China is mulling changes to its residential surveillance laws that would effectively allow the detention of dissidents in secret locations.
Quoting an article in the official Legal Daily, AFP said police ‘would need permission from a prosecutor or public security agency to detain people in a “specified location” in such cases when they believe holding them at home could “obstruct the investigation.”’ However, the planned changes wouldn’t require the police to contact family members of suspects involved in national security, terrorism or major corruption cases ‘if it could hinder their inquiries.’
‘If this proposal does come into law it would essentially legitimise the enforced disappearances that we have been seeing more and more of over the past year or so,’ said Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kong-based manager of rights group Dui Hua.
I asked Kelley Currie, a senior fellow and China specialist at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington for her take on the plan. She said that the law, although technically a tightening of the rules, in reality is simply window dressing for something that already goes on.
'They already do this, even though the law doesn't really allow it. So this would just have the effect of bringing this essentially lawless behaviour, that is contrary to basic universal human rights standards, under Chinese law and creating a legal framework for repression,' she told me. 'This is the way they are increasingly operating: codifying and "legalizing" something that goes against international norms and basic human rights, but which is perfectly consistent with an authoritarian political system they have been operating under. Then they can use these repressive means against people, all the while saying that it is being done "according to law."'
The move marks another step in what has been an intensified crackdown on dissent in China, a crackdown that has included the roundup of rights activists and lawyers, as well as heavy security presences at potential flashpoints. Earlier this year, for example, police and plain clothes security officials flooded Beijing’s popular Wangfujing shopping street after calls on the Boxun website for a Jasmine revolution in China.
Those early calls quickly died out, but ongoing developments in the Arab world, including the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, will have the Chinese authorities keeping a cautious eye out for the potential spread of unrest to China.
Indeed, as James Fallows notes in The Atlantic, the crackdown has been ruthlessly efficient. ‘(I)n February, a large number of the country’s human rights and public interest lawyers (yes, they exist) were arrested or detained, or were disappeared, in the style of Pinochet’s Chile. Once they were gone, people they might have represented and defended – writers, professors, bloggers, activists of many sorts – were arrested or made to disappear too.’
Undoubtedly the highest profile of these was activist artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained on April 3 at Beijing Airport as he was about to board a plane for Hong Kong. Mystery surrounded Ai’s detention, which the authorities said was over tax evasion, but which is more likely to have owed something to Ai’s outspoken criticism of the authorities over rights issues.
Among the conditions of Ai’s release on June 22 were that he wouldn’t speak to the foreign media and wouldn’t use social networking sites. Within six weeks he had broken the latter agreement, signing up for a Google+ account, before taking to Twitter again. And now he has penned a scathing piece for Newsweek in which he likens Beijing to a prison, and the poor that arrive there every day looking for work its resident ‘slaves.’
‘Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves,’ he writes. ‘They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts – and the restaurants and karaoke parlours and saunas are very rich as a result.’
I also asked Currie for her take on Ai’s opinion piece, and the inherent danger in his decision to write it.
‘I thought it was incredibly brave but also very sad,’ she told me. ‘His social criticism comes from the vantage point of a truly avant-garde artist – someone who lives outside the mainstream of any bourgeois or conventional society – and so probably doesn’t register with most people in China or out. But it does speak to those who are alienated by society and the aspirations that seem to drive most people.’
Currie also takes up a point raised by Fallows, who suggests that ‘the hair-trigger defensiveness of the government’s response resembles that of a tottering Arab Spring regime.’
‘The authorities know that there are growing numbers of people – especially young people – who feel alienated from Chinese society and that they can potentially relate to Ai’s message,’ Currie says. ‘I think this is why he makes them so nervous, combined with the fact that they don't understand him, his art or his political views at all and can't possibly due to their severe irony deficiency.’
‘He’s definitely taking a risk by speaking out, but I don't think he can stop himself from doing it. He’s an artist and a social critic, and doing both of those things is how he lives his life – it is like breathing to him. If he were to stop doing either or both, he would stop living in a sense.’