Editor’s Note: Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher, civil society consultant and the editor of “The Peoples Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from inside China’s system for enforced disappearances.” The views expressed in this commentary are his.
We know that China often disappears and abuses human rights defenders but when it can disappear even one of its most famous celebrities, the threat of enforced disappearance looms over anyone China claims within its jurisdiction.
Fan Bingbing, one of China’s most famous actresses, known internationally for films such as “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, has not been seen in public since June.
Though the details of her disappearance remain unknown, it seems most likely that Fan Bingbing is now the highest profile victim of China’s newest system for enforced disappearances, known as liuzhi, under the powerful National Supervision Commission (NSC) established by the Chinese Communist Party in early 2018.
In November 2017, in response to a CNN request for comment on the country’s justice system, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded China was a country “with a rule of law.”
“Chinese judicial authorities fully guarantee all legal rights of criminal suspects when handling their cases. We hope foreign media outlets based in China respect China’s judicial sovereignty, respect facts, and cover the news objectively and fairly,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at the time.
No one is safe
Fan Bingbing had been at the heart of an unfolding tax scandal since May when former state media CCTV presenter Cui Yongyuan accused her of large-scale tax evasion.
Following the corruption allegations, the State Administration of Taxation opened an investigation and, as is becoming increasingly common in China, not long after she stopped appearing in public.
No official word has been given about her disappearance yet, nor have any charges been announced by Chinese authorities.
Her disappearance, should be seen within the broader context of the ever-expanding use of enforced disappearances under Xi Jinping, and the newly-formed National Supervision Commission.
In another emblematic case, journalist Chen Jieren was disappeared for actually alleging corruption.
In July, he published two articles on his personal blog claiming corruption by Hunan party officials. A few days later, Chen, his wife and two brothers were taken away – when his lawyer tried to visit him he was informed that Chen was being held by the National Supervision Commission and had no right to legal counsel.
Following a month in secret detention, in mid-August state media published his forced confession, while he remained incommunicado. Chinese state media attacked Chen as an “internet pest.”
Although it may be unlikely for such high-profile cases as Fan Bingbing, once disappeared the risk of abuse and torture for those in custody is high.
Chen Yong was a former driver for a local Fujian party official, Lin Qiang, who himself was under investigation for corruption by the NSC. Chen first disappeared from his home in early April.
After nearly a month without contact, his family was summoned with the news that Chen was dead, according to RSDL Monitor. The authorities claimed that the healthy 45-year-old had simply collapsed during interrogation.
His wife’s request to view the interrogation video was refused. Chen’s was the first apparent death inside liuzhi.
Enforced disappearances expanded
In my book “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared” I argued that through the 2013 Criminal Procedure Law China has tried to create a legal basis for secret detentions.
Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) allows the police to detain someone in secret for upwards of six months, mainly for so-called national security crimes.
But, while it has been used widely against human rights defenders, the law itself has a limited target group.
In early 2018, China created the National Supervision Commission, ostensibly focused on investigating corruption with liuzhi, its own custodial control mechanism, which provides the state with similar powers to disappear suspects but on an expanded scale.
The NSC is a broader version of the anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), which was responsible for the highly-secretive Shuanggui system and was known for serious human rights abuses as outlined in a 2016 report by Human Rights Watch.
The CCDI handled some 734,000 investigations in 2016, and now under the NSC, with its expanded scope, disappearances and other abuses are likely to increase.
Under the new laws, these sweeping anti-corruption bodies have jurisdiction not only over China’s roughly 90 million Communist Party members, but also over a potentially unlimited target group including nearly any government staff, managers at state-owned enterprises, and really anyone if they are deemed relevant to a case of Party concern.
The crimes might include, as with Fan Bingbing, large scale tax evasion or tragically, as with Chen Yong, if you are only wanted in relation to another investigation.
According to Liu Jianchao, head of the Zhejiang supervision commission, those swept up into Liuzhi are typically kept for 42.5 days before being transferred. Although someone can be kept for up to six months, a lot can happen in forty plus days of disappearance.
The creation of the NSC and Liuzhi is another clear example of China’s flagrant disregard for international human rights protections, and part of Xi Jinping’s attempt to systematize gross human rights abuses, from enforced disappearance to torture, behind the veneer of the rule of law.
This should concern everyone.
That China feels so emboldened to disappear even one of its most famous actresses, likely within the Liuzhi system, should be a real wake up call that anyone within China could be next, and as I have argued elsewhere this doesn’t stop with Chinese citizens.