By Eryk Bagshaw
October 15, 2023
The same day that detained Australian journalist Cheng Lei returned to Australia this week after a three-year ordeal in a Chinese jail, the United States condemned Beijing for its arrest of another target.
Human rights lawyer Lu Siwei had represented one of 12 Hong Kong activists who had protested against national security laws imposed by Beijing in 2019.
Chinese rights lawyer Lu Siwei in Laos before he was detained and sent back to China.
The outspoken human rights advocate had long been a person of interest to Chinese authorities. Lu had his licence to act as an attorney revoked in 2021. Then he had a camera installed on the front door of his home in China and was put under round-the-clock surveillance.
In July, he managed to evade state security and make his way through the Laotian border on his way to Thailand in an attempt to join his family in the US. But that is where his months-long escape attempt ended.
Laotian authorities, who are increasingly co-operating with a Chinese government that is pouring billions of dollars in infrastructure investment into the country, caught up with Lu and forcibly repatriated him to Beijing.
They charged him with illegally crossing the border. “This is the result of 65 days of waiting, suffering and grief,” said Lu’s wife, Zhang Chunxiao.
Zhang told human rights groups she now fears he will be sent to prison in China and “probably tortured”.
It is likely that Lu is already under what is known in China as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location”, or commonly called RSDL. The bureaucratic acronym masks an ominous reality.
For former news anchor Cheng, her time in RSDL marked the darkest months of her life. Some detainees are tortured. Others are isolated and denied basic legal representation. Most are kept in rooms with no natural sun and bright fluorescent lights beating down on them 24 hours a day.
The RSDL is the Chinese legal system at its most brutal.
The RSDL law was introduced in 2012, the year Xi Jinping was appointed General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. It allows Chinese police to hold a suspect incommunicado for up to six months. For national security cases, there is no obligation to tell the suspect’s family where they are or what is happening to them.
They are disappeared.
“The law is actually a very convenient tool for Chinese authorities to target anyone,” says Chongyi Feng, a Chinese political expert at the University of Technology, Sydney, who was detained by Chinese state security in 2017. “It’s a form of psychological torture.”
In Cheng’s case, it took weeks for the Australian government and her family to find out where she was. For Chinese authorities, this time is critical to extracting a confession that will speed any case through a criminal justice system that must maintain a conviction rate of 99 per cent.
In August 2018, a UN report warned that “the system may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or even torture”.
Research by numerous human rights organisations including Safeguard Defenders found victim testimonies point to a pattern of torture in the form of solitary confinement and oppressive interrogations with the aim of extracting confessions.
In 2021, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs warned that conditions in RSDL facilities can be more severe than in “black jails”, off-the-grid detention facilities in China where hardened criminals are interrogated. “Sources report that police are under pressure to obtain confessions prior to trial to ensure success in police investigation,” the department said.
The global condemnation has had little impact. China’s use of the RSDL system is more prolific than ever. Analysis of China’s official court records reveals that the number of people held under RSDL increased from up to 680 in 2013 to a maximum of 15,120 in 2020, including Cheng and the Australian pro-democracy writer Yang Hengjun. “I’m not guilty, but they treat me like dirt here, and they tortured me,” Yang said in a message last year.
Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun.
The Chinese government staunchly defends its legal system and the treatment of its prisoners. “I would like to stress that China’s judicial authorities tried the case and delivered the sentence in accordance with the law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday of Yang’s case. “The rights of the individual concerned under the law were fully protected, and Australia’s consular rights, including the right to visit and the right to be notified, were respected and implemented.”
In theory, suspects can be held for six months in RSDL, but this can also be extended on national security grounds. Once they are out of RSDL they are formally arrested and transferred to a jail, where conditions are often better than their first months in detention but the wait for an outcome is much longer.
Charges can take more than 13 months to be laid. Cheng’s charges took seven months, then another year for her trial and another 19 months for her verdict. All of it was done largely in secret. Monthly consular visits from Australian embassy officials were her only real contact with the outside world.
