Detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei’s recent return to Australia after a harrowing three-year imprisonment in a Chinese jail coincided with the United States condemning Beijing’s arrest of yet another individual. This time, it was
human rights lawyer Lu Siwei, who had previously represented one of the 12 Hong Kong activists that had protested against Beijing’s imposition of national security laws in 2019. Lu, an outspoken advocate for human rights, had long been a target
of Chinese authorities. In 2021, his license to practice law was revoked, and he was placed under 24/7 surveillance through a camera installed at his front door.
In a daring escape attempt in July, Lu managed to evade state security and cross the Laotian border on his way to Thailand, aiming to reunite with his family in the United States. However, his journey came to an abrupt end when Laotian authorities, increasingly cooperating with the Chinese government’s massive infrastructure investments, apprehended him and forcibly repatriated him to Beijing. He was charged with illegally crossing the border, leaving his wife, Zhang Chunxiao, in deep fear that he might be sent to prison in China, possibly to face torture.
Chances are Lu is already under the dreaded “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL) in China, a system that has come under global scrutiny
for its brutality. RSDL, introduced in 2012 when Xi Jinping assumed the role of
General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, allows Chinese police to detain suspects incommunicado for up to six months, particularly in national security cases where families are often left in the dark about their loved ones’ whereabouts. The practice amounts to a form of forced disappearance, violating basic human rights.
In many cases, detainees are subjected to torture, isolation, and harsh interrogations designed to extract confessions. Reports by human rights organizations, including Safeguard Defenders, indicate a pattern of torture, especially in the form of solitary confinement and oppressive questioning aimed at securing confessions. In fact, conditions in RSDL facilities have been described as even more severe than “black jails,” off-the-grid detention facilities where hardened criminals are interrogated.
Despite global condemnation, China’s use of the RSDL system has been on the rise. Official court records reveal a sharp increase in the number of people held under
RSDL, reaching a maximum of 15,120 in 2020. The Chinese government remains resolute in defending its legal system and the treatment of its prisoners, asserting that it follows the law and respects the rights of individuals.
In theory, RSDL detainees can be held for up to six months, but this can be extended on national security grounds. Once released from RSDL, detainees are formally arrested and transferred to regular jails where conditions tend to improve, but the wait for an outcome can be significantly longer. Charges might take over a year to be filed, and trials can be dragged out for extended periods, all conducted in relative secrecy. Consular visits are often the only connection these detainees have with the outside world.
Cheng Lei’s case is not an isolated one. At least 55 Australians are currently held in Chinese jails on various charges, and many other individuals from countries like Japan, the US, and Europe have faced similar situations. Beyond targeting
journalists and human rights activists, Beijing has also increasingly focused on
business executives, imposing exit bans as part of sweeping anti-espionage measures.
This wave of actions has had a chilling effect on business activities, with numerous US companies reporting a 25% increase in cancellations or delays of business trips
to China. Australian business leaders, while welcoming Cheng’s release, acknowledge that operating in China has become more challenging. The operating
environment has changed due to ongoing concerns about inspections, COVID-19 restrictions, and trade disputes.
Australia’s relationship with China has transformed, and the situation has led to a sense of caution among business executives. The need for due diligence and a solid understanding of the business environment in China is crucial. However, the
challenges are compounded by the lack of physical presence due to COVID-19 restrictions and the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from within China.
Cheng Lei’s arrest marked a significant shift, as she became the highest-profile journalist arrested under China’s national security laws, shattering the presumption that foreign journalists were immune to such treatment. This prompted the Australian government to instruct Australian media outlets, including The Australian Financial Review, to withdraw their correspondents from China. Even this publication had its visa application blocked in the same week, and the Chinese authorities imposed exit bans on two Australian reporters.
Despite Cheng’s release and improved relations between Beijing and Canberra, the threat of extrajudicial detention remains. Hideji Suzuki, the former president of the Japan-China Youth Exchange Association, spent six years in Chinese detention, including seven months in RSDL, without formal arrest. The law is wielded as a convenient tool for Chinese authorities to target individuals, often resulting in a form of psychological torture.
In conclusion, the abuse of the Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) system in China has drawn international condemnation for its severe violations of human rights. This practice, which allows for the secretive detention of suspects for extended periods, often results in torture and inhumane conditions. Despite global scrutiny, China’s use of RSDL has only increased, and its impact extends to journalists, human rights activists, business executives, and foreign nationals, altering the dynamics of international relations and business interactions with China. The world remains concerned about the plight of those subjected to RSDL, as this brutal system continues to be a weapon of control in China’s legal arsenal.