China’s Secret Detention Law Meant to Frighten Citizenry, Critics Contend

March 16, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015

A controversial revision to China’s criminal procedure law was pushed through despite fierce resistance from the public, and it was done in the most public forum possible–deliberately to create an atmosphere of fear, critics say. 

The National People’s Congress passed the the revision on the morning of March 14. Since its proposal for public consultation last September, it has been criticized heavily, including by organizations close to officialdom. 

The law’s key provision is its article 73, which has been termed “sinister provision 73” by netizens and more broadly the “secret detention law.” 

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It legalizes the ability for authorities to not inform family members of those detained if the case relates to “national security,” something that is often interpreted very expansively in China.

He Qinglian, a well-known economist and author, called the provision “chilling” and “terrifying.” She said the law “Reverses white and black, is a miscarriage of justice, will facilitate torture during interrogation, and lead to innocent deaths. Living in a country like this makes one grieved.” In a longer post, translated by a volunteer, she characterized the law as a “Sword of Damocles hanging above the heads of the Chinese people.” 

Elsewhere she noted that the law may have been passed in the most public way–at the “two meetings” in Beijing, rather than during a standing committee session of the National People’s Congress–precisely to “create an atmosphere of fear.”

A vote taken online indicated that of 1306 participants, only 8 indicated support for the proposal. 

Human Rights Watch has called for Party authorities to abolish the provision. 

The idea that people can be arbitrarily disappeared has also become the butt of jokes. One meme online suggests revising the way a marriage is proposed, with the male asking: “Are you willing to become the one who is not notified when I’m disappeared?” 

Others compared the legalization of secret detention to the use of police forces in Eastern Germany, or to the KGB–the secret police of the Soviet Union.

An associate professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, Xiao Han, had his Weibo account closed down on March 13 after railing against the law for several days. 

A lawyer from Shandong said he felt a creeping sense of “the Cultural Revolution era: secret arrests, forced disappearances, the Chinese resurrection of fascist practices that have been spurned around the world.” 

Communist Party authorities appeared undeterred by the fierce resistance. The day after the controversial law passed, Legal Daily, a quasi-official publication, was reporting on “study and training classes” for how the law should be implemented. “Every procuratorial organ will earnestly study the importance of the revised Criminal Procedure Law.” The note continued: “Every single person will be trained, and every single person will be tested.”