Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dui Hua Book Review: The People’s Republic of the Disappeared

Michael Caster’s The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances. Image Credit: RSDLMonitor.Com

Dui Hua examines the stories of dissidents held under the coercive measure “residential surveillance in a designated location” in Michael Caster’s The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances (Safeguard Defenders, 2017).

As the waves of repression in China have intensified over the past decade, one encounters the strange phrase “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL) with greater frequency.

It was memorably employed (though by no means for the first time) against the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, after the publication of “Charter 08” in December 2008. Later, it was used in the crackdown against the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” in the spring of 2011. Most recently, it has been a prominent feature of the ongoing crackdown against rights lawyers and activists that began in July 2015.

This measure, with its relatively benign-sounding name, has been examined critically before, both inside and outside China. The new book The People’s Republic of the Disappeared makes an important contribution to this critique by collecting vivid accounts from those who have been subjected to the measure. Together, these accounts paint a damning portrait of how Chinese law enforcement agents are using the power they have been given under the law to violate human rights with impunity in the name of safeguarding state security.


What exactly is RSDL? At first glance, it looks like it might be a form of house arrest, although “designated location” suggests that it might involve something other than being confined in one’s own home. “Surveillance” only adds to the mystery, suggesting some sort of monitoring without making exactly clear how intrusive it might be.

In China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), RSDL is what’s known as a “coercive measure.” Simply put, coercive measures authorize law enforcement agents to restrict a person’s liberty in the course of a criminal investigation. The degree and duration of that restriction depends on a variety of factors, but coercive measures are meant to serve a rather limited set of aims: preventing suspects from posing further threats to society or obstructing the investigation process and ensuring their availability to face questioning or stand trial. Coercive measures are not meant to be punitive or to be used as tools of investigation in their own right.

In Chinese criminal procedure, “residential surveillance” exists alongside other coercive measures such as custodial detention (seen as the most restrictive measure) and “release on guarantee pending further investigation” (qubao houshen, which is much less restrictive). The ordinary form of residential surveillance—which, as the name suggests, permits suspects to remain in their homes under certain restrictions—is a relatively lenient, non-custodial measure. For that reason, the CPL allows it to be imposed for up to six months.

Six months spent under house arrest is no picnic, but it is likely to be a more comfortable experience than being sent to a detention center. For this reason, reformers have promoted the greater use of non-custodial measures like residential surveillance as a way of reducing overuse of custodial detention.


The book features eleven accounts, all but one of them presented in the first-person, from lawyers and political activists who were subjected to RSDL or similar measures between 2011 and 2016. These include well-known human rights lawyers, such as Tang Jitian, Liu Shihui, Sui Muqing, and Wang Yu. It also includes an account by Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist detained in 2016 for his connection with some of these lawyers and activists. Though each account is distinct, the victims’ experiences under RSDL share some key features. It is difficult to ignore how the measure of RSDL has become an integral part of a systematic regime used by authorities to target particular individuals.

Though regulations require that the locations used for RSDL “possess conditions for ordinary living and rest,” it is clear from these accounts that disruption of routine daily activities is key to how the system operates. Sleep deprivation and the withholding of food and personal hygiene products are common practice. Detainees are cut off from communication with family, friends, and lawyers. Guards and interrogators use humiliation, enforced discipline, physical and verbal abuse, and threats to friends and family members. Family members of victims are also subject to varying degrees of surveillance, including house arrest, such as in the case of Wang Yu’s family. International law recognizes family members of victims of enforced disappearances as full victims.

The victims’ accounts of confinement and interrogation becomes at times indistinguishable, since most detainees are subjected to questioning in the same place they are held—contrary to the provisions of RSDL. Invisible, alone, and at the mercy of guards and investigators who act with impunity, it is unsurprising that, in almost every case included in this book, involuntary confession is what brings the ordeal to an end.

Lawyer Liu Shihui, who describes his 2011 confinement under RSDL, calls the measure “a system designed for prisoners of conscience [and] a place designed for torture.” Time and torment essentially ensure that any resistance gives way to capitulation. However, some accounts reveal that even in their acts of forced “confessions”, victims attempt to resist the abuse of state power. For example, lawyer Sui Muqing recounts the importance he placed in maintaining a degree of personal integrity and dignity by refusing to incriminate others in his confession.

In reading these accounts one cannot escape the recurring sense that authorities use the brutal conditions of confinement in RSDL for the purpose of obtaining these confessions—the veracity and voluntariness of which does not necessarily matter. In this sense, one can certainly see how useful investigators would find RSDL—especially as a tool in sweeping crackdowns with multiple, linked suspects. Even if, as in most of the cases in this book, confessions do not lead to direct criminal prosecution, the authorities can still use them against other suspects. And by recording and broadcasting these forced confessions, the authorities can attempt to bring public discredit on both the individuals and the causes they promoted.

