06 Oct 2020

I felt that time had stopped when they took my husband

Who are we if our real name is taken away from us?

Chinese police are doing just this – forcing human rights defenders to take on fake names in detention centres – as a way to keep them disappeared from society for longer. With a fake name, no one can find you.

Ahead of a ground-breaking upcoming report by Safeguard Defenders on this rights-abusing practice, we are publishing a short extract looking at one victim -- human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) who lived with his fake name for almost a year in 2016.

Xie was disappeared by Chinese police in the summer of 2015, placed under RSDL and beaten, starved, tortured and forced to take “medicine”. He was incarcerated for 553 days, during which time his wife gave birth to their baby daughter and his mother died. 

After he was released from RSDL, he was moved into a detention centre in Tianjin. Normally that would mean his family and lawyer would be able to contact him. But not in Xie's case.

“By January 2016, I was formally arrested on charges of ‘inciting subversion of state power,’ and was transferred to Tianjin No. 2 Detention Centre. When I got to Tianjin No. 2, they wouldn’t use my own name. They gave me an alias—Xie Zhendong,“ Xie wrote.

Xie’s wife Yuan Shanshan (原珊珊) described how agonizing it was when she couldn’t find where her husband was being kept and she didn’t know if he was dead or alive.

“The first time I went, I took a lawyer that I had hired to go and see him, and when I asked to see my husband, they said there was no one there by the name of Xie Yanyi. So, I took the detention notice and showed them, and they said maybe he hadn’t been registered yet. The staff at reception said they were only responsible for reception, if I wanted to see [Xie], I had to apply to the relevant department, and then they would let us know.” 

The next time she went, they did admit Xie was being held there but as in so many other cases, they tried a number of common tactics to prevent access, such as claiming he had hired his own lawyer and that access for family members required a complicated registration procedure and permission that always ended in long waits and no success. 

It was a similar story if she tried to deposit money and items to give to Xie at the detention centre. 

“The staff would tell me that according to the detention centre’s regulations, I could only deposit if they informed us we could deposit first. So, the first few times I tried, I was unable to [deposit anything]. Later, when I was allowed to deposit, they would give me a paper with Xie Yanyi’s name on it, as if they were asking me to check the characters, because his name was not registered in their computer. These excuses prevented us from seeing him and went on for a year until [my husband] was released. That was when I finally learned that he had been using the name Xie Zhengdong inside the detention centre.” 

“I didn’t know whether he was in the detention centre or not. I didn’t even know if he was still alive. I went to all the possible detention centres he could be held in—to our household registration address (Gaobeidian, Hebei), our residence (Miyun, Beijing) and so on. But I couldn’t find him. 

“Xie Yanyi’s mother is also a lawyer. She’s a top-ranked national lawyer. She would often say: ‘Where did they take my son, is he still alive?’ I wrote an indictment letter against Xinhua, (China’s state news agency), and posted it online. Early the next morning, Guobao [national security police, officers usually in charge of political suspects] knocked on my door and asked me whose idea was it, to write that… My home was monitored, we were followed by guobao and people who didn’t show any identification (including when I took my son to and from school). Teachers monitored my son in class and reported everything to the guobao. The residential committee [members] in my housing compound would stop my son and ask him where I was. Surveillance cameras were installed outside my home. I didn’t dare leave my house. 

“I always chose times when there were not many people around to go outside. I felt that time had stopped after they took Xie.”

Taken from upcoming report "Access Denied #1: Vanishing Suspects"