Susan Blumberg-Kason reviews The People’s Republic of the Disappeared
When five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared in 2015, the world looked on in shock. Two of the booksellers were abducted outside the borders of mainland China. Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, was taken from his apartment in Thailand that October, only to reappear in a televised confession months later. In January of 2018, after he had ostensibly been released from state custody, was seized on a train, the Swedish diplomats accompanying him no deterrent to his abductors. He still remains in China today, unable to leave. Lee Bo, a British citizen, was picked up off the streets of Hong Kong. He made a brief reappearance in the city, asking the Hong Kong police to drop the case of his disappearance and announcing that he would never sell banned books again. He was then whisked away back over the border to mainland China.
How could this happen? A new book about enforced disappearance in China, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances, explains exactly how common practice state-sponsored abduction is against anyone who is deemed to be a threat to China’s national security.
Edited by Michael Caster, the collection sheds light on the crackdown on hundreds of human rights attorneys and activists since July 9, 2015. The foreword is written by Teng Biao, lawyer to the blind dissident Chen Guangchen who made a daring escape from house arrest in 2012 and made his way to the US Embassy in Beijing. Teng Biao describes Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), a new method of detention and torture deployed against the lawyers profiled in this book. According to Caster and the people profiled in the book, the crackdown that began on July 9 – also known as 709 – is the largest assault on human rights since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. The 709 lawyers are the attorneys arrested in this crackdown.
Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, a year after artist and dissident Ai Weiwei spent 81 days in prison, confined to a 12-foot-by-24-foot room. It wouldn’t take long after Xi took office for the state to stage the biggest crackdown in the last quarter century. Although RSDL started back in 1997, mainly put migrant workers under the equivalent of house arrest, it has now grown into a means for the police to repress human rights lawyers and anyone else they deem a threat to the state. The detainees are prohibited from sleeping, and are forced to sit on stacked chairs or high stools so that their feet can’t read the ground. They aren’t allowed to make a phone call or inform their families that they’ve been detained, leaving their loved ones in purgatory.
These detention-slash-torture centers are in police stations, old jails, state-run hotels and guesthouses. Detainees are moved from place to place with a black hood or plastic bag over their heads so that they cannot identify where they’ve been. And the scariest part of all is that after all the torture and suffering, there is nothing they can do to prove it ever happened. Sleep deprivation and standing in a corner all day or on a stack of stools show no tangible marks to prove this torture ever took place.
Under Chinese law, the police can detain anyone deemed a threat to Chinese rule for up to six months under RSDL. Many detainees are sent to another facility after those six months are up. Wang Quanzhang, a 709 lawyer to whom the book is dedicated, is still missing.
One of the most gut-wrenching stories is that of Bao Longjun and Wang Yu, a human rights attorney power-couple. In 2015, Wang bid goodbye to her sixteen-year-old son, Bao Zhuoxuan, as he left for the airport with his father. Zhuoxuan was heading to school in Australia and Wang was sad to see him leave. Both husband and wife were arrested separately that evening and suffered torture under RSDL. Little did they know, but two other human rights lawyers took charge and smuggled their son, Bao Zhuoxuan, to Myanmar so he could escape China and continue on to Australia the long way. The trio was in Myanmar for only a short time before they were apprehended and sent back to China. Once back on Chinese soil, they realized the police officer who stopped them in Myanmar wasn’t in fact a Burmese cop, but one from China. Like the Hong Kong booksellers abducted outside China, this is another example of China’s far-reaching arm. And like some of the booksellers, Wang Yu gave a video confession that was broadcast on Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV.
These narratives are supposed to be in the activists’ own voices, but a few things fell short for me. The separation of each person’s story into their own chapter broke the flow, even though many of the narratives overlap. Sometimes they seemed to have been translated word for word. Swedish activist Peter Dahlin refers to his “girl” – his girlfriend, Jinling, a grown woman – on numerous occasions. I got the sense that in the rush to make these important testimonies public, the book was thrown together without a proper copy-edit.
Caster writes that RSDL is able to flourish because China is a police state. The law is selectively enforced, and any protection citizens may have on paper – like the right to an attorney and fair trial – is completely disregarded. It’s not just a violation of international law, but of Chinese law itself.
Apart from the case of the five Hong Kong booksellers, the world has been mainly oblivious to these gross human rights violations in China. Many people in China don’t know what’s going on, either. The People’s Republic of the Disappeared has an urgent message for us all. ∎