Use of House Arrest Expands Dramatically During Xi Era

Chinese police have dramatically increased their use of house arrest during Xi Jinping’s ten years in power according to the new report “Home as Prison: The Increasing use of House Arrest in China” by Safeguard Defenders. Residential Surveillance (RS), the legal term for house arrest, is a form of detention prescribed in China’s Criminal Procedural Law for individuals under investigation, awaiting criminal proceedings, or identified as a threat to national security. Formally, it may last up to six months. Through searching the official Chinese database on verdicts and court decisions, China Judgement Online, Safeguard Defenders identified 270,000 instances of RS since 2013 but estimated that the real number of people subject to legal RS is far higher, between 560,000 to 860,000. The conditions under which people are held vary widely. While some maintain a degree of freedom under RS, others have found their homes turned into veritable prisons with police installing a barred gate accessible only by a fingerprint reader used by guards. In the excerpts below, the report details how the expansion of lawful RS has led to abuses that likely violate the Chinese constitution and international norms governing criminal detentions:

Activist Shen Aibin in Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province, has been placed under RS several times, often during the investigation and while awaiting criminal proceedings. On 3 September 2019, the Liangxi Public Security Branch Bureau decided to put Shen under RS for six months while investigating his case. Shen was accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a vaguely-defined crime used widely against journalists, activists, and lawyers as well as ordinary citizens to limit freedom of speech. Prior to the RS decision, Wuxi City police had summoned him and seized his mobile phone on 2 September. Under RS, Shen was monitored by cameras and guarded 24 hours a day by several people, and he was unable to leave or communicate freely with the outside world without approval of the enforcement authorities. In May 2020, during China’s National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, the Liangxi Public Security Branch Bureau, summoned Shen when he was about to take his train to Beijing and, again, placed him under RS for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. In addition to monitoring Shen by camera, the Liangxi Public Security Branch Bureau set up a guard post at his residence entry so that police officers could be stationed there 24 hours a day.

[…] On 22 July 2019, activist Shi Minglei and her husband Cheng Yuan, co-founder of Changsha Funeng, were both taken by the Changsha City State Security Bureau for ‘subversion of state power”. Shi was hooded, cuffed, and then taken to a local community office to be interrogated untilthe next morning at around 3 AM. On 23 July in the afternoon, Changsha City State Security Bureau finally announced that it was more appropriate to place her under residential surveillance for the needs of the case. Her phone, computer, ID card, passport, and Hong Kong/Macao Travel Permit were seized. Meanwhile, the authority also froze her bank account. She was given a phone that could only make and receive calls or text messages and had a new SIM card to allow the authority to monitor her communications.

[…] Following [Shi Minglei’s complaint to the Changsha City Procuratorate on 3 August against the Changsha City State Security Bureau’s case officers for abuse of power, favouritism, and criminal handling of the case], on 13 August, two police officers from the Changsha City State Security Bureau came to intimidate Shi by showing videos of her husband, Cheng Yuan, begging the police not to harm Shi. On 29 September, Shi was visited by two police officers of the Shenzhen State Security Bureau who warned her of having violated the RS restrictions, adding that the authorities could arrest her anytime if she did not obey. Shi asked one police officer, “I am under residential surveillance because I am accused of subverting state power, so how did I subvert? What did I do to constitute subversion? Where are the facts and evidence?” One police officer replied, “Don’t talk about the law with me. You have touched politics, so don’t talk about the law now.” On 15 January 2020, Shi Minglei was finally released from RS, but her complaint against the Changsha City State Security Bureau was never addressed. [Source]

Beyond the above instances of lawful RS, the true number of unlawful or arbitrary house arrests is impossible to verify. A number of prominent human rights activists and legal practitioners have been held under illegal house arrest. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang was released from prison in 2020 only to be placed under house arrest, a form of “non-release ‘release’” used to silence critics of the state. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo’s widow Liu Xia was held under extralegal house arrest from 2010 until 2018, when she was given permission to leave to Berlin. In 2021, businesswoman Duan Weihong briefly “resurfaced” from house arrest to warn her ex-husband against publishing a memoir on corruption among the CCP elite. At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd and Alicia Chen reported on authorities’ motives behind embracing RS, and interviewed a man who claims to have been living under unlawful house arrest for the past decade :

Chinese human rights lawyer Tang Jingling sees the increased use of house arrests as another piece of the expanding security state that can be turned on activists at any time. “To surmise the purpose, it is to eliminate any kind of civil resistance,” he said. “There is basically no space to challenge authorities once you are confined.”

[…] Xu Wu, a former employee of Wuhan Iron and Steel Corporation who repeatedly sued the company over wage cuts, said in an interview that he has been under house arrest since he was released from a psychiatric hospital over a decade ago, with a dozen security cameras and a group of security officials guarding his sixth-floor apartment.

“I have been living in this small prison since 2011,” he said. “There is no lawful notice saying that I am under house arrest. They still say nobody is watching me.” [Source]

Ascertaining the true number of house arrests is difficult because of the opaque Chinese legal system. Last year, vast troves of judgements published on China Judgements Online were summarily taken down, ostensibly due to “technical reasons.” A researcher tracking the missing judgments, however, found that the removals corresponded to the presence of keywords such as “Twitter,” “Weibo,” “false information,” “national leaders,” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” regardless of the true sensitivity of the case. At The Atlantic, Richard McGregor reported on the history of China excising legal records in an effort to preserve political security, thus creating a culture of “radical secrecy”:

Glenn Tiffert, a historian of modern China at the Hoover Institution, made a remarkable discovery about a decade ago when researching the legal debates in China in the 1950s over issues such as judicial independence and the ascendancy of the law over politics and class. By comparing the original journals in his possession that aired these usually savage debates with their digital editions, Tiffert noticed that scores of articles had been excised from the online records. Any historian fresh to the issue and without access to the scarce hard copies could never have known that China had conducted such debates at all.

The doctoring of the records was designed to buttress the party’s vehement opposition to Western legal concepts. “The more faithful scholars are to this adulterated source base and the sanitized reality it projects, the more they may unwittingly promote the agendas of the censors,” Tiffert wrote. [Source]


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