Detention of Chinese lawyer in Laos shows Beijing’s control over allies in Southeast Asia

The recent arrest of a Chinese human rights lawyer in Laos has highlighted the extent to which China’s legal rights movement has been heavily targeted in the last few years. Lu Siweihas been arrested and stripped of his licence for taking on sensitive cases. His arrest has evoked strong reactions from the international community which has been demanding from the Laos government to release him with immediate effect.

Lu Siwei was on his way to Thailand when Laotian police arrested him while he was boarding a train. He was on his way to Bangkok to catch a flight to the US to join his wife and daughter.

Siwei’s incident has proved that the Xi government is all out to crush the rights movement within the country and outside. In 2015, hundreds of activists and rights lawyers had been arrested in what later became known as the “709 crackdown” – named after 9 July, the day it was launched. From time to time, bloggers, rights activists and others have been arrested for speaking their mind in China and outside.

Siwei has been extremely popular among the rights activists. He defended some of those arrested, including rights lawyer and Xi critic Yu Wensheng. Siwei also defended people arrested for making liquor bottle labels commemorating the 1989 Tian’anmen Square pro-democracy protests. Fed up with his acumen in legal matters, the authorities stripped his legal license in 2021 after he represented a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist who tried to flee to Taiwan. Later that year, Siwei was barred from leaving China for a visiting fellowship in the United States and was told he had an exit ban placed on him.

While international rights organisations have demanded from the Laos government to release Siwei, foreign affairs experts said that the incident highlighted the risks Chinese dissidents face when they flee China through Southeast Asia. According to analysts, the incident is a reflection of worsening human rights conditions in China and Beijing’s long-arm jurisdiction in Southeast Asia. In fact, Southeast Asia has long been a common yet risky transit point for Chinese dissidents attempting to flee repression in their homeland.

Bob Fu, founder of the Texas-based human rights organization ChinaAid said that the Chinese government’s efforts to tighten control over civil society have prompted more dissidents and persecuted religious groups to flee the country. Fu further said that China uses its economic influence over Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar to get local authorities to help arrest and deport dissidents or persecuted ethnic minorities back to China.

Hence, China willingly uses its economic and political power to suppress dissent abroad. For instance, the Chinese government uses its network of officials and businesses in Laos to monitor and surveil dissidents. This information can then be used to track dissidents, intimidate them, and arrest them. Also, China uses its economic power to pressurise the Laotian government to muzzle dissent. For example, China could threaten to withhold economic assistance or investment if the Laotian government does not cooperate.

China has passed laws that make it illegal to “defaming” the Chinese government or its leaders. These laws have been used to silence critics of China, including Laotian citizens who have spoken out against human rights abuses in China.

In some cases, China has intervened directly to arrest and deport Chinese dissidents from Laos. This happened in the case of Yang Hengjun, who was arrested in Laos in 2017 and deported to China, where he was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of espionage.

Experts said that Laos cannot speak against China even if it means suppressing dissent. The reality is that the government is heavily dependent on China for economic assistance and investment. For The Laotian government, it cannot speak against China even if it means suppressing dissent. In response, the Laotian government recently said in an e-mail to U.K.-based human rights organization 29 Principles that Laotian police are holding Lu on suspicion of “using fraudulent travel documents” while entering Laos. He is awaiting an investigation and, if found guilty, he faces deportation to China.Despite the Laotian authorities response, human rights organisations have been constantly making efforts to secure Siwei’srelease. As many as 85 human rights organizations recently released a joint petition demanding that Laotian authorities “halt all processes of repatriation for Lu Siwei and release him immediately according to its international human rights obligations.” Analysts said the international community, including human rights organizations and foreign governments, need to apply pressure on Laos. Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said past cases show that international pressure works.

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