Beyond confessions, the brutal confinement of RSDL constitutes a form of punishment in itself, especially when stretched to its six-month limit. Even the mere existence of RSDL seems designed to spread fear, and threat of its use can be enough, in some cases, to achieve the desired outcome.


Of course, no matter how well RSDL might serve the aims of the Chinese authorities in terms of maintaining stability and political control, it doesn’t justify the use of torture and many other violations of individual human rights that it enables. Liu Shihui’s judgment that RSDL is a “place where law doesn’t exist” is amply backed up by the other accounts in this book.

The similarities in these accounts unquestionably demonstrate a pattern of abuse. Yet, there may still be some who will claim that these stories are exceptional and do not represent the entirety of RSDL. For every instance of abuse under RSDL, there are sure to be examples in which the measure is being used in more benign ways. Even if these cases are exceptional, this is precisely why RSDL is so insidious. By labeling these acts a form of “residential surveillance,” Chinese authorities are engaged in a deliberate effort to obscure their use of torture and enforced disappearance. Through publishing these accounts, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared is attempting to shatter the veneer behind which these severe violations have tried to hide and expose them for the world to see. And given that the accounts are diverse in both the time frames and geographical regions they represent, it is unlikely that they are simply exceptional cases. The accounts come from two separate sweeps, one carried out in 2011 and the other in 2015-2016 and they take place across four distinct locations: Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Changsha.

Of all the people who should read this book, which has also recently been released in Chinese, it can only be hoped that it will be read by all of the Chinese academic legal experts who have been so instrumental in directing the reform of China’s criminal justice system. In the past, many of these experts had publicly criticized the ways Chinese investigators used residential surveillance. Yet these same experts stood by and even defended the inclusion of RSDL measures in the most recent revision to the CPL, rejecting predictions that the measure would be abused. In a perfect world, this book would prod their consciences and, in the name of human rights and rule of law, lead these influential experts to turn their efforts to stopping the outrageous abuses exercised under RSDL.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

“Mandarin Only” Visitation Rules

Bilingual education class offered in a juvenile reformatory in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Image:

The promotion of Mandarin as China’s lingua franca, commonly referred to as “tuipu,” has been one of the most sweeping initiatives implemented by the Chinese government. Tuipu serves the dual purpose of forging a sense of national identity based on Han culture and weakening regional and ethnic loyalties. Some regional dialects and ethnic minority languages have largely died out in China because of tuipu propaganda that portrays them as “uncivilized” and “barbaric.” The use of regional dialects and ethnic minority languages (e.g. Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur) is banned in many government offices and schools, and on television programs. According to the latest official statistics, the literacy rate of Mandarin in urban China has reached 90 percent, however in rural areas it remains around 40 percent.

Within the carceral system, prisoners are not required to speak Mandarin among their peers, but the use of dialects and minority languages are subject to varying degrees of restrictions when it comes to family visitation rules. It should be noted that at the national level neither the Prison Law nor the visitation and correspondence regulations issued by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) on December 5, 2016, contain provisions restricting the use of dialects or minority languages. However, in practice many local prisons have taken it upon themselves to mandate the use of Mandarin during family visitations, with varying degrees of enforcement. As many of those who come into conflict with the law are from rural areas, it comes as little surprise that many of those subject to prison surveillance have limited economic means and educational opportunities to learn Mandarin. Prisoners and their family members, especially older generations, who can only speak their regional dialects or their minority languages are consequently deprived of their visitation rights. Dui Hua’s research has found that those who fail the “Mandarin only” visitation requirement also have slimmer prospects for obtaining clemency.

Domestic news media in China occasionally report stories about the use of regional dialects during prison visitations to showcase the more “human” side of prison management. A news article in 2004 reported a story from Shanghai’s Tilanqiao Prison where well-behaved prisoners were allowed to speak in their local dialects when making phone calls to family members. A Xinhua article in 2014 covered a story about a prisoner serving time in Guangdong’s Jieyang Prison who spoke in a local dialect during a video call with his mother in Guangxi, who he had not seen in three years.

In Sichuan’s Jinjiang Prison, visitation rules state that prisoners and their family visitors can speak in Mandarin or Sichuanese during visitations. However, such leniency is not extended to many other prisons around the country. In Guangdong, Zhuang Songkun (庄松坤) is one of the Wukan villagers who was sentenced in December 2016 for allegedly instigating protests against local government corruption. When Zhuang’s wife tried to visit him at Guangdong’s Wujiang Prison on February 23, 2017, she was not allowed to speak in her Chaozhou dialect. As she was unable to speak Mandarin, the prison officers confiscated her microphone, which had been attached to a video recording device, cutting short the whole visit to a mere five minutes. Henan-based lawyer Ren Quanniu publicly remarked that such a policy is an abuse of power, especially given that there is no written provision prohibiting the use of regional dialects. The MOJ regulation entitles prisoners to up to one monthly visit from family members or guardians in the form of telephone calls, face-to-face meetings, or video calls. (In some parts of China, visits from family members take place less frequently.) Meetings are not supposed to exceed 30 minutes, though sometimes more time is given as a reward for good behavior. Even during court proceedings, defendants, police, prosecutors, and judges often communicate in regional dialects. It is unlawful to deprive prisoners such as Zhuang of their visitation rights just because prison staff cannot understand them, says Ren.

