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.