With Australian citizen Yang Hengjun added to the two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – China is showing the world its new system for disappearing rather than detaining critics. It is also showing us how that system is now no longer reserved for China’s embattled lawyers and journalists. Both Michaels have now been missing for 100 days – with no end in sight.

Michael Kovrig Michael Spavor
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. File photo: Twitter.

The rise of Xi Jinping has seen sweeping changes in China – for a western audience, this is most clearly seen in its aggressive posturing abroad, and against ever-larger countries. Soon, Xi seems to think, this aggressive posturing can be used against its main target – the United States. In the meantime, it’s smaller western nations bearing the brunt, from Sweden to Canada to Australia. Soon the UK, France, and eventually Germany will be added to the list of nations whose citizens will be disappeared, not because of any legal reasons, but as tools of foreign policy. For example, the week that France bans Huawei will likely be the week that a French citizen disappears into “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL).

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: S.Africa Gov’t.

With all this in mind, it’s time for western governments to start learning about what RSDL is, and look into Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor’s cases. But it is also time to join Canada and realise that defending them – and their detained citizens – is also a defence of their own citizens and country.

Secret location

So, where is Michael Kovrig? Philosophically speaking, he has simply “disappeared.” Neither family, lawyer nor his own country – Canada – knows where he is. That is precisely the point. The same applies to another Canadian, taken the very same day Kovrig was, Michael Spavor.

As someone who has been taken by China’s Ministry of State Security – the same organ that took both Michaels using RSDL – I can, unfortunately, shed some light on it.

china compound
Photo: Googlemaps.

Practically speaking, Mr. Kovrig is right here; 39.809781″N, 116.383599″E. That’s right, a large, four-story compound not far from Beijing’s smaller southern airport, used by the Beijing branch of the Ministry of State Security. If the heavy curtains are ever lifted inside his light blue/grey-coloured suicide-padded cell, and if he focuses on a far right corner, he might see the field filled with old discarded busses, a bus graveyard. Listening to the flights coming in and out of the Nanyang airport he might be able to get his north/south bearings as well.

These little details, and the few things I saw through the blindfold I was wearing when taken in and out of the facility, made it possible for me to locate this secret prison after about a week of studying Google Maps and Google Earth shortly after my own release from the second or third floor of this facility. The system, RSDL, demands by law that people taken, for up to six months, not be placed inside detention centres or prisons, since technically they are not under criminal detention or arrest. So China has built specialised secret prisons to keep these victims.

When Michael was finally allowed to see his ambassador, it took place at a police station instead. Being taken there, Michael would have been blindfolded, starting in his cell, and then led by to the underground garage and put inside a cortege of cars. The blindfold would have come off just before entering the room where his consular staff was waiting for him.

Yang Hengjun
Yang Hengjun. Photo: Yang Hengjun, via Twitter.

The unfolding drama between China and Canada, where Canada is both a testing ground for Chinese power, but also stands in as a proxy for the U.S., is one where politicians and officials would do well to pay attention to the RSDL system being used. Australia is now facing a similar situation with the disappearance of its citizen Yang Hengjun, and their lack of knowledge about RSDL is baffling. Here is what Australia’s defence minister said about Mr. Yang and his disappearance;

He is being held in residential surveillance. We would describe it as home detention. As Mr Yang doesn’t have a home in Beijing, he is being held in a similar situation.

It seems the Minister of Defense has not been informed that ‘residential surveillance’ and ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ are not only two different things, but worlds apart.

‘Legalised’ disappearance  

The law in China allows for these disappearances. Yes, as reported, Michael’s whereabouts are being kept secret. Yes, he will not be given access to a lawyer. But more so, even China’s prosecutor, who is supposed to monitor these secret detentions, will be denied the right to visit him. In a database that the NGO Safeguard Defenders keep, for which I’m the director, we have never come across a single case where the prosecutor has visited, even though it’s prescribed in law that they should.

padded cell
The padded cell. Artist’s impression: Nicolas Luna Fleck.

Mr. Kovrig, and Mr. Spavor, and future American and European victims can, without any court order, be kept incommunicado, in solitary confinement, for six months. Actually, solitary confinement is only half true – he will have two guards sitting inside his cell 24/7, working in six-hour shifts. These guards, most of whom are civilian-dressed trainees for the Ministry of State Security, will not be allowed to speak to him, but will take notes on his every single movement. They will also stare him down as he uses the toilet, or when he is (rarely) allowed to shower.

