“Human Rights in the Chinese Administration of Justice 2020” and some noteworthy trends

While we’re all busy watching developments in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, it’s also important to keep other major human rights and justice issues on China’s front burner. Some trends are particularly noteworthy in recent years, particularly in 2020.

One is the institutionalization and normalization of human rights violations. What I call “a standard of practice (SOP)” (or serial abuse) has emerged for “sensitive” cases—from the beginning of the investigation to the end of the trial. The most important features are total isolation of the detainee and torture and coerced confessions as well as the secrecy of the entire process. I should also point out that the line between “sensitive cases” and “ordinary cases” was already questionable and fuzzy and is increasingly so, as the space for permissible speech and NGO work shrinks rapidly.

Second is the frustration of China’s pursuit abroad of people it claims to be fugitives, as some countries have begun to refuse China’s requests for extradition or deportation. Yet I worry that, to the extent that formal legal means are not available, Beijing will increasingly resort to its already practiced, illegal surveillance, harassment and coercion of the targets living abroad as well as their families in China (self-justified by China as a new method for “persuading” individuals abroad to return—the so-called “urge return” (quan fan 勸返)).

I highlight these trends in the report on “Human Rights in the Chinese Administration of Justice 2020” (〈2020年司法人權觀察〉), which has now been translated by Siodhbhra Parkin, a public interest advocate who’s long worked on China. You can download the English report here. I’m also pasting below the report’s Conclusion, which highlights the points I mentioned above.

Observations and Conclusions

This past year marked an extremely grave period for human rights in the administration of Chinese justice. Compared with the previous year, more cases involving criminalization of speech were recorded in 2020, especially during the Covid-19 period. Many independent citizen journalists or critics were arrested for speaking out, and in some cases, the punishment was unusually severe in comparison with years past. This demonstrated the further reduction in the space for freedom of speech and expression. In addition, the number of cases regarded as “sensitive” by the Chinese Party-state also increased significantly and expanded beyond the scope of civil and political rights-related cases. The prosecution of staff members of “Changsha Funeng,” a group advocating anti-discrimination and providing assistance to disadvantaged groups, is a useful example of how even NGOs advocating only for economic and social rights were swept up in this trend.

From the beginning of the investigation to the end of the trial, a standard of practice (SOP) has emerged for such “sensitive” cases:

  • First, the public security organs place detainees in “RSDL” (Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location) for up to six months, during which time they are not permitted to meet lawyers and family members are not notified of even the place of detention. In this way, the imprisoned person can be completely isolated from the outside world for an extended period, resulting in feelings of isolation.
  • If the case involves abuse of power, the State Supervisory Commission will implement “retention in custody” (liuzhi), which can also last up to six months, is not subject to supervision, and again, does not permit consultation with lawyers, completely isolating the detainee.
  • Deprive the accused or their family members of the right to select a lawyer and force the use of an “officially appointed lawyer” to act in the case.
  • Inflict torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment on the imprisoned person, such as repeatedly interrogating the imprisoned person and force him or her to plead guilty on official media.
  • Conduct secret trials and do not allow family members to observe legal proceedings and prevent family members from obtaining any information related to the case from the “officially appointed lawyers,” including official legal materials.

These are all common methods that have been observed in cases involving human rights violations in the past few years, which have now become a set of normalized practices.

In the wake of the arrest of two Canadian citizens in China at the end of 2018, who have since been deemed victims of hostage diplomacy, similar cases have since been observed in 2020, and in fact appear to be getting worse; there was a marked deterioration in Sino-Australian relations this year, to the point the Australian government issued an official warning in July 2020 that Australian citizens in China should be aware of a heightened risk for arbitrary arrest by Chinese authorities. Subsequently, in August, Chinese CCTV reporter Cheng Lei, an Australian citizen of Chinese descent, was arrested in Beijing on suspicion of “endangering national security.” Not long after, two Australian journalists were intimidated and interviewed by authorities. Most external observers believe that these events are all related to the worsening of Sino-Australian relations. Similarly, relations across the Taiwanese Strait have also come under strain. Chinese CCTV broadcast the taped confessions of four Taiwanese citizens over the course of a three-day television special, accusing them of espionage. After these incidents, the credibility of the Chinese judicial system in the international arena has been severely damaged. This will in turn hinder China’s plans to pursue individuals and assets that have escaped across its borders.

When China fails in efforts to obtain mutual legal assistance through legal channels, it may resort to illegal ones. In recent years, NGOs have already begun to document instances of Chinese authorities illegally surveilling and coercing targets abroad. For example, in 2020, the United States brought charges against eight people for harassing and threatening certain individuals named in Interpol “Red Notices” who were residing in the United States at the time. If China continues to resort to these illegal methods in order to pursue individuals and recover assets, and is unwilling to systematically improve domestic judicial human rights, then the stage has been set for sharply increased points of conflict with the judicial systems of other countries.

(Featured image credit: Safeguard Defenders)

Posted in: Law