© Yettesu / ISHR

Call on China to free defenders and #RepealRSDL

We are mobilising the international community to put pressure on the Chinese Government to #RepealRSDL, a form of enforced disappearance widely used to silence those who defend human rights. Join our campaign!

In China, brave activists are trying to improve the daily life of their fellow citizens and defend their rights to speak freely, to be treated on an equal footing with others, to protest peacefully, or to practice their religion. But the Chinese Government fears that their peaceful actions will challenge its power and that their criticism will undermine it. Like the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples, many who stand up for human rights are repressed and silenced, and the authorities have found a very effective way to do that: they disappear them.

Since 2012, China’s rubber-stamp legislative body passed and amended several articles in its Criminal Procedure Law that give police the power to take people into custody without disclosing where they will be held: this is called ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (in short: RSDL). The police use this practice while they ‘investigate suspects’ of a potential criminal case, prior to a formal arrest. Under RSDL, individuals cannot be held in regular detention facilities: instead, they are kept in illegal locations or locations that are explicitly not official detention facilities (the back of a restaurant or the basement of a hotel for instance). When they are accused of national security crimes – the case for most human rights defenders – they are denied all contact with the outside world, even with their family or a lawyer, for up to six months. No one knows where they are. They are interrogated and often tortured to extract confessions. Meanwhile, despite the barriers and risks they have to overcome, the families of defenders persist in inquiring about their loved one’s fate and whereabouts, and seeking justice for what they suffered. 

United Nations experts are clear: RSDL is a form of enforced disappearance and might amount to torture. With estimates from 53,000 to up to 90,000 individuals under RSDL, enforced disappearances are endemic in China. RSDL tears families apart, and is intended to instil fear into China’s human rights movement.

Many human rights activists have stopped promoting dignity, peace and justice in their communities because they fear to be disappeared by the police. This practice – enforced disappearance – is absolutely wrong and prohibited under international law. Everyone should be able to speak their mind and participate in the life of their communities. 


What do we want? 

We want the Chinese Government to review China’s Criminal Procedure Law and repeal the provision that allows suspects to be held under RSDL so no one can be disappeared and arbitrarily detained. We want human rights defenders who have been subjected to RSDL to be promptly released and in the meantime for their relatives to know where they are. And we want truth and justice for victims.

RSDL should stand high on the agenda of any human rights exchange with the Chinese Government. We want governments worldwide to speak out and use all bilateral and multilateral channels to press the Chinese government to #RepealRSDL. We want the UN to amplify its monitoring of RSDL in China, and to sustain its pressure on the authorities to respect international law and to #RepealRSDL. 

RSDL is carried out in secret. Data is being erased by the government, there are few images of RSDL facilities and most victims are scared to speak out for fear of being punished again for doing their vital human rights work. We want scholars to research and study this practice so it is more known. We also want them to determine how widespread and systematic it is. 

Finally, feeling supported is vital for defenders and their relatives. We want the media, human rights groups and activists across the world to pay closer attention to RSDL, to raise awareness around them, and to stand in solidarity with disappeared Chinese human rights defenders and their relatives. We also want relatives of those disappeared to be able to speak up at the United Nations on enforced disappearances in China, and the fate of their loved ones.

My husband Ding Jiaxi and his colleagues always fought for what's right, despite knowing they risked being disappeared, tortured, disbarred. Their bravery is only equalled by their moral commitment to defending the rights of the most vulnerable, enshrined in China's constitution and international treaties. Their sacrifice cannot be in vain: governments should stand with China's human rights lawyers.
Sophie Luo Shengchun, human rights activist and wife of Ding Jiaxi

Human Rights defender Sophie Luo talks about RSDL and the case of her husband, activist and lawyer Ding Jiaxi who was disappeared under this practice in 2019 and is since then detained.

How do we achieve this? 

We are working hard to: 

  • Increase the awareness and legal understanding of government officials and diplomats, UN experts, journalists, and human rights groups, about RSDL as a form of enforced disappearance and torture, forbidden under international law.
  • Mobilise diplomatic missions and encourage them to speak out on RSDL at the UN and in their bilateral dialogues with China.
  • Persuade UN experts to take a firmer, more frequent and more public stand on RSDL by taking up and analysing more individual cases and publishing statements. The High Commissioner should also take a stand on the issue.
  • Convince scholars working on China and in the human rights field to research, write and discuss more about RSDL.
  • Encourage governments, activists, and individuals to stand in solidarity with disappeared Chinese human rights defenders and their relatives.
  • Create spaces at the UN for Chinese human rights defenders and their relatives to brief the international community about enforced disappearances in China


What can you do? 

1. Support Defenders!

Send a solidarity message!

Send a solidarity message!

Leave a solidarity message to Chinese human rights defenders and their families on our virtual wall. 