The system itself, the ‘legalisation’ of enforced disappearances, risks standing as yet another Chinese export to nearby authoritarian states, many of which will likely see just how effective a tool it is – in China today, the lawyers, journalists and activists – the main targets of the system – are often disappeared rather than arrested.

As of late 2017, the system is no longer a well-kept secret in that Safeguard Defenders released a book on it, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, where many of its victims, for the first time ever, shared detailed testimonies of their time inside the system. Despite that, the system remains overlooked as a point of concern for foreign governments, despite the growing number of foreigners that end up inside it.

Regardless of which floor Michael is kept in, he will have an entire wing to himself, with his cell, his interrogation room, and a meeting room, all along a small corridor, being his own. I used to call it ‘the residence’ as I spent nearly a month there. I was lucky – from our database on RSDL cases, the average time spent inside is 121 days, and at least a third of all people spend the full six months inside. Some are lucky to see a few days of sunlight during this time, many are not. Lights will be on 24/7 inside the cell though. In all the cases collected in our database, we have yet to come across a single case that did not include use of what the Convention Against Torture would classify as torture and mistreatment.

Arriving at the secret detention compound
Arriving at the secret detention compound. Artist’s impression: Nicolas Luna Fleck.

In hindsight, it’s hard to say if it’s the 5-6 hours of daily interrogations – more often nightly actually, to ensure sleep deprivation – sitting strapped into a wooden ‘tiger chair’ in the interrogation room, is the hardest part, or if it’s sitting inside the suicide-padded cell, designed for minimum stimulation, where a minute can feel like an hour, is. After a few weeks, your brain spews out ideas and thoughts similar to puking up stomach acid. My only way for keeping sanity was a combination of daydreaming about being able to see my girlfriend again, who, despite having no relation to my case, was also kept in the same facility somewhere, just like many colleagues of mine.

Both aspects of the system – intense interrogations while kept cut off from the world, and the solitary confinement, are designed to break you. As a foreigner, and as a former diplomat, Michael is unlikely to be physically tortured, although he is certainly being threatened – the majority of victims are not so lucky, and physical torture is very common. I had to listen to a colleague being beaten up badly, repeatedly. Later on, they threw in a six-hour lie detector test just to pile on more pressure. They want to break you, and before you leave, they want you to seriously admit your mistakes, and mean it. It’s hard not to think of Winston Smith in 1984 about that last part, that they actually want you, and will try any way they can, to believe that you were wrong and they were right – it’s not merely about going through the motion of writing some confession.

china flag point finger
File photo: Max Pixel.

About Michael Spavor’s situation we know less, but still a great deal. Just weeks before Mr. Spavor was taken, two Canadians, Kevin and Julia Garratt, released a book, providing great insight into their own placement into RSDL back in 2014/2015. Like Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, their disappearance had little legal basis, but was as a result of politics. And like Mr.  Spavor, they were taken by the MSS and held in the border city of Dandong. It’s safe to say that Mr. Spavor is sitting in the very same facility, undergoing very similar treatment. Even though the Garratt’s has not publicly disclosed the location of their secret imprisonment, having lived in Dandong for so long, it’s likely they know very well the exact location of the facility.

At this point, about 100 days in, it is likely that the most intense parts of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor’s interrogations have subsided, replaced by confinement and isolation, as China tries to find a way to use them for what they are – instruments of power. Only by the United States, Canada and its allies’ firm opposition, and mounting pressure on China, can we turn that around, and make it clear to China that the only way they can use Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor as instruments is as a way to de-escalate a situation that China more and more wishes it did not have on its hands.

With the stakes being raised, not only related to Huawei and U.S. attempts to have its CFO extradited from Canada, but with the U.S. and allies now going after China’s rampant use of cyber-theft and hacking, politicians would do well to start learning about RSDL, because more Americans and Europeans, not to mention Australians, will be targeted, it’s just a matter of time – and if it’s by the MSS and in Beijing, chances are they will spend time inside the very same facility I was in.

Peter Dahlin was co-founder of now-defunct Chinese NGO 'China Action' (2009-2016) and is the director of Safeguard Defenders, which assist lawyers, independent media, and civil society groups across east- and southeast Asia in protecting human rights and promoting the rule of law.