The Debate

Liu Xiaobo Wasn’t China’s Only Prisoner of Conscience

Recent Features

The Debate

Liu Xiaobo Wasn’t China’s Only Prisoner of Conscience

The best way to honor his memory is to press China to end torture and free other dissidents.

Liu Xiaobo Wasn’t China’s Only Prisoner of Conscience
Credit: Flickr/ EPA/HEIKO JUNGE

Two weeks ago Liu Xiaobo became only the second Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in history to die in custody. Other Nobel Laureates, such as Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, spent many years in detention, but the only other Laureate to die in state custody was Nazi opponent Carl von Ossietzky.

Compounding the cruelty is the fact that Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Liu Xia, has been incommunicado since his death. It is believed she remains in detention. A regime that does not even have mercy on a grieving widow is one that is completely devoid of humanity.

Liu’s death could have been prevented if proper medical treatment was provided at an earlier stage. The refusal to provide it constitutes torture. It is no exaggeration to say that the Chinese regime murdered Liu Xiaobo.

Liu Xiaobo’s death has shaken Chinese dissidents and international human rights advocates profoundly. It exposes the extent of the cruelty of a regime which jails and tortures prisoners of conscience without trial and uses torture and other violence with impunity. If the Chinese regime blatantly ignores appeals from the Nobel Committee and the international community, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and is prepared to see a Nobel Laureate die rather than receive proper medical care, what hope is there for dissidents and activists without such a high profile?

Liu’s death, while a tragedy in itself, shines a spotlight on a far wider crisis for human rights in China. On July 9, 2015, an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, and their relatives and colleagues, began, with over 300 being detained, interrogated or disappeared. While most have now been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, many speak of horrific physical and psychological torture.

The United Nations has long highlighted China’s record of torture. In its fifth review of China’s implementation of the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), ratified by China in 1988, the UN Committee Against Torture concluded that China has failed to implement previous recommendations. The committee highlighted the lack of legal safeguards to prevent torture, the harassment of lawyers, human rights defenders and petitioners, and accountability for abuses, particularly in Tibet.

These grave concerns are illustrated by testimonies of former prisoners and their lawyers and family members.

Wang Qiaoling, the wife of lawyer Li Heping, who was released in May after almost two years in detention, provides a harrowing testimony about her husband’s treatment: “He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured grueling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…” Wang told The Guardian that: “He has changed completely, his appearance, his physical looks… [he is] so different from the husband I remember… I am pretty sure he was treated with great cruelty.”

Li Chunfu, Li Heping’s brother, also a human rights lawyer, was released on “bail” on January 12, 2017. He was then swiftly hospitalized after it emerged that torture had left him physically frail and suffering from symptoms of schizophrenia.

In a letter to world leaders, the families of detained lawyers said: “Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.”

Of course, torture is not a new phenomenon in China, and certainly predates Xi Jinping. Prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng has endured years of torture both before and during his prison sentence. Since 2004, he has been forcibly disappeared, arrested, imprisoned, and tortured on numerous occasions. Yet he has emphasized that he is just one of many suffering under the Communist Party regime.

Under Xi Jinping, however, there has been an unprecedented crackdown on human rights defenders and the space for civil society. The use of “secret prisons” – essentially extra-legal detention facilities – and a measure called residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL), create the perfect conditions for torture and ill-treatment.

RSDL is not the same as house arrest. Under Article 37 of the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), an individual can be held in a “police-designated” location for up to six months; police have to inform their family members of their detention within 24 hours, but they don’t have to tell them where prisoners are being held. RSDL takes the accused off the map: most people detained under this measure have no contact with the outside world and no access to legal representation. For six long months, their families have no idea where they are, what condition they are in, or even whether they are dead or alive. These conditions mean that torture is less likely to be investigated, and much more likely to occur in the first place.

Frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication and prolonged isolation are the norm for prisoners of conscience in China – not only for the lawyers and activists detained in the last two years, but for the people they were trying to defend: practitioners of the banned Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong spiritual movement, unregistered Christians, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans, and any perceived critic of the Communist Party of China. Shocking allegations of forcible removal of vital organs from prisoners of conscience, for sale for transplant, persist.

Zhang Shaojie, a pastor from Henan, is barely alive after enduring various forms of torture. He was sentenced in 2014 to a 12-year term and according to his daughter, Esther Zhang Huixin, he is being intentionally starved of daylight, sleep and food. “They cruelly torture my father,” Esther said. “He’s unable to see the sun during the day. He’s deprived of sleep for 24 hours at a time. The prison gives him only one steamed bun a day and intentionally starves him. According to people who have been released from that prison, my father is barely alive, suffering both mentally and physically.”

Yang Hua, another jailed Christian pastor, was described in March as “on the verge of paralysis” as a result of severe inflammation in his legs. Proper medical treatment has been denied, with only penicillin prescribed.

In 2015, Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died in a Chinese prison after 13 years in detention. Last year Memet Ibrahm, a Uyghur Muslim was jailed for watching an Islamic video on his mobile telephone, died in police custody. Uyghurs in Xinjiang describe a “police state” in which those who study abroad are rounded up upon return, often disappearing into detention.

If a dissident or religious minority leader is not arrested, they are often disappeared. The whereabouts of Wenzhou’s Catholic Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, for example, are unknown, prompting the Vatican to issue a statement of “grave concern.”

Even beyond China’s shores, critics of the regime are not safe. In October 2015, Hong Kong-based bookseller Gui Minhai disappeared from his holiday home in Thailand. Four of his publishing colleagues – Lin Rongji, Lu Bo, Zhang Zhiping, and Lee Bo – disappeared at around the same time, but all returned to Hong Kong last year. Gui, however, remains incommunicado in detention in China.

His daughter Angela Gui, who has spoken about his case at the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, and the British Parliament, says her father’s case is not about one man alone. “This is about China actively extending its control beyond its borders,” she argues. “This is about China kidnapping and illegally detaining more and more people because of their political beliefs. It’s about European citizens no longer being able to know that their human rights will be protected … In what has been called ‘the darkest moment’ for human rights in China in recent years we have to make sure that people like my father are not forgotten. Because to stay silent over what happened to him is to guarantee that it will happen again.”

Democratic nations must unite to condemn China’s rampant use of torture. For too long there has been a tendency among the international community to kowtow to China. The mindset is that China’s economic power is too great, trade too important, and so human rights are sacrificed. Western leaders should listen to UN experts who said in a statement to mark the International Day for the Victims of Torture this year that the prohibition of torture is “absolute” and that torture can never be justified under any circumstances. “Torture destroys lives,” say the UN experts. “Any tolerance or acquiescence concerning such practices, however exceptional and well argued, will inevitably lead down a slippery slope towards complete arbitrariness and brute force, in disgrace for all of humanity.”

The best way to honor Liu Xiaobo is to ensure that the values to which he dedicated – and ultimately sacrificed – his life live on. The international community – or at least those within it who believe in human rights and the rule of law – must draw a line with China. They must stand up and speak out with one voice, to tell Xi Jinping’s regime that if it wants to be respected on the world stage, it must stop torture. China must be told that with global leadership come particular responsibilities. Those include an end to arbitrary detention, forced disappearances and inhumane treatment of prisoners.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and author of the report “The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016.”