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Disappearances, Forced Confessions: China Targets Dissent

HONG KONG — Chinese law may grant its citizens the right to a trial, but in today's political climate some critics of the government are asking whether it would be in a court of law or the court of public opinion.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power three years ago, hundreds of Chinese citizens have vanished as the ruling Communist Party stepped up an alleged anti-corruption campaign characterized by disappearances that are often followed by high-profile confessions.

Human-rights lawyers to billionaire businessmen to book publishers have been among those detained in the last six months. Some have been charged with crimes like state subversion while authorities insist others are not being detained but instead are "assisting investigations."

Mysterious Disappearances of Hong Kong Booksellers Raise Alarm 2:03

Many have later appeared on state TV where they admit to moral imperfections, personal corruption or sexual misconduct.

Human-rights activist and Swedish national Peter Dahlin was deported on Monday, nearly three weeks after he mysteriously disappeared on his way to Beijing Capital Airport and was taken to an undisclosed location.

Two weeks after vanishing, Dahlin was trotted out on state-run broadcaster CCTV to deliver what friends and colleagues believe was a forced confession.

"I violated Chinese law through my activities here," the 35-year said in his TV appearance on Jan. 19. "I have caused harm to the Chinese government. I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. I apologize sincerely for this and I am very sorry that this has happened."

William Nee, a China researcher for Amnesty International, believes that these coerced confessions are a potent tool employed by Beijing to rattle the population and maintain discipline.

"With these forced confessions on TV, what they often do is they on the one hand try to discredit the activism or the activities that people were involved with," Nee told NBC News. "This strikes fear into people because they know what they're saying is not in line with their character and it really strikes fear into activists because they don't know what the government did to force this type of confession."

TV Confessions Have Become Common in China: William Nee 0:49

Dahlin co-founded an NGO called China Urgent Action Working Group, which provided legal training for local lawyers in China, many of whom have since July been detained or disappeared under similar circumstances.

Citing police sources, Chinese state media claimed his organization trained others to "fabricate and distort information about China" and to instigate "public-government confrontations to create mass incidents."

"Peter Dahlin's case is directly connected to the crackdown on lawyers," says Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human-rights researcher. "Everything about his detention and the way the case has been handled is in service to the prosecution of those lawyers."

The disappearances and confessions also broadcast in clear terms to the Chinese public what behavior will be tolerated. Put more directly, Rosenzweig believes the their use underscores senior Chinese leadership's belief that the legal system is an extension of their political power.

For Nee, it is one of the central paradoxes of the Xi administration.

"His [Xi's] government is really genuinely trying to promote what they call, 'ruling the country according to law' and at the same time they are putting people into secret detention."

'First and foremost a Chinese citizen'

Long viewed as a quasi-democratic enclave to authoritarian mainland China, Hong Kong in recent years has had this reputation bruised. The 2014 "Umbrella Movement" renewed hope amongst some here that a democratic resurgence was coming.

But the case of five Hong Kong booksellers has shattered public perceptions in this city that institutions like its courts and The Basic Law mini-constitution would protect citizens from the long arm of Beijing.

The group owned and ran Mighty Current Publishing Company and Causeway Bay Books, a company known for selling salacious books about the private lives and wealth of Chinese leaders.

In particular, the plight of Mighty Current's owner Gui Minhai, 51, and publisher Lee Bo, 65, has brought pause to the Hong Kong public.

Gui, who is a Swedish national, disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand in October only to turn up on Chinese state television last week to confess to a drunk-driving incident from 12 years ago. He also urged the Swedish government not to intervene as "deep down I still think of myself as a Chinese."

That Gui's undershirt appeared to change color during the news report led many in Hong Kong to speculate that his confession was coerced.

Missing Hong Kong Bookseller Appears on Chinese TV 0:59

Lee, a British national, disappeared from Hong Kong in December. Though the Hong Kong government has no records of his crossing the border, Lee somehow turned up in mainland China.

Strangely worded, formulaic letters purported to be from Lee were later sent claiming that he voluntarily went to China to assist with a investigation and that authorities in Hong Kong should respect his privacy.

Xi's government has been noticeably silent on Lee's case. When asked about the booksellers on Friday by NBC News, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would answer questions as soon as possible.

