As part of a greater crackdown on Chinese human rights defenders, human rights campaigner Liu Feiyue, lawyer Jiang Tianyong, and activist Huang Qi have all been missing since November. The Chinese government should immediately account for these men who have all been previously harassed by authorities and appear to have disappeared, forcibly.
On November 17, national security police arrested Liu Feiyue, founder of the Hubei-based grassroots rights monitoring organization Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch. Although Liu’s family has not received a written notice, Hubei police told Liu’s family that he was being detained on suspicion of “subversion of state power”(1). Liu’s Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch is a grassroots platform that has reported human rights abuses in China since 2006, documenting detention, imprisonment, and harassment of activists, petitioners, and protestors, including the use of involuntary psychiatric detention (2).
On November 21, Beijing human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong went missing. He is said to be in police custody for allegedly “leaking state secrets” (3). The Legal Daily said Mr. Jiang was a “citizen advocate” who “meddled in some serious cases, wantonly fabricated and spread rumors on the internet, and incited petitioners and the families of people in legal proceedings to resist state agencies” (4). These accusations are not substantiated. Jiang’s family tried for several days to report his disappearance to various police units, but officers declined to act (5). A state report said Jiang’s family “has been notified according to the law”; however, his family said they have received no such notification and do not know where Jiang is being held (6). Jiang, who was disbarred in 2009 for political reasons, has long been active in human rights cases, and in 2011, he was detained for two months and tortured for his activism (7).
On November 28, Huang Qi, founder of Sichuan-based website “64 Tianwang”, was taken from his home in Chengdu, Sichuan Province by public security officers. There has been no formal notification about his detention and his whereabouts remain unknown. Huang, imprisoned twice for a total of eight years, has used his website to report on human rights violations, including the detention of activists, petitioners, and Falun Gong practitioners, and forced demolitions since 1999 (8). Awarded the Press Freedom Prize by Reporters Without Borders in November 2016, 64 Tianwang is one of the longest-running human rights websites based in China (9).
China’s Criminal Procedure Law requires police to notify families within 24 hours of criminal detention, but the requirement can be waived in cases involving “national security” and “terrorism,” and when the police believe that such notification could “impede the investigation” (10). Although the Criminal Procedure Law allows lawyer-client meetings within 48 hours of lawyers making such requests, in cases involving “national security,” “terrorism,” and “major corruption,” police approval is required before such meetings can take place (11). This is highly problematic because as Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin has explained, “The definition of what is a ‘state secret’ is over-broad and open-ended. There is no real way to legally challenge a classification. […] Even publicly available information can be considered a state secret if communicated abroad […] State secrets charges have long been the weapon of choice to silence critics, dissenters, journalists and party foe[s]” (12). The secret detention of individuals significantly increases the risk of torture in detention. With the law open to state interpretation, the Chinese government, critics claim, is empowered to silence anyone it feels poses a threat to its agenda. Critics also argue that not only does this punish those who do dissent, but also sends a serious warning to the rest of China that if one does not silence their criticism, the state will silence them instead.
China’s use of forced disappearances is not uncommon. In 2011, an anonymous online declaration for a “Jasmine Revolution” resulted in dozens of Chinese government critics disappearing and being held in secret locations for weeks. In 2012, changes to the Criminal Procedure Law made it lawful to hold individuals for up to six months without disclosing their whereabouts (13). In July 2015, the government took into custody more than 280 human rights lawyers, their associates and activists supporting them and concealed information about the detainees whereabouts and wellbeing for months (14). Many of these lawyers faced criminal charges, including subverting state power, which can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.
These disappearances reflect a government crackdown on human rights defenders since President Xi Jinping took power. Xi’s leadership has followed an authoritarian path in response to perceived threats to the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. Under his predecessor, Hu Jintao, China was governed by a softer authoritarian rule. Because he was considered a soft leader, Jintao’s reign saw a spike in corruption and decentralization of power within the party. In response, Xi has orchestrated the harshest crackdowns on free speech and anti-government rhetoric witnessed in China in the last 30 years. President Xi has grown increasingly insecure about independence movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the influence that Western culture has had on Chinese people. This has caused him to further promote Communist values, and shelter China from the world in terms of cultural integration. President Xi’s domestically popular anti-corruption campaign continues to include prosecutions that violate the right to a fair trial. Activists seeking to defend human rights, such as Liu Feiyue, Jiang Tianyong, and Huang Qi, have faced a surge in punishment under Xi, at times enduring arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, politicized prosecutions, and torture.
The Chinese government’s fear of criticism is exemplified by Central Document No. 9, issued by the CCP Central Committee and circulated throughout the Party system nationwide (but leaked outside of China) in 2013. It reveals the CCP’s assessment of the ideological weaknesses it is experiencing inside the Party and in society, and further illustrates the dislike the CCP has toward Western political influence. The document paints a picture of a ruling party under assault from within and without––an extremely unconfident party acting defensively to fend off perceived threats to its continued rule and existence. Noteworthy problems listed include: the promotion of Western constitutional democracy, the promotion of “universal values” in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership, the promotion of civil society in an attempt to dismantle the ruling party’s social foundation, and the promotion of the West’s idea of journalism, which is said to challenge China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline. The problems explicitly listed exemplify the state’s fear of those who fight for human rights and access to an open and unbiased media.
The status of human rights under President Xi Jinping continues in a negative direction. Chinese authorities should order an immediate and impartial investigation into the missing activists whereabouts, publicly disclose its findings, and bring those responsible to justice. If credible evidence of an internationally recognized crime does exist, those in custody should be given a fair and unbiased trial in court that is in line with international human rights standards. Chinese authorities should ensure that those detained are protected from torture and have access to adequate medical care. Additionally, the detainees should be allowed access to their families and a lawyer of their choice. Forced disappearances in China should not go ignored by the international community.
(1) "China: Three Activists Feared 'Disappeared'" Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
(4) "Lawyer, Web Publisher Accused of Leaking Secrets." China Digital Times. China Digital Times, 23 Dec. 2016. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
(5) "China: Three Activists Feared 'Disappeared'" Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
(12) "Lawyer, Web Publisher Accused of Leaking Secrets." China Digital Times. China Digital Times, 23 Dec. 2016. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
(13) "China: Three Activists Feared 'Disappeared'" Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
(14) "China: Events of 2015." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 27 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
Image: © Jess Yu | Dreamstime.com - 1 July protest in Hong Kong