Rise in solidarity

2. Spread the word!

Download the campaign toolkit

Download the campaign toolkit

Download our campaign toolkit to understand at a glance why RSDL is a serious human rights violation, and to help us raise awareness about this important issue around you (a friend, a journalist you know, your social media followers).

Download the toolkit

Human rights defenders ISHR has been supporting

Chang Weiping

Chang Weiping is a human rights lawyer who defends free speech and religious freedom, as well as the rights of persons facing discrimination because of their health status, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation, by providing them with pro bono counsel. He has also helped other activists facing judicial harassment for the legitimate exercise of their human rights.

In January 2020, Chang was placed under RSDL for “endangering national security” following his participation in a gathering of human rights lawyers. He was released on bail but faced further detention in October 2020, after he revealed the torture he faced during the previous RSDL period. He was held in undisclosed locations, denied legal access, and faced the suspension of his lawyer's license.

He was formally arrested in April 2021 for inciting subversion. Multiple lawyers engaged by Chang's family were prevented from meeting him due to pressure from authorities.

In September 2021, he finally met a lawyer and disclosed torture during his detention. He faced a closed trial in July 2022 and was finally sentenced to a three and a half year prison for “subversion of State power” in June 2023.

Chang’s sentence is expected to be completed in July 2024. He is suffering from a number of health conditions.

Yu Wensheng

A Laureate of the 2021 Martin Ennals Award, Yu Wensheng is a leading figure among human rights lawyers in China. He has fearlessly taken on a number of sensitive cases and issues, joining litigations on air pollution and advocating for a constitutional government.
For this, the authorities revoked his legal license on 16 January 2018. Three days later, after publishing an open letter calling for constitutional reform, he was forcibly disappeared. He was held under RSDL, and put on trial in secret on 9 May 2019, but his wife, Xu Yan, was only informed of his four-years jail sentence in June 2020.
After much pressure from international civil society, Yu Wensheng was able to leave Nanjing Prison on 1 March 2022 and reunite with his family in Beijing upon completion of his prison sentence for ‘inciting subversion of State power’.

In April 2023, Yu Wensheng and Xu Yan were detained by police while on their way to attend an event at the Delegation of the European Union in Beijing. They were subsequently charged for “inciting subversion of State power.”

Ding Jiaxi

Ding Jiaxi is a prominent Chinese human rights activist and lawyer. In December 2019, after attending an informal gathering of human rights lawyers and citizens in Xiamen, the authorities disappeared him under RSDL. For 6 months, no one knew where Ding was or what had happened. According to his testimonies, the police tortured him during these six months. In June 2020, he was formally arrested by the Public Security Bureau in the city of Linyi, and seven months later indicted on charges of ‘subversion of State power.’ Only then was he allowed to see a lawyer. However, his lawyer has not been granted full access to the case files or able to freely meet with him. Ding has not been allowed to see or talk to his loved ones since 2019. His detention conditions are very poor and his health is deteriorating. His trial got postponed repeatedly without clear reasons. Ding was secretly tried on 24 June 2022.

On 10 April 2023, the Linshu County Court of Shandong Province sentenced him to 12 years in prison for the crime of ‘subverting State power’ and deprived him of political rights for three additional years. Ding Jiaxi submitted a plea of ‘no guilty’ to the Shandong Provincial Higher People's Court on 17 April 2023.

  • ≤90K

    persons (estimated) placed in RSDL between 2013 and 2022.

  • 6

    months: the maximum (and often average) amount of time police can hold someone under RSDL.

  • 2

    governments recommended that China repeal RSDL, during China's UPR human rights review at the UN in 2018: Germany and Switzerland.

RSD... what?

All you need to know about 'Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location' (or RSDL).

In 2012, China amended its Criminal Procedure Law, including a new provision in Article 73 that allowed for a practice called ‘Residential surveillance at a designated location’ (known in short as RSDL) – now corresponding to Article 75 under the Law’s 2018 revision, and whose implementation is further detailed in Articles 74 to 79 alongside regular ‘residential surveillance’ (or house arrest). 

This provision authorises the police and the Ministry State of Security to hold someone in custody – prior to arrest – for up to 6 months in any location or building they choose, without a need to disclose such location, and with very limited due process and possibilities for judicial review. 

Despite its name, RSDL is NOT a form of house arrest. The latter exists in Chinese Law under the name of ‘residential surveillance’, but not ‘at a designated location’. Persons under RSDL are held incommunicado outside official detention facilities exclusively (typically the back of a restaurant or the basement of a hotel).

The vast majority of defenders placed in RSDL are investigated for national security crimes, such as ‘subversion of State power’: articles 85 and 39 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law provide for explicit exemptions and restrictions to the right to access a lawyer and have your family informed, as reported by UN experts. Altogether, this means that those placed in RSDL are cut from the outside world.

