Nine foreign tourists who were arrested by police in northern China are struggling to find human rights lawyers to defend them. Many top lawyers in the country have themselves been detained amid a widening crackdown on lawyers, according to South African disaster relief organisation Gift of the Givers Foundation (GOTG), which is assisting the tourists.

The five South Africans, three Britons and one Indian were part of a 20-member tour group visiting China on a 47-day trip to see the country’s historical sites, GOTG said.  The group were apprehended at Ordos Ejin Horo Airport on July 10 for allegedly watching a “terrorist propaganda video” in their hotel rooms, according to the Communist Party’s official newspaper Global Times.

GOTG said families of the South Africans detained considered hiring a Chinese human rights lawyer to represent them, but they were saddened to learn that many top lawyers in the country had been arrested.

China began an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers last week, arresting dozens and summoning scores more to meet with security forces. According to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, 208 people have been affected by the crackdown as of 4:00pm Thursday.

Chinese authorities agreed on Tuesday to deport 11 of the detained tourists, six Britons and five South Africans, after meeting with British and South African diplomats, GOTG said.

Ordos Airport. Photo: Ngchikit.

The Guardian reported that the six Britons boarded a flight on Wednesday that was scheduled to arrive in London on Thursday.

The five South Africans were awaiting a flight to Pretoria on Thursday, according to South African media IOL News, citing the country’s International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

The nine still detained in Inner Mongolia have not been formally charged, according to GOTG. However, South African media News24 reported on Thursday that the detainees were held for suspected espionage.

Vivienne Zeng

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.