3 Chinese Rights Activists Vanish, Apparently in State Crackdown

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Originally published by The New York Times on November 30, 2016

HONG KONG — Three prominent Chinese rights activists appear to have been detained in recent weeks by the police, part of a continuing crackdown on groups operating outside the umbrella of the state, advocacy groups say.

The men, Jiang Tianyong, Huang Qi and Liu Feiyue, disappeared within days of each other in November, each in a different province. The police have charged only Mr. Liu with an offense. Rights groups say he was detained Nov. 17 or 18 in the central province of Hubei on suspicion of subverting state power, which can carry a sentence of life in prison.

Mr. Jiang, a disbarred lawyer who had famous clients, including the rights defender Chen Guangcheng, was last heard from on Nov. 21 when he was about to board a Beijing-bound train in Changsha, the capital of the south-central province of Hunan. His wife, Jin Bianling, who lives in California, said by telephone that he had not been heard from since.

“I hope the government could at least tell us, his family, where he is and what crimes he has committed,” Ms. Jin said. “At least we should know his whereabouts.”

Mr. Huang, who, like Mr. Liu, headed a legal rights group, was taken by the police from his home in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan on Monday night, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group that works out of the United States. Pu Fei, a volunteer in Mr. Huang’s organization, is also missing, according to reports by several human rights groups.

Their arrests echo the widespread detentions of rights defenders in July 2015, part of a crackdown on civil society under President Xi Jinping, who has spearheaded a drive to stamp out forces outside the Communist Party’s control out of fear that they threatened its survival.

Several of those people, mostly lawyers who specialized in defending dissidents as well as ordinary people such as victims of a 2008 tainted baby formula scandal, were given harsh sentences earlier this year. One, Zhou Shifeng, who headed a Beijing law firm that took on such cases, was given a seven-year sentence, also on a charge of subverting state power.

Mr. Jiang’s disappearance may be related to those arrests, because several of the rights defenders arrested last year still await trial, and he was active in supporting their families, his lawyer, Chen Jinxue, said by telephone. Mr. Jiang was visiting the wife of Xie Yang, one of the detained lawyers, and was trying to arrange a visit with Mr. Xie when he disappeared, Mr. Chen said.

Two of the men had something else in common. Mr. Huang and Mr. Liu headed rights organizations that have come under scrutiny, and their detentions may be related to the pending implementation of a law on nongovernmental organizations that puts new restrictions on foreign groups operating in China. Such groups will be required to register with the Ministry of Public Security, and the police will have the right to scrutinize their operations, including financing. They must also find a Chinese partner. The law also makes Chinese groups that receive funding from outside the country more vulnerable.

The disappearances of Mr. Liu, who leads Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, and Mr. Huang, who runs the 64 Tianwang Human Rights Center, may be a prelude to the law’s implementation.

“This may show the mind-set of the authorities as they come close to implementing the NGO law,” William Nee, a researcher for Amnesty International who is based in Hong Kong, said by phone.

The mobile phones of Mr. Jiang, Mr. Liu and Mr. Huang were either turned off or appeared to not be working. A police officer in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, said that Mr. Huang had been arrested in Chengdu by officers from the nearby city of Mianyang. The police in Suizhou, Mr. Liu’s hometown, said the city government was handling Mr. Liu’s case but denied any further knowledge. The police in railway stations in Changsha and Beijing, as well as in Mr. Jiang’s hometown in central China, had no information on his whereabouts.

Mr. Chen, Mr. Jiang’s lawyer, said his client had been moving from place to place in and around Beijing for three years, trying to avoid arrest. He had been detained for months in 2011, amid an earlier crackdown that came in the wake of the movements that swept authoritarian leaders in Tunisia and Egypt from power. China feared the so-called Jasmine Revolution would come to China as well.

Mr. Jiang was detained that year for two months, telling rights groups of his abuse at the hands of his interrogators, according to an account of his life on the website of China Change, a group based in the United States.

“If, as is strongly likely, this was an act carried out by state agents, then this would be an enforced disappearance, which is a crime under international law,” Mr. Nee of Amnesty International said. “Jiang Tianyong seems to be placed outside the protection of the law, which makes him very vulnerable to torture and other human rights violations.”

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