In 2020 the security forces of the Chinese regime detained the American professional basketball player Jeff Harper, but his arrest was not a formal detention, but in a private home in appalling conditions, guarded by guards and without due process. According to a recently published investigation, this type of detention is a recurrent practice being implemented by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as another tool to spread terror. 

According to a recent report published by the human rights group Safeguard Defenders, the Chinese Communist regime is widely developing a system that amounts to a “state-sanctioned mass abduction” to terrorize and silence people, including foreign nationals such as basketball player Harper.

According to records, the secret system makes up a “legalized” network of clandestine prisons. It began operating in 2013 and has housed a minimum of 27,208 victims as of June 1, according to the report based on publicly available Chinese Communist regime judicial data. Given the prevailing distrust of the information provided by the CCP, the report added that the actual number of victims could exceed 56,900 according to its estimates.

The detention system is officially known as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL). The extrajudicial measure allows Chinese police to make people “disappear” without judicial records of the convicts’ whereabouts.

The main purpose of this type of detention would lie in the possibility of keeping a suspect in a secret place without witnesses for interrogation prior to any arrest or official charge.

Residential surveillance is legal under China’s communist regime, but it operates outside the formal judicial system; that is, the law allows authorities to hold a person for up to six months, usually under the rubric of “investigation.” And when the subject is formally charged, the person may be placed in a traditional jail awaiting trial.

According to the report, the detention spaces are often cramped rooms in poor hygienic conditions, with no amenities other than a mattress used for sleeping and no windows. In these “caves,” detainees can spend months without contact with anyone, not even telephone contact with family members and/or lawyers. 

In addition, reports indicate cases of fierce torture, constant beatings, and mistreatment, interrogation sessions in “tiger chairs,” where detainees are tied by hands and feet. They are mistreated with the intention of “making them talk.”

As reported this week by the Wall Street Journal, some of China’s most prominent prisoners have endured residential surveillance, including literature professor Liu Xiaobo, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while in a Chinese prison. Liu eventually died in custody in 2017 at the age of 61. Artist Ai Weiwei was also confined in residential surveillance for 81 days and, once released, produced artwork that mimicked his suffering in extrajudicial prisons.

Practitioners of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong and lawyers defending the practitioners have also reported suffering in such prisons. 

The basketball player, Harper, was in Shenzhen, China, for five days for a tournament when he was detained after an altercation with police. Harper was “locked in a room with a stale mattress” for eight months, without any information about what they would do with him. He was eventually released without having gone through any judicial process, nor was he given any record of his months in prison.