China is a fresh target for human rights watchers in the new year because of what they say a ‘systematised, arbitrary and secret detention’ of thousands of people in the country under a draconian surveillance law passed by the communist leadership.
The policy of secret detention without trial is called Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL). The authorities need no excuse or permission to detain any person, and transport that person to a secret location and detain either for surveillance or interrogation.
The issue was first exposed last September when China released two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, after detaining them for over a thousand days during which their location was known to none. They simply disappeared one day.
They later told the media that they lived in cells with lights on 24 hours a day. They could not communicate with anyone, even with the authorities or their lawyers. They were guests of the government under RSDL.
The case was exposed by Spain-based rights group, Safeguard Democracy. It claims the Chinese police can now detain anyone, native or foreign, for up to six months at a specific location without disclosing their whereabouts. The group says anywhere between 27,000 and 56,000 people may have suffered such detention in the last seven years. Thousands more are said to be in detention as of date. In 2020 alone, over 10,000 people were detained, it is suspected.
Media reports say many of the detainees are well-known personalities who may have fallen foul of Chinese authorities. “The number includes well-known names like artist Ai Wei Wei and human rights lawyers Wang Yu and Wang Quanzhang, who were caught up in China’s 2015 crackdown on human rights defenders. Other foreigners have also gone through RSDL, like Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist and co-founder of Safeguard Defenders, and Canadian missionaries Kevin and Julia Garrett, who were accused of espionage in 2014.”
China has a parallel system of unaccounted-for detention called ‘liuzhi’. It is reserved for communist party members, state employees and, loosely, anyone involved in public affairs. The system, introduced in 2018, has led to thousands of detentions every year since then.
Al Jazeera, which broke the story about the questionable detentions, reports: “Conditions under both RSDL and liuzhi have been described as tantamount to torture, and inmates are held without a right to legal counsel. Sleep deprivation, isolation, solitary confinement, beatings, and forced stress positions have been reported by survivors of both systems, according to multiple rights groups. In some cases, inmates may be placed in an infamous ‘tiger chair’ which restricts limb movement for days at a time.”
While China officially refuses to comment on the terrible treatment of the illegal detainees, the ministry of foreign affairs did comment on the detention of Canadians, Spavor and Kovrig. It says the pair was suspected of endangering national security their “lawful rights had been guaranteed” and they were not held in “arbitrary detention” while their cases moved forward “in accordance with the law”.
Spavor and Kovrig did nothing wrong. They were simply victims of circumstances. It is surmised that their detention is a retaliation by the Chinese government for the 2018 arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou by the Canadian government at the request of the United States. Meng was charged with allegedly aiding the Chinese tech giant conduct business in Iran despite American sanctions. They were released after Meng was allowed to return to China.
Safeguard Democracy says the detention of well-known cases is only the tip of the iceberg. “For the hundreds or thousands of members of civil society who don’t have their own Wikipedia entry, they might be held for the maximum amount of time under one of these systems. And then they’re released into criminal detention to wait as the investigation continues.”
The organistaion conducted an exhaustive research into the RSDL method taking considerable risks to its researchers. It told the United Nations last June itself that “China could undermine human rights standards globally if the international community does not hold Beijing to account for RSDL”.
The group’s report details “how prisoners are seized from their homes, offices or public places and transported under hoods or blindfolds to conceal their destinations”. They are effectively “held in solitary confinement, without daylight, privacy or distraction”.
The report quotes survivors saying they were “watched around the clock by guards in their room, who in many cases even followed them into the bathroom, but did not interact with them”. Many detainees reported being required to spend hours each day sitting motionless on a stool or chair, without any mental stimulation. Showers were rarely allowed and detainees reported being forced to take unknown medication that left them feeling mentally impaired.
There were bizarre punishments: “Every moment of their lives is controlled, with inmates even reporting being woken for sleeping with their arms under, rather than on top of blankets.”
According to the report, if the detainees left the room, it was only for “interrogation, often in the evening”, when detainees were often pushed to make “confessions”. For many this involved “mental and physical torture, from sleep deprivation to stress positions and threats against loved ones outside detention”.
What exactly do the Chinese authorities achieve by this form of detention? The report says: “There is abundant evidence that RSDL is frequently used outside its stated purpose – the investigation phase of a criminal case – since a significant proportion of RSDL victims are never formally arrested … Instead, it is thought RSDL may be being used as a tool of intimidation and to coerce testimony against others.”