However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters on Jan. 5 that the publisher was "first and foremost a Chinese citizen" and called on others not to make "groundless accusations."

Image: Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin
Human-rights activist Peter Dahlin in an undated photo provided by the 'Chinese Urgent Action Working Group'. Chinese Urgent Action Working Group via AFP - Getty Images

Comments like Wang's have sent a chill down the spines of many in Hong Kong as concerns grow that the city's "one country, two systems" mandate is being eroded.

Lee's case suggests that Chinese security forces can now swoop down and compel Hong Kong citizens to return to mainland China to answer charges there.

In recent weeks protesters have returned to the streets of Hong Kong and even the city's pro-Beijing government has talked tough on the issue. It has called upon Xi's administration to provide details on the state of the five publishers, but those requests been met with silence.

Rosenzweig believes there is no question that the Hong Kong public is drawing new lines in terms of what constitutes "safe zones" and said that the publishers' case will change people's behavior.

"Some of the people I know in Hong Kong worry about whether they will be abducted off the streets and whisked off to the mainland. I think those fears are a bit excessive, but they're understandable," Rosenzweig added.

"And they're kind of the point. By redrawing the lines, there are new concerns about what [Chinese] authorities are and aren't capable of."

Despite growing fears in Hong Kong, Rosenzweig suggests the wholesale detention of activist lawyers in China and the disappearance of Hong Kong publishers may reflect cracks in Beijing's repressive strategy.

"In both cases, there is a certain degree of escalation — by treating the lawyers as a state security case on the one hand and by apparently resorting to abductions in Hong Kong on the other I would say that the overall goal and strategy of exerting control hasn't changed much," Rosenzweig said. "But these escalations demonstrate a certain desperation, perhaps because old tactics were no longer seen as effective."

Amnesty's Nee agrees that in many instances, forced disappearances and confessions have had the opposite effect.

"Some people are self-censoring, some people are no longer wanting to engage in activism," Nee said. "But there are a lot of people working harder than ever to ensure that Hong Kong and China can continue to make progress in human rights and freedom of expression."

'China today is more repressive'

As Beijing's economic influence has grown, foreign criticism of China's human-rights situation has been often muted, if not altogether silenced.

As the United States enters into a presidential election year, criticism of China's human-rights record has spiked. In October, Republican candidate Senator Marco Rubio, a co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, blasted the Chinese government under Xi. He said that "human rights and the rule of law have suffered a devastating blow" since Xi rose to power.

"By nearly every possible measure, China today is more repressive and more brutal," Rubio added.

The commission's latest report called on the U.S. government to fundamentally reassess Sino-U.S. human- rights diplomacy, a call for action welcomed by activists.

"All governments should really voice their concern to China because this is a precedent," Nee said. "Not only for the citizens of Sweden, but really about foreigners in general and whether international law will be obeyed in China."

Rosenzweig believes that sanctions should be considered against Chinese government bodies like state media companies that facilitate human-rights violations.

Image:People hold posters showing some of the missing booksellers from Hong Kong's Mighty Current publishing house
Protesters hold posters showing some of the missing booksellers from Hong Kong's Mighty Current publishing house, Jan. 10/ ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP - Getty Images

"I think it might be appropriate for Congress to consider whether it would be appropriate to place some sort of sanction on Chinese media organizations that take such an active part in broadcasting these confessions, as this can't really be considered normal media behavior," he added.

Both experts agree that the U.S. government should push back against the Foreign NGO Management Law, a draft law released last May that critics argue would severely restrict foreign NGOs operating in China.

It would force them to register with China's Public Security Bureau and restricts funding from abroad.

For foreign NGOs already operating in China, there are concerns that Dahlin's forced disappearance and confession could be a sign of what's to come.

Whether the law passes or not, Rosenzweig believes that foreign businessmen and others operating in China should tread carefully.

"The truth is that secret detention and threat of criminal prosecution have long been a risk for people doing business in China," he said. "Thuggery and extortion of this type were once something you had to worry about because of corruption at the local level. Ironically, local authorities may be cleaner than in the past because they're afraid they'll also disappear, because now these tactics seem to have been taken up and made acceptable in cases where the authorities feel their power is most at risk."