RSDL explicitly prohibits holding individuals in official detention facilities. For many lawyers, this provision only legalised an existing practice of police interrogation in ‘illegal’ locations (hotels, restaurants, disaffected buildings, etc): by giving it a semblance of legality, any information obtained in such locations could now be used in court. However, putting it into Chinese national law doesn’t mean it is lawful under international law!

According to international human rights standards, as repeatedly stated by UN independent experts, including the UN’s own Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID): placing individuals under incommunicado detention + for investigation + for prolonged periods + without disclosing their whereabouts = secret detention  = a form of enforced disappearance. 

In a nutshell: RSDL is a form of enforced disappearance. And according to all sources of international law, enforced disappearance is a human rights violation prohibited under all circumstances.

According to data analysed by Safeguard Defenders and included in a joint submission with ISHR to UN experts:

  • An analysis of scarcely available official statistics provides for estimates from 53,000 to up to 90,000 individuals placed in RSDL between 2013 and 2022. 
  • Official data on the use of RSDL is scarce as the China Judgement Online (CJO) database of verdicts only includes cases leading to a verdict at trial. Many cases never reach this stage. The real number might therefore be significantly higher. The CJO has also increasingly removed cases from their platform, including 692 cases of RSDL that took place between 2013 and 2020, which have been removed since May 2022.   
  • There’s been a strong increase in the use of RSDL since 2016, peaking in 2020 with a 136% increase compared to 2019. In 2013, less than 500 people were held in RSDL, by 2019 that number had risen to over 6,000. Using conservative estimates, 20 people a day were being placed in RSDL in China in 2020. 
  • While not all these individuals are human rights defenders, this is commonly recognised as a tactic used to intimidate and coerce individuals detained for their human rights-related work. 
  • The system, has most famously been imposed on Chinese human rights defenders such as dissident artist Ai Weiwei, human rights lawyers Wang Yu and Wang Quanzhang, as well as on foreigners, especially those caught up in hostage diplomacy cases, like Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai, Swedish rights activist Peter Dahlin, Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-che or US businessman Li Kai. 
  • Since RSDL is carried out in secret, there are few images of RSDL facilities and most victims are scared to speak out for fear of being punished again.

In August 2018, a group of 10 UN appointed human rights experts wrote a long letter to the Chinese government inquiring about the legal provisions allowing for RSDL. They had received information that China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, would be revising again the Criminal Procedure Law, and that civil society groups and Chinese lawyers had great concerns with Article 73 allowing for RSDL. The experts studied the law as a whole – in particular Article 73 – and explained the ways in which it did not meet international standards, including the human rights treaties that China had itself ratified.

Based on the information they had received, their knowledge of the situation in China, and their expertise in international human rights standards, the UN experts made a series of clear conclusions about RSDL, both in its legal definition, and actual use. They assert that RSDL: 

  • Denies [those held in RSDL] the fundamental right to fair trial, potentially undermines the right to physical and mental integrity, and denies persons held under these conditions of their rights to counsel and family visits
  • Gives the police and public security too much power, that is abused in order to allow arbitrary arrest
  • Is being used to muzzle peaceful and legitimate rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association and the right to defend rights

In a nutshell: by enacting and making use of RSDL, China is failing to meet its binding international law obligations.

In a March 2020 public statement, a group of experts including the UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances  (WGEID) expressed their ‘alarm at the ongoing use of RSDL in China, despite having for many years reiterated the position that RSDL is not compatible with international human rights law’. They asserted that ‘as a form of enforced disappearance, RSDL allows authorities to circumvent ordinary processes provided for by the criminal law, and detain individuals in an undisclosed location for up to six months, without trial or access to a lawyer. This puts individuals at heightened risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.‘

In a September 2021 legal opinion on the cases of Zhang Zhan, Chen Mei, and Cai Wei, the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) ‘calls upon the Government to repeal the provisions governing RSDL’. It underscores the joint position adopted with other UN experts, that RSDL:

  • ‘amounts to secret detention and is a form of enforced disappearance’
  • ‘contravenes the right[s] of every person not to be arbitrarily deprived of his or her liberty, [to] challenge the lawfulness of detention before a court without delay, as well as the right of accused persons to defend themselves through legal counsel of their choosing’
  • may per se amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or even torture, and additionally may expose [those held under RSDL] to an increased risk of further abuse, including acts of torture’
  • is ‘used to restrict the exercise of the right[s] to freedom of expression, [of] peaceful assembly and of association by human rights defenders and their lawyers’ 

The WGAD recalled this position in its legal opinions on the cases of Yu Wensheng; Li Kai; Xu Zhiyong; Ding Jiaxi, Zhang Zhongshun and Dai Zhenya; and Wang Jianbing

UN human rights experts have further reiterated their concerns over RSDL in letters to the Chinese government on the cases of Guo Feixiong and Tang Jitian (February 2022), Chang Weiping (September 2022), Huang Xueqin, Wang Jianbing and He Fangmei (December 2022), and Xu Zhiyong (May 2023).  

