Swedish bookseller’s disappearance in China is just the tip of the iceberg

Published 26 January 2018 at CNN, here.

On Saturday, Chinese security forces abducted Swedish publisher Gui Minhai from a Beijing-bound train in front of two diplomats. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Imagine, to be disappeared even under the protection of your own consular officials.

In a firmly worded statement on Tuesday, Margot Wallström, Sweden’s foreign minister, demanded Gui’s release, for the first time.

But this wasn’t the first time, or even the second, that Gui has disappeared in this manner.

In October 2015, he vanished from his vacation home in Thailand only to reappear three months later making a staged confession on state TV. Two years later, Gui was supposedly released, but details of his whereabouts remained murky and he wasn’t able to leave China.

Nor is Gui the first foreign citizen to be disappeared by China in this manner. His fellow Hong Kong based publisher, British citizen Lee Bo, vanished in 2015.

In January 2016, another Swede, and my former co-worker, Peter Dahlin, also disappeared, while in March last year Taiwanese democracy activist Lee Ming-che was kidnapped at the Macau-Zhuhai border.

All were later forced to make some sort of televised confession.

Enforced disappearances

While the abduction of foreign citizens by Chinese security agents rightly draws international condemnation, these are not isolated cases but just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

As I argue in “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared,” since 2013 China has taken steps to systematize and formalize a previously extrajudicial system of enforced disappearances, hiding them behind the veneer of law.

Enforced disappearances are when agents of the state grab someone and refuse to acknowledge they are holding them, or conceal their fate or whereabouts.

This can begin with either a legal or illegal detention, and there is no minimum time limit. The risk of abuse and torture is high. It’s a gross violation of human rights and an international crime that under certain circumstances may amount to a crime against humanity, when it is widespread or systematic.

Under international law there are no exceptions that permit for enforced disappearances, and yet this is exactly what China has attempted to legislate.

In 2012, China introduced “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) into the Criminal Procedural Law for cases involving endangering national security, terrorism, or serious bribery.

Under RSDL, if police claim national security exceptions, they may hold the suspect, without notifying anyone, in a secret location for up to six months, denied access to a lawyer or family members. The police may even refuse oversight by the state prosecutor.

Since 2016, we have begun seeing even local police using RSDL to disappear suspects for more minor crimes, well beyond the already vague scope of the law.

Gui Minhai, Peter Dahlin, and hundreds more, were all disappeared under RSDL.

Constitutional changes

Last week, China’s rulers took a step towards further expanding their power to detain their opponents at will, paving the way for a rare change to the country’s constitution later this year.

One proposed change will be to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought” in the constitution, stoking already growing fears about the Chinese President’s far-reaching powers, but another has received far less attention.

A new National Supervision Commission, built into the constitution, will allow suspects to be held in secret for up to six months, without access to lawyers or contact with family members. Sound familiar?

Enforced disappearances have been central to Xi’s crackdown on civil society, now he will be able to enshrine them within China’s nominally supreme law, alongside his governing philosophy, influencing China for decades to come.

If the international community doesn’t condemn such measures and take what action it can to stop them now, there’s no telling how far China’s enforced disappearances will spread.

As we’ve already seen, they’re not limited to those with Chinese passports.