before they were taken, some only 40 years old but looking more than 60.”
Until now, most of what we know about RSDL has come from scattered reports or open letters from family members. This book is the first to present a fuller picture of the suffering imposed under RSDL.
Jiang Xiaoyu, an IT worker, writes in Chapter 8 of being told:
I can make you disappear for years. Even your wife and daughter won’t know where you are.
Another victim, lawyer Chen Zhixiu, details in Chapter 4:
It wasn’t until the third day that they gave me two small steamed buns and a few green vegetables. The size of the two buns together was still smaller than the palm of my hand. I felt that I was going to lose consciousness. I felt dizzy all the time because of lack of food and sleep, but I was still expected to submit to being interrogated. If I started to wobble in the chair they would make horrifying sounds to snap me awake.
I myself had experienced such as these during my detention. I tried to distract myself with memories, talked to myself, outlined literature and found other ways to keep from going crazy since I was deprived of all forms of communication. Once I accidentally saw a Party newspaper. I was very excited. Finally, I could read some text! When they played a propaganda film to brainwash me, I was happy just to hear the background music.
It doesn’t matter if it is physical or mental torture. Both are hard to describe and express in words. However, the most painful thing is not the torture itself. For prisoners of conscience held in secret, I have found, there are two things that lead to even greater suffering:
One is being subjected to forced confession. Several individuals in this book describe with previously undisclosed details the experiences of delivering a forced confession. Those who have stepped onto the road of human rights defenders face enormous pressure, living with threats to their family and heavy prison sentences. Many have been forced to confess. The authorities have used these confession videos to broadcast propaganda on state television, to confuse public opinion, to crack down on the will of resistance and dehumanize those who resist and to turn rights defender against rights defender. It is used to split supporters. This may be the hardest part for China’s many political prisoners.
The authorities don’t always achieve their purpose but they more or less always have an impact. Many people have suffered the pain of misunderstanding and have grown distant from others. Many have quit rights defense because they were ashamed of themselves.
Secondly, those detained in secret have almost all experienced the indescribable suffering of having their families threatened or persecuted. In general, those who have chosen to become rights defenders under this kind of dictatorship are already aware of the risks and are prepared. When we are “invited for tea” [a euphemism used to describe a police summons], placed under house arrest, detained or tortured, nothing can stop our fighting spirit. But for the authorities to achieve the greatest deterrence, all they need to do is apply the threat of pain to our family members. This has become a common tactic used by the authorities and used with growing expertise. As with my own experience, the hardest thing for activists fighting for freedom is how to balance the conflict between family and social responsibilities.
People compromise, yield, fall silent, or give up after their family has been threatened or attacked. The Chinese Communist Party understands this clearly. I have written about the Party’s assault against the family members of rights defenders before.
RSDL goes far beyond normal detention. Serious human rights violations are widespread. It goes against the rule of law. It should be abolished. But under the One Party Dictatorship, the lack of judicial independence or freedom of expression, the state has instead expanded its suppression of the human rights movement and hurriedly broadened the use of RSDL in the name of “stability maintenance.”
The publication of this book has great importance and meaning: to reveal the truth, record the misery, and provide evidence of guilt. It is an indispensable signpost on the road to justice.
Dr Teng Biao (滕彪) is a human rights lawyer, formerly a lecturer at the China University of Politics and Law, and currently a visiting scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute, New York University.