By Jerome A. Cohen
The news that a Hong Kong employee of the UK’s HK Consulate (Guardian story) has already been detained by the Shenzhen police for 10 days is alarming and makes one wonder why it has taken so long to become public. The answer probably lies in the common reaction to such events in the Chinese context—the hope that quiet negotiations might resolve the problem while publicity might exacerbate it.
The Guardian story seems to be understandably confused by the use of the term “administrative detention” (AD) to characterize this deprivation of freedom and its possible link to “national security”. AD traditionally has referred to detention, now for a maximum of 15 days for each suspected offense, in accordance with China’s Security Administration Punishment Law. That law, the origins of which go back to the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-58, allows the police to detain and punish anyone for a very broad range of possible offenses that are considered too minor to be deemed “crimes”. Police often resort to it as a preliminary processing device that allows them to interrogate and investigate a suspect for up to a couple of weeks before deciding whether to release the person or whether further steps may be necessary, usually prosecuting the suspect for a crime.
If they decide on the latter, they may choose to bring the prosecution under the usual criminal process or under the special provisions for prosecuting certain cases, often suspected of violating “national security”. If they choose the latter, the suspect can be transferred to “residential surveillance at a designated location” (the now notorious RSDL), under which the Criminal Procedure Law permits the police to hold someone incommunicado for up to six months before deciding whether to process the case further as a regular criminal case. In either case this further detention should be called “criminal detention” rather than AD.
Yet the Guardian’s reference to “national security” makes one wonder what is the status of this HK employee of the UK Consulate. Undoubtedly those who are seeking to assist him know the answer to this question, since visitation rights, access to counsel and other issues turn upon the status.
Chinese employees of foreign governments are especially vulnerable to suspicions of serving as foreign espionage agents since in practice the PRC applies a very broad and flexible definition of “espionage”, and it only takes a mere suspicion of such conduct to justify in PRC law a criminal detention of up to 6 months in RSDL before the regular criminal procedures (themselves deficient) come into place.
Let’s hope that this case is genuinely AD at this point, and that the detained person will be released today. AD detention itself is generally very unpleasant, even if often coercive interrogation techniques are not applied, since cells are crowded, conditions “basic” and the many companions not those one might choose.