At least six missing in China after crackdown on activists
Missing include human rights lawyers and some are believed to be in detention
Beijing’s offensive against rights lawyers began on July 9th with the detention of Wang Yu, an attorney known for defending politically sensitive clients including five Chinese feminists detained earlier this year. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Nearly two weeks after Beijing launched one of its most comprehensive crackdowns on civil society in decades, at least six people remain missing – believed to have disappeared into the custody of China’s security services.
At least 238 people have now been detained or questioned since the clampdown began, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, which is keeping a tally of the operation’s targets.
The missing – who include a trainee lawyer, a legal assistant and the leader of an underground Christian church – have not been seen since July 10th, after authorities began a major round-up of Chinese human rights lawyers and their associates.
“We just really don’t know [what has happened to them],” said Maya Wang, the China researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Most of the six are likely to have been spirited away into some form of detention where they face the risk of ill treatment and torture, Ms Wang added while others may have gone into hiding to escape such a fate.
Beijing’s offensive against rights lawyers began on July 9th with the detention of Wang Yu, an attorney known for defending politically sensitive clients including five Chinese feminists detained earlier this year.
China’s state-controlled media has rejected claims Beijing is waging a war against civil society.
“Critics should first get the facts right, get to the bottom of the problem before embarrassing themselves in another unavailing episode of finger-pointing,” an editorial by Xinhua, Beijing’s official news agency, argued this week.
The police action was “nothing more than a legitimate law enforcement action, and should not be interpreted as a human rights issue”, Xinhua added.
However, activists, diplomats and academics all describe recent events as one of the most ferocious Communist party assaults on civil rights in memory.
“The scope is unprecedented, not only in terms of who has been taken away, detained [or] disappeared but also in terms of the huge numbers of lawyers who have been taken in for questionings, warnings and intimidation,” said Eva Pils, a China expert from King’s College London.
Keith Hand, an expert in Chinese law from the University of California, said: “Under [president Xi Jinping’s] leadership the party is showing a new determination to seize control of the ideological and political discourse in China and to marginalise any potential threats [to its power].”
“Rights lawyers are one of the few groups in civil society that could put pressure on the regime so I think they are basically trying to take away what little space is left for them.”
Of the scores of people so far affected by the crackdown, 20 are still believed to be under some form of detention, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday. They include the human rights lawyers Sui Muqing and Xie Yang, who are facing charges of “inciting subversion”, which could see them jailed for up to 15 years.
The whereabouts of six of the 20 people thought still to be in custody remain a mystery, activists say. The missing include Zhao Wei, the 24-year-old assistant of Li Heping, a well-known human rights lawyer who was also among those held in the recent wave of detentions.
Zhao Wei’s husband, You Minglei, told the Guardian: “She has been out of contact since she was taken away by police on July 10th.”
Mr You said he believed his wife had been detained by officers from the city of Tianjin but claimed police had provided no information about her location or condition. He said he called police in search of information but was told they did not know anything and had not even heard of his wife.
“I am very angry about the authorities’ handling of this,” he added.
“My wife is just an assistant at the law firm and she hasn’t done anything that violates the law.”
Hu Shigen, a dissident writer and underground church leader who spent more than 16 years in prison after trying to found an opposition political party, has also been missing since July 10th.
Hu Jia, another outspoken activist, said authorities would fail to silence the veteran campaigner by imprisoning him: “For someone who has served 16 years in prison, detention is not likely to be an effective form of persuasion.”
Ms Wang, from Human Rights Watch, claimed the 20 people still believed to be in custody were at serious risk of torture or other forms of mistreatment. Only one had been given access to a lawyer. “In these kinds of conditions it is easy to force confessions out of people,” she said.
Many experts and activists see the Communist party’s decision to launch such a sweeping attack against its perceived foes as a sign of its weakness.
“Isn’t there a profound dread lurking behind this barbarism?” Teng Biao, an exiled rights lawyer, wrote in the Washington Post.
He said the intensifying repression could signal the party was “fragile or paranoid but another interpretation is that it is strong enough that it is not worried about how parties inside or outside of China are going to react”.
He added: “The government and the party seem stronger than ever and more determined than ever to marginalise even moderate alternative voices. They are just going to do what they want to do to eliminate threats.”
China’s ministry of foreign affairs and public security bureau did not respond to requests for information about the six missing people.
Mr Smith stated: “The news that is being reported from China regarding the disappearance of human rights lawyers and their associates is extremely concerning. In the 21st century, it is not acceptable to have a situation where the state deems it acceptable to ‘disappear’ individuals due to their work, in particular, in defending people’s human rights.
“I am shocked and saddened by this turn of events. I speak as someone who has led trade missions to China and who would consider China a friend of Ireland. I am calling on our Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan to request an immediate meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Ireland to raise this matter and outline his deep misgivings about the reports coming from China.”