China Weaponizes Treatment of Political Prisoners

China Weaponizes Treatment of Political Prisoners

At The Diplomat, Cholpon Orozobekova of the the Bulan Institute for Peace Innovations describes a recent press conference held in Geneva by International Service for Human Rights:

Yaxue Cao, the founder and editor of, said that detentions in China are increasingly arbitrary. “Recent charges against defenders and human rights lawyers are increasingly absurd; and the use of nonlegal methods of detention are increasingly frequent. The international community and UN mechanisms should, therefore, be increasingly alarmed and respond accordingly,” said Yaxue Cao.

Cao also raised the question of security of human rights activists who cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms. “Just to come to Geneva has become very dangerous. Human rights activists are being subject to reprisals for their cooperation with international organizations in Geneva. It is unacceptable and we demand from the UN and international community more active efforts to ensure our security,” said Yaxue Cao. [Source]

A particularly notorious case of retaliation against a would-be participant in international rights monitoring was the death of Cao Shunli after her access to medical treatment was delayed during detention. Even aside from frequently reported overt torture, the health of Chinese political detainees has been a matter of growing concern in light of her fate, as well as that of imprisoned Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died from liver cancer in July. In other cases, the consequences may be less dramatic, but neglect of prisoners’ health is still a serious issue, as Orozobekova goes on to note:

During the press-conference Zhang Qing, wife of the Guo Feixiong joined the discussion remotely to speak about her husband’s health conditions. Guo Feixiong has spent over a decade in detention for his human rights activities. She described the deplorable conditions her husband faced: “They locked my husband more than two years in a very small and confined space, where he hasn’t been able to move around. He hasn’t been allowed outside for exercise, or to see sunlight, and this has done huge damage to his health. It was a deliberate harm and a slow form of torture.”

Zhang told the member governments of the Human Rights Council that they could no longer ignore China’s willful mistreatment of activists in detention. “I express my gratitude to international groups and UN experts who raised the case of my husband at the UN. After international pressure he was transferred to another jail, where he recovered and his health is better now. His sister was allowed recently to visit him in the jail,” she said. [Source]

At ChinaFile this week, Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ Frances Eve wrote that authorities’ approach to prisoners’ health often appears to go beyond mere neglect into active malice:

Chinese law mandates that prisoners and individuals held in detention facilities receive prompt medical care; however, the reality is often far removed from the law. Deliberately depriving prisoners of medical care is a life-threatening form of torture, and appears to be commonly used against political prisoners on China. Many of these cases follow a similar pattern, starting with a decline in health from existing conditions or new injuries emerging due to torture or ill-treatment, denied access to adequate and prompt medical care, and a refusal to approve applications for medical bail or parole. Family members worry that the government will simply let their loved ones die behind bars; the death of China’s most famous political prisoner in police custody only strengthens that fear.

Another pressing case of deprived medical treatment is that of rural women’s rights activist Su Changlan. Su was detained in 2014 after posting social media messages in support of the Occupy Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. Authorities in Guangdong’s Foshan City arrested and charged Su with “inciting subversion of state power,” accusing her of trying to “overthrow the socialist system” with her articles and comments on WeChat. Su suffers from hyperthyroidism, which can be fatal if not treated. In custody, she has suffered from complications from a lack of treatment, including heart arrhythmia, trembling hands, swollen eyes, weight loss, and incontinence. Su told her lawyers in meetings throughout 2015 and 2016 about the poor or non-existent medical care she had been receiving, as well as the poor hygiene and living conditions.

For more than two years, authorities repeatedly denied her lawyers’ applications to secure her release on medical bail. In March 2017, Su was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. Su’s health continued to dangerously deteriorate after her conviction, and she now reportedly suffers from possible kidney failure and is having difficulty speaking. Her husband, who visited her on June 2017—the first time that officials allowed him such a visit—told journalists, “Her health is much, much worse than it was before.” Su’s family fears her life is in danger and she won’t receive better treatment until she is released in October 2017. [Source]

In another case, the prospect of medical parole was reportedly used as a lever to extract a confession from imprisoned journalist Gao Yu. Gao was eventually released, but as she described in a recent series of tweets, she remains subject to heavy surveillance and interference. Read more on restricted access to medical treatment via CDT.

