Authoritarian regimes shroud their darkest features in euphemism. So it is with China’s “residential surveillance at a designated location.” It sounds like a kind of house arrest, a milder form of detention for those under investigation, perhaps, or awaiting trial. It is not.
It is in fact the codification in law of a widespread practice of whisking people into secret detention — “disappearing” them into a labyrinth where China’s stunted legal protections can do little to prevent abuse. The practice violates not only human rights but also international law, according to Michael Caster of Safeguard Defenders, a group founded in August to protect those in Asia who fight for human rights, women’s rights and civil society.
Article 73 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law was amended in 2012 to allow the authorities to detain people for reasons of “state security” or “terrorism.” Detainees can be held for as long as six months in “designated locations” — secret prisons.
China has shown that it can define those reasons so broadly that it sweeps up anyone viewed as a political threat to the supremacy of the Communist Party: dissidents, lawyers, activists and outspoken Tibetans and Uighurs. Among those who have been held under a form of “residential surveillance” are the artist Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo, the poet and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who died in the state’s custody in July.
|A police officer in Beijing tried to
stop a photographer outside the
house of the wife of Liu Xiaobo, a
jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate,
Peter Parks/Agence France-Presse
— Getty Images
Mr. Caster’s group has compiled 12 accounts by those who have descended into this Orwellian legal abyss. They appear in a book, “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared,” that was published in English this month and is scheduled to come out in Chinese on Friday. These accounts — two of them anonymous, some written by those safely outside China, some by brave souls still inside — represent the experiences of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have been deprived of the legal rights the country’s Constitution ostensibly allows them.
The narrators tell of physical and psychological abuse, beatings and sleep deprivation, humiliations, isolation and threats to relatives. The nature of Article 73 fosters such abuse, its critics assert. In regular detention centers, institutional norms like the presence of guards and prosecutors can serve as a deterrent to violations. In the solitary confinement typical of “designated locations,” there are few constraints. It has become “a more severe, more terrible, coercive measure than normal criminal detention,” Teng Biao, a lawyer who left China after his own secret detentions, writes in the book’s foreword.
China under Xi Jinping seems increasingly impervious to criticism. And the United States under President Trump no longer presses the issue of human rights. What follows are adapted excerpts, rare in their detail, from the accounts of three of those who remain in China and are taking a great risk to recount their experiences.
Mr. Tang, one of the country’s most prominent defense lawyers, was arrested in 2011 for his work defending activists including Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who would later escape house arrest and hide in the United States Embassy in Beijing. He had just met with a group of lawyers when police officers pushed into his apartment. The officers covered his head with a black plastic shopping bag and drove him to what “looked like a country resort,” though one without amenities. He was later moved again in similar fashion. Last weekend he was barred from crossing into Hong Kong for medical treatment.
The room was small. The two beds were pressed almost together. There was no toilet seat. I had to use a ladle to scoop water to clean the toilet after using it.
I was made to sit up straight, facing the wall in a tiny space. One bright light shone directly onto my face. Even though it was winter, the air-conditioner was blowing cold air. My captors wore big cotton padded coats. I had sweated a lot on the way there, crammed into the car between the guards, with my head in a plastic bag and wearing my thick jacket. My jacket was so wet with sweat I couldn’t wear it anymore.
Four armed policemen and two younger guards took turns monitoring me. They made sure I knew who was in charge, saying: “Our soldiers take orders from the top. If you don’t behave, we will break your kneecaps.” I wasn’t allowed to sleep. I was cold and tired. It was hard to sit still. If I didn’t sit properly, they would kick me.
Soon after we arrived, they started to make me do military drills. An armed police officer demonstrated how to squat, stand to attention, stand at ease, turn and salute, each position requiring precise movements and timing. When I squatted, I had to put my hands behind my neck and keep my body straight. I had to practice folding a blanket into a right angle, like the shape of tofu. This was not easy for me. The hardest part for me was giving military salutes to my captors.
Their purpose was to break my determination, to make me accept their power. They sometimes use this kind of military training on detainees they don’t like. The armed police in China have strong bodies, but very simple minds.
Mr. Liu, born in 1966, practiced law for a decade until the authorities refused to renew his license in 2010. In February 2011, he was assaulted by plainclothes security officers in Guangzhou for trying to photograph a demonstration that was part of what was called the Jasmine Revolution. The assault left him with deep bruises and a gash on his left leg. Days later he was arrested and held in secret detention for four months; his wife, who is Vietnamese, was held for 17 days, then deported.
I wasn’t allowed to sleep the first night, or the second, or the third. Even when I wasn’t being interrogated, I had to sit upright on a chair, and that was exhausting after a long time. I would nod off sometimes. The officers would slam the table next to me and yell. My leg kept swelling, and the pain in my chest grew. I didn’t know how long I could tolerate it.
“Exhausting an eagle” is an expression that is used to describe the torture of extended sleep deprivation. I knew about this torture technique. Since it was usually reserved for serious crimes under Chinese law, I hadn’t come across it much. It was from an older time. I had rarely seen or heard of clients who had suffered it, and in the rare cases they had, it was usually for a day or, at most, two.
I realized I was in a place where the law does not exist, a black hole, a camp controlled by monsters.
Mr. Tang, originally trained as an engineer, became involved in civil rights activism when fighting to keep the authorities from tearing down his home. He was seized while helping the teenage son of the human rights lawyer Wang Yu and her husband, Boa Longjun, cross the border into Myanmar. Their accounts of secret detention are also included in the volume. The son, Bao Zhuxuan, now 18, was again barred this month from leaving the country by officials who described him as a security threat. Mr. Tang served more than a year in detention, first under residential surveillance, then in a regular detention center in Tianjin.
At times the guards warned me that my wife and child, despite being in the United States, were not as safe as I might think they were. Chinese agents could still kill them. They said the same about my mother. All I owned, money, valuables, they could take everything.
At one point, they informed me that the charge against me had been changed from illegally crossing a national border to inciting subversion of state power. What a threat! They really overestimated me.
The policemen would say they held no personal grudge against me, but they acted with such cruelty, tortured me the way they did, as if knowing that it was not personal would somehow change anything. I believe justice comes for everyone one day, and those who have done wrong will get the punishment they deserve.
Steven Lee Myers is a correspondent in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times and author of “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin.”