Wujiang Prison is not alone in prohibiting regional dialects; similar visitation restrictions are commonplace across China. A guide issued by Guangdong’s Gaoming Prison in December 2015 states that a family visit will be cancelled unless both prisoners and visitors speak Mandarin. The same policy is enforced in Fujian’s Qingliu Prison as part of the campaign to “cultivate civilization.” In the same province, an exception is made at Putian Prison, but only for elderly prisoners who cannot speak Mandarin and who are meeting with a relative who can provide translation for the supervising guard.

Despite the generally lower Mandarin proficiency among many ethnic minority groups in China, there are still language restrictions in prisons located in provinces with large ethnic minority populations. In Guizhou province, where one-third of the population is non-Han Chinese, minority languages spoken in prisons are strictly regulated. A provincial visitation guide issued in 2015 bans ethnic minority languages and the use of any “secret languages” during visitations to the provincial judicial police hospital that caters to prisoners in need of medical treatment. The restriction aims to cultivate “linguistic civilization” and maintain “one’s dignified demeanor.” The same restrictions apply to Wenshan Prison and Yiliang Prison in Yunnan province, which has an ethnic minority population of over 15 million. Yiliang Prison does not explicitly forbid the use of Yunnanese among local prisoners, but all other regional dialects and minority languages are prohibited. Violators of the rule can have their family visitation rights taken away for six months and in serious circumstances a case can be filed to investigate the matter.

Sichuan appears to be one of the few exceptions. Given that Sichuan has a non-Han population of approximately five million, the Sichuan Prison Administrative Bureau permits the use of minority languages like Tibetan in prisons throughout the province. Shandong province, although not nearly as ethnically diverse as Sichuan, permits minority language use during visitations, albeit with some restrictions. For instance, Shandong's Luning Prison only allows the use of minority languages when prisoners have obtained prior police approval.

In China’s autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, regulations on prison visitation rules could not be found by Dui Hua researchers. However anecdotal evidence from formerly incarcerated individuals suggests that these regions are not unlike the rest of China when it comes to enforcing Mandarin during prison visitations. Circumstantial factors such as the particular prison, the language ability of the guards on duty, and the political climate at the time can impact whether and how language and dialect restrictions are enforced.

Dui Hua’s research into clemency judgments found that the practice of speaking regional dialects also has a significant impact on a prisoner’s chances of gaining sentence reductions and parole. The judgments reveal that speaking dialects can be considered evidence of not “showing remorse,” a prerequisite for obtaining early release. Sentence reductions and parole are granted to those who have accrued a certain number of points for good behavior. Between 2013-2016, prisoners in Fujian and Shanghai received point deductions ranging from 0.5 to 2 points for each instance of speaking regional dialects during family visitations. In December 2016, the Fujian Bureau of Justice implemented new measures for assessing clemency points, drastically increasing the penalty for speaking dialects to a deduction of 30-100 points. In accordance with the new provincial directive, Wuyishan Prison deducted 30 points from a prisoner because he did not speak Mandarin on just one occasion during a family visit in March 2017.

The impact these rules have on prisoners who are ethnic minorities or who come from rural areas with limited opportunities to learn Mandarin, or those who come from both backgrounds is significant. The rules not only deny these groups precious contact with their families and opportunities to gain early release but they also function to further stigmatize and criminalize these groups because of their ethnicity and limited economic means.

It is not uncommon for prisons to impose restrictions on communication within prisons for security purposes, such as to guard against distribution of printed materials that can be used to plan escapes or other crimes. However, language restrictions on visitations are now widely uncommon. (In the United States, Utah was the last state to drop the “English only” visitation requirement in August 2013.) While the promotion of Mandarin has been crucial to China’s development, punishments in the form of denying visitation rights and equal opportunities for clemency due to language ability deprive prisoners of their constitutional rights (Article 4 “All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.”)

Dui Hua has found some cases where prisoners earn points towards clemency as a result of learning Mandarin. In some rare cases, rewards are given to those who learn minority languages and contribute to “bilingual education classes” offered to prisoners to learn both Mandarin and ethnic minority languages in autonomous regions. However, these cases are rare and resources for Mandarin education in prisons are by no means comprehensive.

The suppression of regional dialects and ethnic minority languages that has accompanied tuipu has long been a source of social and ethnic tension, sparking incidents of unrest across China. Learning Mandarin can better equip prisoners with skills for post-release integration and opportunities for clemency provide prisoners with a strong incentive to learn and a chance at earlier reintegration. Rather than directing resources to support prisoner’s education and rehabilitation, the punitive “Mandarin only” visitation rules serve instead to undermine inter-ethnic relationships and run counter to the ideal of the “harmonious society” that the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government strive to achieve.