In China, a state of denial on detentions, abuse

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Jiang Yu, today denied having heard of Sydney-based Chinese author and blogger Yang Hengjun, according to The Associated Press. We reported yesterday that Yang was missing, presumed to be the latest high-profile writer to fall victim to the government’s aggressive roundup of critics who might respond to online calls for a Chinese “Jasmine revolution.” Concern for Yang deepened today, after reports emerged that he had called his sister in Guangzhou to say he had been detained. “Having a long chat with old friends” was the pre-arranged phrase they used, AP reported. 

Jiang Yu’s denial was odd, because international news reports said Yang used to work for the Foreign Ministry himself before retiring to work as a spy novelist and political commentator. But it was not the only important human rights violation the government has denied recently.

Jiang was also asked today to comment on the calls by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to release Chinese lawyer Gao Zhisheng, according to international news reports. Gao represented several imprisoned journalists before he was himself given a suspended prison sentence for inciting subversion against the state in 2006, according to CPJ research. He disappeared for more than a year beginning in February 2009, reappearing briefly in March 2010 to say that he had been held incommunicado without charge, only to vanish yet again, according to an account by his wife, He Gang, in The New York Times on Sunday. He Gang recounts her husband’s treatment at the hands of Chinese police:

In 2007, officials subjected him to electric shocks, held lighted cigarettes up to his eyes and pierced his genitals with toothpicks. In 2009, the police beat him with handguns for two days. He has been tied up and forced to sit motionless for hours, threatened with death and told that our children were having nervous breakdowns. 

Jiang said she did not know the “specifics” of Gao’s situation, the reports said. The Working Group cited violations of Chinese as well as international law in his continued detention and abuse in custody, according to international news reports. “We attach importance to cooperation with the U.N. human rights’ monitoring mechanism and urge the mechanism to respect China’s judicial sovereignty,” Jiang Yu told journalists today, according to Agence France-Presse. “China is a country under the rule of law.”

China’s Foreign Ministry recently denied foreign journalists had been beaten and detained last month near the sites of the planned “Jasmine” protests, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, including video footage. “There is no such issue,” Yang Jiechi, China’s minister of foreign affairs, he said, when asked about the beatings. “China is a country under the rule of law. It abides by the law,” Yang said, according to the state news agency Xinhua.

“The law is not a shield” for foreign journalists to hide behind, Jiang Yu was quoted as saying in a Wall Street Journal commentary by the Dui Hua Foundation’s Joshua Rosenzweig.

Using flat denials and evoking “Chinese law” to deflect international criticism from the Chinese government is not a new tactic. But China’s legal system does not allow for detentions without charge, any more than it does for attacks on the foreign press corps. The Foreign Ministry’s refusal to acknowledge that the country’s laws are being violated, made in terms that sanctify those laws, is hypocritical. Those whom the law should protect, including writers and journalists like Yang Hengjun, and those who could enforce that law, like Gao Zhisheng, are being punished. It is government officials, and not journalists, who are using the law to shield their oppressive actions from view.