International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances – Stories from China

Gao Zhisheng has been kidnapped, tortured and detained on and off by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime since 2006. In 2019, his wife Geng He told the International Service for Human Rights that being disappeared has become “the norm in his life”.

In that same interview, she added, “My children and I have never experienced the common happiness of united families… We only have one wish, which is that Gao Zhisheng is alive and that he can come back home alive.”

Ms Geng, who has been in exile along with her and Gao’s children since 2009, has just marked another sad anniversary: the fifth anniversary of her husband’s most recent disappearance.

In a tweet, she wrote: “Fourteen years ago I was forced to flee the Communist country of China and came to the United States with our children. Since parting from my husband, Gao Zhisheng, I did not expect him to disappear (for so long and be still missing) until now. I have mixed feelings when I see people looking at photos of their family on their phones. Projecting his photo on the wall of the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles is to cry out loud, to protest; it’s also to show how much we miss him. Evil CCP, free my husband! Free the father of my children!”

Geng He outside the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles on Chinese New Year’s Eve 2020. Source: Epoch Times

Mr Gao disappeared in August 2017 after over a decade of harassment at the hands of the CCP. It is widely accepted that he was targeted for his work as a lawyer, which frequently involved taking on human rights cases and defending religious minorities. His whereabouts are unknown, but he is believed to be in some form of detention.

At a Taize prayer service on 10 August 2022, Ms Geng shared how her family and relatives have also been targeted by the CCP regime and suffered, especially her brother-in-law’s tragic death in May 2016 due to being blocked from seeking medical treatment and Gao’s sister’s suicide in May 2020 after years of harassment at the hands of local police.

A systematic issue

Of course, Gao’s family are not alone in their agonising search for answers as to the whereabouts of their relatives and being punished for their efforts. As Geng He pointed out in the same address, “I still can’t see an end to our family’s suffering. In China, there are many other persecuted families like ours.”

Enforced disappearance, a crime against humanity, has been systematically perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party regime against ethnic minority groups, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR, also referred to by many Uyghurs as East Turkestan), petitioners,[1] political dissidents, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and NGO workers.

Even some CCP cadres, celebrities and entrepreneurs have fallen victim to enforced disappearance, as seen in high-profile cases such as that of former Interpol president and senior CCP official Meng Hongwei, and international tennis star Peng Shuai. Since 2012, the CCP has also regularly targeted its own party members with forcible disappearance and detention, often for weeks or months at a time, in the name of rooting out corruption.

In 2017, Lee Ming-che, an NGO worker from Taiwan, spent two months in Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) before being transferred to a detention centre in China’s central province of Hunan. He was later sentenced to five years on subversion charges and released in April 2022.

“Those two months were the worst, you don’t know if your family are ok; you don’t know what’s going to happen to you,” recalled Lee in an interview with Safeguard Defenders. “It was really frightening and very hard to deal with. There’s absolutely nothing you can do.”

Human rights lawyer Chang Weiping has been a victim of RSDL detention twice, and has also experienced horrendous torture. As a result, he suffered from serious health problems. In July 2022, he stood trial for a subversion charge in Shaanxi province behind closed doors and his wife was prevented from travelling to the court.

Chang Weiping, his wife Chen Zijuan and their son. Source: Twitter/Chen Zijun

In 2018, retired Uyghur doctor Gulshan Abbas disappeared from her residence in Urumqi in XUAR. Her family had to endure two years of complete silence before hearing that she had started serving a 20-year prison sentence on terrorism charges.

Her daughter Ziba Murat said that the severe prison sentence was “a direct retaliatory action” from the Chinese authorities for “her family members’ advocacy in the United States on behalf of the human rights of all people”.

Ziba Murat holds up a photo of her mother, Gulshan Abbas. Source: Ziba Murat

The tip of the iceberg

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. One report by Safeguard Defenders estimates that between 40,000 and 50,000 people were either held in RSDL or liuzhi detention (i.e. secretly detained by the CCP’s private police force) in 2021, whilst also identifying at least four other ways in which individuals can be forcibly disappeared in China today.

Little is also known about how people are affected physically and mentally by these illegal government operations. Dissidents, human rights defenders, house church leaders and Falun Gong practitioners are routinely rounded up and disappeared by local government officials before politically sensitive periods, and with the Beijing Olympics, continuing spread of the Omicron variant, snap lockdowns and the upcoming National Congress of the CCP, 2022 is a particularly sensitive year.

We hear about the cases of Gao Zhisheng, Lee Ming-che, Chang Weiping and Gulshan Abbas because their family members either live outside China and have the freedom to speak up for them or are brave enough to take the risks of speaking out in their own country.

There are many others who we may never hear about. On this day, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, we stand with all of them – those known to CSW, and those known only to their families and loved ones. We demand that China ends the practice of enforced disappearance, releasing all those who have been held in any form of detention on account of their religion, belief, or the peaceful exercise of their fundamental human rights.

By CSW’s China Team

[1] Petitioners refers to Chinese residents who seek legal redress for local abuses of power.