Beijing-based blogger Woeser reported on her website Invisible Tibet today that she has been confined to her residence by Beijing public security officers who are stationed outside her home. Woeser, an outspoken critic of Chinese government policies in Tibet, has written about a series of recent self-immolations among monks and arrests of writers in western China.
Officials blocked her from receiving an award from the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands, which had been scheduled for today at the home of the Dutch ambassador. Public security officers informed her that her movements would be restricted through mid-March, after the conclusion of the National People's Congress meeting, she said.
Woeser has not been accused of a crime, putting her in the company of many other writers and journalists in China who have been punished through extra-judicial means. CPJ has long recorded the cases of journalists imprisoned in China through traditional methods - often charged with anti-state crimes, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms. A longer list of journalists has experienced "residential surveillance" - one of Chinese authorities' preferred tactics for punishing critics.
Residential surveillance might sound benign. The reality is often anything but. In China, the term "residential surveillance" is a euphemism that can mean anything from a couple of guards posted outside the door of a person's home all the way to outright torture. Surveillance is only a small part of it, and in many cases it doesn't take place in anyone's residence.
Writer Yu Jie recently chose exile in the U.S. over residential surveillance in his beloved home country. In his case, it initially meant four plainclothes policemen installed outside his house, and that his phone and Internet services were cut off. This was how Yu described it in a press statement in Washington, D.C. in January, as translated and posted by Human Rights in China:
We did not know anything that was happening outside. We could not contact our parents or our child. This continued day after day, and we did not know when it would end and felt that it was even worse than being in prison. In prison, you have a specific prison term; you have the right to family visits; and each day you are let out for exercise. But we had basically fallen into an endless black hole, and every day felt like a year. This continued for almost two months.
It also meant that Yu was hustled into the back of a car with a hood over his head, and taken to some location known only to the state security officers who were his captors. He said they beat him, stripped off his clothes, kicked him, and took photos, "saying with glee that they would post the naked photos online." They bent back his fingers, saying that "you've written many articles attacking the Communist Party with these hands, so we want to break your fingers one by one." And he said they told him: "If the order comes from above, we can dig a pit to bury you alive in half an hour, and no one on earth would know."
Residential surveillance can mean disappearing into this kind of secret detention for months at a time, without charge and without communication with the outside world. These forced disappearances have no place in Chinese law. But as Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas Bequelin described in an op-ed in The New York Times yesterday, that may change if draft revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law are implemented:
Under the guise of regulating "residential surveillance," Article 73 of the revised law would effectively legalize secret detentions and "disappearances" of people viewed as political risks by the government. This would legalize a pernicious practice that has recently been used against the artist Ai Weiwei, the lawyer Gao Zhisheng and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Up to now, such abductions have been technically illegal.
Article 73 would allow the police to secretly detain citizens for up to six months on suspicion of "endangering state security" or "terrorism" -- two vague charges that have long been manipulated by the government to crack down on dissidents, human-rights lawyers, civil-society activists and Tibetan and Uighur separatists.
Even more chilling, these secret detentions would be carried out in venues controlled by the police outside of regular detention facilities, greatly increasing the likelihood of ill-treatment.
Chinese human rights advocates and online activists have rightly objected to this proposal. Agence France-Presse reported on Monday that the draft legislation, to be introduced when the National People's Congress convenes next week, has been watered down, but Bequelin told AFP he is skeptical. The final wording won't be clear until the legislation is made public.
Regardless of what is codified into law, it's clear that extra-judicial punishment will remain a risk for China's most critical journalists.