Her only consolation was memories of home. “I wrapped myself in the doona and pretended I was being hugged by family under the sun,” she said in a letter in August.
Cheng was one of at least 55 Australians who are being held in Chinese jails. Alleged crimes range from drug dealing to national security. There are hundreds more from Japan, the US and Europe.
Increasingly, Beijing is targeting not just journalists and human rights groups but also business executives who have found themselves suddenly put on exit bans as the Chinese government implements sweeping anti-espionage laws.
Earlier this year, Chinese authorities raided the offices of US due-diligence firm Mintz and consulting firm Capvision. They also questioned the staff of consultant Bain. In March, a Japanese employee of multinational pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma was detained in Beijing on suspicion of espionage.
The cumulative effect has been chilling. Tammy Krings, chief executive of ATG Travel Worldwide told The Wall Street Journal last week that she had seen a 25 per cent increase in cancellations or delays of business trips to China by US companies in recent weeks.
Australian business leaders hailed Cheng’s release on Tuesday, but they acknowledge it will be difficult to operate as freely as they once did in China. David Olsson, president of the Australia-China Business Council, who knew Cheng in Beijing, said it was fantastic to see the 48-year-old mother-of-two from Melbourne released. “It’s just amazing news for many of us,” he says.
But Olsson says the detentions, inspections, COVID-19 and trade disputes have changed the way Australia will do business with China.
“I think everybody realises that we’re not going to revert back to the same sort of business relationship that we had with China a number of years ago,” he says.
“China remains a compelling business proposition for the medium to longer term, but the reality is that Australian business executives are conscious that the operating environment has changed. They know they have to do their due diligence. That’s just part and parcel of understanding what’s happening.”
Olsson has travelled to China several times since COVID-19 and now sees more optimism in the relationship than at any time in the past few years. But he says business anxiety has also been fuelled by many employees not being able to enter the country for an extended period.
“Business decisions have to be based on a solid understanding of the environment. A lot of the concerns have been around the fact that people just haven’t been there for a long time,” he says.
“Concerns are fuelled by reports people are reading in the newspapers without having had the opportunity to test those propositions at a practical level with their executives on the ground.”
Getting those reports out of China has become more difficult for the world’s media. When Cheng was first arrested in 2020, she became the highest-profile journalist arrested under China’s national security laws. It shattered the presumption that foreign journalists were immune from being jailed by Chinese authorities. Most organisations believed they would just be kicked out.
Cheng suddenly became a diplomatic pawn in a much wider dispute between Australia and China over human rights and national security. Her case was unique because she was born in China before moving to Australia as a 10-year-old, and later worked for Chinese state media.
In many ways, she was the perfect target for a Chinese government looking for leverage in an increasingly bitter geopolitical environment. The arrest was enough for the Australian government to tell The Australian Financial Review and the ABC to pull the last two Australian correspondents working for Australian media out of China. This masthead had its visa application blocked in the same week.
Chinese authorities did not wait for AFR reporter Mike Smith and ABC reporter Bill Birtles to get out of the country. They put exit bans on the pair due to their limited interactions with Cheng, forcing them to take shelter in the embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai while triggering 11th-hour negotiations to get them out of the country. They were eventually allowed to leave, but no Australian media has been able to permanently return since.
On Thursday, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said Australian journalists should be allowed back into the country. “The FCCC hopes that with Cheng’s release and improving ties between Beijing and Canberra, the Chinese authorities will also expedite the granting of visas to Australian media to resume reporting on China,” it said.
But the threat of extrajudicial detention remains. The former president of the Japan-China Youth Exchange Association Hideji Suzuki was taken into custody in 2016, accused of spying. He spent six years in the Chinese detention system, including seven months in RSDL in a room with a covered window, without being formally arrested. “I only saw the sun for about 15 minutes,” he told the Mainichi Shimbun of his time in RSDL. “It was really tough.”