On Oct. 6, Chinese and Burmese police raided a hotel in a border town, abducting the teenage son of well known rights activists and his two traveling companions. Now, Bao Zhuoxuan is under house arrest in his grandmother’s home in Inner Mongolia, being held as a hostage while his parents languish in custody awaiting trial.
The incident has attracted intense international focus, given that the boy is guilty of nothing other than being the son of two activists targeted by the Communist Party.
The episode has also shone a light on the technique of “collective punishment” in modern-day China. The persecution of family members has become a well-wrought weapon in the Party’s arsenal against Chinese who defy its rule. Its history traces back to ancient times, though it was dusted off by the communists before they took power, then rapidly expanded until enjoying a dark renaissance over the last decade.
Dark Practice Becomes Norm
Before it took power, the Party was known to bury entire families alive if they were seen to commit a crime against the revolution, according to histories of the 1930s and 1940s.
After seizing China in 1949, the Party made collective punishment almost the norm. So-called landlords were often eliminated in this way in the late 1950s, as were the children of intellectuals, who were forcibly removed from their families and banished to the fields to perform hard labor.
Not even the loved ones of Communist Party cadres were spared during the Cultural Revolution. After Xi Zhongxun, a leading revolutionary, was purged, his teenage son Xi Jinping was made to work as an agricultural worker in the northwestern province of Shaanxi.
Today, Chinese state media use Xi’s six years as a “sent-down youth” to cultivate the current Communist Party leader’s image as a people’s man, seemingly without a trace of irony that it was punishment for his father’s identity.
The Party “inherited the Legalist practice” of collective punishment, said Zhang Tianliang, the host of a popular series exploring pre-imperial China, which was aired on New Tang Dynasty Television.
From the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.), entire families of a criminal found guilty of a capital offense would be executed along with him. Collective punishment remained on the law books until 1905, when reformers in the Qing Dynasty ended the practice to assist China’s integration into international norms.
But the Party took “collective punishment, a dark practice in ancient times, and ferociously expanded it,” Zhang told Epoch Times over the telephone.
“Now even office colleagues can be implicated.”
The treatment of human rights lawyers in a massive crackdown that began in July bears many similarities to the Cultural Revolution era, said Teng Biao, a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, in a telephone interview with Epoch Times.
The communist regime has targeted human rights lawyers because their representation of the marginalized in Chinese society—activists, dissidents, persecuted religious groups—is seen as a challenge to the Party’s absolute rule. The recent crackdown has seen over 290 lawyers questioned or detained, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
To “intimidate and punish” rights lawyers, the Chinese regime has resorted to various methods—kidnapping, house arrest, jail sentence—and “will extend these methods to their family members,” Teng said.
The persecution of human rights lawyer Wang Yu and her family is representative: On July 9, police broke into her Beijing home and took her away. Her husband and son, Bao Longjun and Bao Zhuoxuan, were stopped at the Beijing airport, where the younger Bao was supposed to board a plane for high school in Australia.
Wang Yu and Bao Longjun are presently held in detention and incommunicado. Bao Zhuoxuan’s passport has been confiscated.
The Party has punished lawyers and their families more severely.
Gao Zhisheng, a rights lawyer once hailed as “China’s conscience,” was badly persecuted for defending practitioners of the persecuted spiritual discipline Falun Gong, and sending two open letters to then Party leader Hu Jintao.
Swarms of plainclothes policemen first started a 24-hour surveillance of Gao, his wife, and two children. Fearing for the well being of her children, Geng He, Gao’s wife, took her children and fled to New York in 2009. Gao’s family now resides in the San Francisco Bay area.
Between 2006 and 2014, Gao Zhisheng spent most of his time in jail, where he was mercilessly abused. In a video released this September, Gao showed his missing teeth and described a particularly vicious beating that left his torturers exhausted. Gao is currently under a form of house arrest in the northwest China province of Shaanxi.
‘Extreme Mental Trauma’
The harsh treatment of Gao Zhisheng, Wang Yu, and other rights lawyers exposes the extent to which collective punishment has expanded under communist rule—these lawyers have provided legal assistance to Falun Gong practitioners, one of the most severely persecuted groups in China today.
And collective punishment has been used liberally and heavily in the persecution of that group. When the over 70 million Falun Gong practitioners in China, according to official estimates, were subjected to a Cultural Revolution-style suppression on July 20, 1999, the use of family was key.
Family members were marked by the Communist Party for punishment, but also enlisted in the Party’s campaign to effect the “transformation” of Falun Gong practitioners. This meant they had to renounce the traditional Chinese self-cultivation practice, which consists of five sets of slow exercises and an adherence to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, while pledging allegiance to the Communist Party.
The case of Shen Long is instructive. The son of Falun Gong practitioners, recently submitted an account of his family’s sufferings to Minghui.org, a clearinghouse for Falun Gong information.
Shen, a 27-year-old dentist from the northern Chinese city of Guchen, wrote that police had tightly monitored his home since 1999, and brought “extreme mental and psychological trauma to my family, especially my grandfather and grandmother.”
In 2010, Shen was brutally beaten by police at a local station after he tried to recover his personal items and his mother’s Falun Gong books, which were confiscated in a raid on his house.
The police later asked Shen if he practiced Falun Gong, and beat him again when he truthfully said no.
Frank Fang contributed to this report.