Sometime last month Australian journalist Cheng Lei was detained and quickly disappeared into China’s feared yet little known system of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location or “RSDL”. A new report released on August 30, designated as the International Day of the Disappeared, exposed for the first time the true scope and scale of the system.

This year, at least 20 people per day will disappear into the system, China’s premier tool for silencing dissent. Some of those have been foreigners and more are still to come, as China expands the use of its “hostage diplomacy”. It looks likely to get worse still.

Cheng Lei. Photo Australia Global Alumni, via YouTube.

Systematic enforced disappearances, once thought to be a relic of the South American dictatorships of the past century, have seen a shocking comeback. China is leading the return of mass state-sponsored kidnappings according to a new report from Safeguard Defenders.

New research released for the International Day of the Disappeared shows that since Xi Jinping came to power the use of the euphemistically named RSDL tool has skyrocketed, reaching nearly 30,000 victims. It also shows use expanding year by year, with no sign of a slowdown. With no changes in sight, it is estimated the system will be used against 10,000 victims annually by 2022. Under the new national security law, the implications for Hongkongers are no longer theoretical but becoming very real.

I myself, as the director of the organization behind the report, spent some time inside China’s feared RSDL system in 2016. Having experienced it at first hand, and knowing a great many friends, colleagues, and partners who have disappeared into it, the reality of the system has become more vivid.

Wang Yu taken to a studio for her TV denunciation of her ABA Award. Illustration based on her account, source: Safeguard Defenders.

Awareness of the system has grown in recent years but has been limited to occasional victim testimonies, such as those published in Safeguard Defenders’ book The People’s Republic of the Disappeared. There had previously been no authoritative information as to its scope and scale.

Using RSDL, the police – or as in my case, the feared Ministry of State Security- can without any court order take anyone off the streets, place them incommunicado at secret locations outside the judicial system, and keep them there for half a year. Once inside, you must, by law, be kept in solitary confinement. Many detainees remain inside a suicide-padded cell for the full six months – some without ever seeing sunlight and without the lights ever being turned off. For China’s police, it’s the ultimate weapon, and once inside there is no supervision nor any forms of appeal. It has proven equally effective against foreigners held for political reasons.

Even the report’s estimate of nearly 30,000 victims since 2012 is certainly too low, as the only official data available from the Chinese government is for those whose case has reached a verdict. It does not account for the many held under RSDL but released before any trial.

United Nations. File photo: UN.

United Nations organs have already called on China to abolish the system, and called the use of RSDL  tantamount to “enforced or involuntary disappearances”. The use of prolonged solitary confinement, forced on almost every victim of RSDL, amounts to torture according to relevant UN organs.

With this new report – drawing on data from China’s own judicial system – we now know that China uses enforced disappearances, and torture, of a widespread and systemic magnitude. But China’s growing preference for disappearance over other forms of detention doesn’t stop there.

New research, to be released by Safeguard Defenders this autumn has evidence of the growing use of other forms of disappearances. Once formally arrested and placed in detention centres, awaiting trial, a long list of victims known to have been taken by police are further hidden by registering them under false names. In one act, family and lawyers are cut off, as the person simply vanishes. This has in some cases, like my friend and lawyer Wang Quanzhang, lasted several years. 

For those who do face trial and imprisonment, disappearances may still follow. In a newly identified practice that law professor and China expert Jerome Cohen has dubbed “Non-release release”, authorities have started disappearing people upon their release from prison. For some, this lasts a few weeks, for others months, and in a few extreme cases, years. They may be released from prison but remain under the total control of the police and still missing.

Banner reads: “CCP has no shame.” Photo: May James/HKFP.

Taken together, disappearances are permeating the legal system and expanding in scope, showing that the Chinese Communist Party is tearing down even the most modest protections for citizens and placing not most, but all, power in the hands of the police. In China today, ensuring the elimination of any and all (perceived) threats to power trumps everything else.

Attention to and exposure of the RSDL system and other new means of disappearances may not deter the Communist Party from pursuing such policies. It is, however, imperative to show the unacceptability of mass disappearances, in order to push back against other authoritarian governments following China’s lead.

In addition, extradition agreements, which a surprising number of Western nations maintain with China, must be terminated and other agreements on police cooperation revised. Until China stops the systematic use of disappearances, any and all extradition cases should be placed on hold. As they did for Hong Kong, Western nations need to step up and offer a path for emigration for past and future victims. Those responsible for China’s mass use of disappearances should be sanctioned under the US Magnitsky Act and similar legislation in other countries.

Exposure and pressure is the only way to ensure disappearances do not become China’s next big export success. If they do, a pillar of international law will be severely undermined or even destroyed. 

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Peter Dahlin

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.