Ever since Xi Jinping consolidated his power, China’s already flawed and fragile criminal justice system deteriorated significantly. Not only have new extra and outright illegal methods of detention and investigation been installed, but existing due process requirements and legal safeguards have been further hollowed out.
Safeguard Defenders has been at the forefront with a series of reports exposing such developments and their impact on criminal defendants and political targets in China. The myriad of developments, however haphazard they may appear, are all part of the same strategy: strengthening political control over society and allow the current ruling clique of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to hold onto power. Nowhere is this clearer than with “FoxHunt” and “SkyNet,” two different but related campaigns ostensibly designed to “combat corruption and government malpractice” which extend outside of China’s own borders.
Since this process of further deterioration started, the use of the extra-legal system for incommunicado detention—Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL)—has exploded. According to brand new data submitted as evidence to ten U.N. Special Procedures by Safeguard Defenders, the use of RSDL has increased by roughly 190 percent between 2019 and 2020, to around 13,000—and possibly far more—cases. For those “lucky” enough to be arrested—and therefore technically afforded certain legal safeguards, a group of around 150 criminal defense lawyers report a severe deterioration of their ability to actually meet clients before trial. As exposed in a recent report, “China’s Vanishing Suspects,” police have also begun placing targets into pre-trial detention under false names, effectively disappearing them even within the formal criminal justice process, sometimes for years, as in the case of lawyer Wang Quanzhang, famed for defending Falun Gong adherents despite the heavy cost on himself. As the forthcoming report, “China’s Legal Blockade,” will show, those that do have access to legal counsel are often forced to accept state-appointed representatives against their will.
But it gets worse. Once arrested, it is a given that they will be brought to trial and be convicted: as the report entitled “Presumed Guilty” showed, in 2020 only 2.54 percent of those arrested had their cases dropped before trial as the prosecutor deemed the evidence to be insufficient, and at the trial itself, conviction rates as of 2019 stood at over 99.96 percent. That’s about 600 non-guilty verdicts, among 1.7 million verdicts.
And for some, it never truly ends. Another report, “China’s False Freedom,” documented how upon release from prison those deemed “sensitive” are placed into what has been called ‘Non-release release’: kept under house arrest, sometimes at secret locations, for weeks to months, and in rare cases even years.
Exactly as RSDL developed from an exception first used only against a small number of often politically sensitive cases into a measure widely adopted by local police and as local detention centers increasingly block access to clients for lawyers, what begins as “exceptions” targeting dissidents soon spreads to the wider legal system and wider population. The crown jewel in the CCP’s expansion of power and hollowing out the legal system is the establishment of the National Supervision Commission (NSC) and its extensive use of its own extra-legal secret detention system “Liuzhi,” similar to RSDL but not even part of the judicial system at all. New data released by Safeguard Defenders shows a continued expansion of this system by nearly 16 percent between 2019 and 2020, and the number of estimated victims for 2020 (17,000) is likely significantly lower than the real number.
It is against the backdrop of the deteriorating criminal justice system—needed to strengthen the CCP’s hold on power—that China is both seeking rapid expansion of its global reach via “judicial cooperation” and, at the same time—in yet another move to hollow out the judicial system—moving much of the responsibility of such international cooperation to this Party-controlled non-judicial body: the National Supervision Commission that operates entirely outside the bounds of Chinese criminal law.
Because these many interconnected developments stand as the basis for the CCP’s aspirations to extend its power beyond its own borders, especially but not limited to Chinese nationals, time has come for foreign governments to stop blindly entering into “judicial cooperation” agreements with China without due analysis as to both the consequences of such cooperation, but also about the true motive as to why the CCP, via the NSC, is seeking them in the first place.
It may be too late to reverse the deterioration of legal safeguards in China or to stop the CCP’s continued expansion of state-sanctioned disappearances, but entering or not entering into cooperation with the regime, and the NSC in particular, will be key to stopping those powers from extending beyond China’s own borders, and to ensure that China’s behavior is not replicated by other non-democratic countries, thus pushing the international norms for the rule of law to the brink.
Peter Dahlin is the founder of the NGO Safeguard Defenders and the co-founder of the Beijing-based Chinese NGO China Action (2007–2016). He is the author of “Trial By Media,” and contributor to The People’s Republic of the Disappeared. He lived in Beijing from 2007, until detained and placed in a secret jail in 2016, subsequently deported and banned. Prior to living in China, he worked for the Swedish government with gender equality issues, and now lives in Madrid, Spain.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.