In its 2023 annual report, the WGEID noted that the Chinese government has still – after more than ten years – failed to positively respond to their request to visit the country; at the same time, the overall number of outstanding cases of enforced disappearances taken on by the Working Group in the past six years increased by 147%, from 68 to 168.

Following her official visit to China in April 2022, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reiterated that UN human rights bodies have categorised RSDL as a form of arbitrary detention and called for its repeal.

RSDL is strongly interlinked with torture and ill-treatment. According to research by Safeguard Defenders, victims of RSDL report repeated acts of both physical and psychological tortures including sleep deprivation, food deprivation, extended time in combined shackles and cuffs (sometimes for weeks), beatings, forced medication, denial of medical treatment, sexual abuse, stress positions held for extended periods (such as being hung by the wrists) and threats of physical harm to them and their loved ones.

In their joint position, UN experts including the WGAD, clearly state that RSDL ‘may in and of itself, amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or even torture’ and that ‘additionally may expose such persons to an increased risk of further abuse, including acts of torture.’

During China’s 2015 review by the Committee Against Torture (CAT), the Committee had expressed ‘grave concern’ over RSDL. It recommended that China:

  • ‘repeal, as a matter of urgency, the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Law that allow [RSDL]’, and ‘in the meantime’
  • ensure that procuratorates promptly review all the decisions on [RSDL],’ ‘ensure that detainees who are designated for potential prosecution are charged and tried as soon as possible and those who are not to be charged or tried are immediately released’
  • make sure that ‘if detention is justified, detainees [are] formally accounted for and held in officially recognised places of detention’
  • ensure that ‘officials responsible for abuses of detainees should be held criminally accountable’

The CAT is the independent expert committee tasked with reviewing countries’ implementation of the Convention Against Torture. It is still awaiting the Chinese government’s periodic report, due since 9 December 2019, in order to resume China’s periodic review process.

No! There is another system that functions similarly called ‘liuzhi‘ (literally: ‘retention in custody’). This system is applied to Chinese Communist Party members and public employees. They can be detained incommunicado for up to six months due to violations of discipline or alleged neglect of their duties. It is overseen by the National Supervision Commission (NSC), a body separate from the judiciary and law enforcement, and it happens before formal arrest or detention. Former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who disappeared in June 2023, is believed to have been subjected to this ‘liuzhi‘ system.

There are also instances when the application of RSDL evolves, and authorities disappear people in a similar way without labelling it as such. This happened for example with human rights defenders Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing.

Looking beyond just RSDL, enforced disappearance has been extensively employed to silence a wide range of individuals. This includes human rights defenders Gao Zhisheng, Yu Wensheng and his wife Xu Yan, Jia Pin, Peng Lifa, Tao Hong, journalist Yang Zewei, and Falun Gong practitioners Chen Yang and Cao Zhimin.

Enforced disappearances also impact Uyghurs and Tibetans. In Xinjiang, arbitrary detention and disappearances are systematically used against hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs. Similarly, in Tibet, Tibetan language and cultural advocates have been victims of enforced disappearances.

All these cases highlight that enforced disappearances in China aren’t a single, uniform phenomenon. They involve different methods, targets, and intentions.

Campaign Resources

Want to know more about RSDL, enforced disappearances and international human rights standards? Check out our additional resources!

Ding Jiaxi story: an illustrated example of how RSDL works in China

Ding Jiaxi is a prominent Chinese human rights activist and lawyer. His story exemplifies how Chinese authorities apply the system of 'Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL) to silence activists. ISHR has worked together with Sophie Luo (Ding Jiaxi's wife) and Uyghur artist Yette Su to illustrate his story. We hope this can help to raise awareness on his case and on the necessity for China to #RepealRSDL.

China UPR briefing paper: abuse of national security to curtail human rights in China

This submission to the 4th Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of China addresses the Chinese government's misuse of ill-defined national security legislation as a structural abuse and common root cause of systematic and widespread violations against Uyghurs, Tibetans, and human rights defenders and lawyers in mainland China and Hong Kong.

UN experts analyse China's abuse of national security to curtail human rights

Over the past four years, United Nations human rights experts have raised serious concerns about the Chinese government’s routine misuse of its national security legislation to jail human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists. In a new bilingual infographic released today, ISHR documents the UN experts’ legal analysis in 23 letters to Beijing authorities.

Locked Up: Inside China’s Secret RSDL Jails

Safeguard Defenders’ illustrated report is a deep dive into the dark world of China’s Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL). For the first time ever, RSDL is depicted with rich artwork, satellite images and architectural sketches to bring the reality of this secret prison system to light.

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