In a recent post at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute: Analysis blog, King’s College London’s Eva Pils described a new and perhaps even more ominous trend than withheld treatment:

[… B]ased on conversations with victims, their supporters and relatives, China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group reports that at least six of the victims have been forced to take medication. They were allegedly given pills ‘prescribed’ for a variety of supposed medical conditions, but the ‘patients’ were not allowed to see their diagnoses. In some cases, the authorities never even bothered to claim that the drugs were prescribed by qualified doctors.

This has been the most deeply unsettling thing I have ever heard Chinese torture survivors describe. That the ‘medication’ had some physiological effects is unsurprising, but hardly captures the damage done. As an interlocutor explained, it made them ‘extremely exhausted’ and it made their heartbeat uneven. Others have described muscle pain and blurred vision as a result of the ‘medication.’ But physical effects were by far not the worst.

‘It made you think you were finished this time. Mentally, it was [the scariest], because you couldn’t know [what you’d been given] and so you thought, for sure they want to kill you. You won’t get out of here alive. It was only in there that I understood what torture was. Whatever we’d been imagining before got nowhere near what it was like.’

Indeed, one of the lawyers ‘released’ in January 2017 had come back from over 500 days of incommunicado detention with signs of serious mental illness earlier this year, and his friends attribute this to his being forcibly drugged. [Source]

The CHRLCG’s statement that "at least six" detainees had suffered such abuse may be extremely conservative. In a recent account of the rights defense movement’s development, prominent rights lawyer Teng Biao wrote that "most [of those detained in the 2015 Black Friday or 709 crackdown] were forced to take unidentified medicines that are mentally and physically harmful."

Activist Wu Gan, who was arrested shortly before the crackdown and finally tried two weeks ago, described his own medical mistreatment in a tribute to Liu Xiaobo translated at ChinaChange in July:

The authorities, in order to make me confess, attempted to make me a media propaganda item, having me say that I’d relinquished my right to hire a lawyer. They used all manner of torture against me. After a year of this, I still hadn’t given in. Suddenly at the end of September 2016, I was unexpectedly and coercively transferred to the Tianjin Public Security Hospital. Of course, it wasn’t because I was so ill that I needed to be hospitalized. What they were planning was to use abusive treatment against me to ruin my body and crush my will, to put me in a high-pressure, terrifying environment, and frighten me into submission. I was kept in a bed and attached to monitoring devices 24 hours a day — including a blood pressure and electrocardiograph machine. Every 30 minutes the blood pressure cuff on my arm would automatically inflate. It woke me up throughout the night. My chest had wires all over it, and I couldn’t turn over in my sleep or get a good night’s rest. Every day they put me on a drip, drew blood, and forced-fed me drugs. But they wouldn’t give me any of the medical reports — another way of trying to inspire terror. I didn’t know why I was in hospital, or what they were treating. But I know my own body. I didn’t have any blood pressure or heart problems.

They even arranged a “Fifty-Center Patient Actor” (五毛病号演员) [i.e. a government agent pretending to be a patient] to be in the ward with me, exhorting me daily to cooperate with the government. When I couldn’t stand it any longer I cursed him out furiously; at that point his shtick was up and they transferred him out. Once I realized that the Tianjin Public Security Hospital was cooperating with the Special Task Group (专案组) assigned to my case to harm me, I began rejecting their fake treatment, which was real persecution. At that point they had no choice but to lock me up again in the Tianjin Municipal No. 2 Detention Center. When my cellmates saw the state I was in after the “treatment,” they were shocked. I was emaciated and pale to the point of frightening them. [Source]


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