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Letter writing can change lives

April 15, 2001

Domestic & international appeals gain release of retiree

Tang Xitao is one among thousands of Falungong practitioners in China sentenced without due process to serve terms of Reeducation through Labor (RTL). Thanks to the determination of her family and the intervention of the UN human rights mechanisms, she was released over one year before completing her sentence. The following account follows the little known itinerary of a letter to the Chinese government from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Although the UN human rights mechanisms have often been decried for being ineffective, as Beatrice Laroche reports, the organization can sometimes have an impact on the fate of individuals.



A retiree in Guangdong Province, Tang Xitao, now 64, saw in the Falungong spiritual and physical exercises a possible solution to her health problems — she was suffering from kidney stones and hypertension. She became a regular practitioner in 1996. Until 1999, the Chinese authorities let this movement, and other qigong groups, develop throughout the country with few restrictions. Then, in April 1999, the government was startled by the massive silent demonstration by some 10,000 Falungong members in the capital, meters away from Zhongnanhai, where many top political leaders have their residences. The demonstration was aimed at achieving recognition of the group; but its result was a sustained campaign of repression that continues to this day.

In July of that year, Falungong was banned as an “illegal organization.” Tens of thousands of followers were detained, imprisoned or sent to RTL camps without trial. Some practitioners have been committed to psychiatric hospitals for “education” aimed at ending their belief in Falungong. Over 220 are reported to have died as a result of ill-treatment while in detention. On October 30, 1999, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee passed a decision to step up the government’s anti-Falungong campaign. This decision called for the use of existing Criminal Code’s provisions allowing for the prosecution of those who use “secret societies and heretical religious groups” to “disturb social order” to be stepped up. The NPC Decision was a political order to the country’s entire law enforcement apparatus to give priority to “smashing” the Falungong and other “heretical” organizations.

In reaction, Tang joined a group of practitioners who traveled from Guangzhou to Beijing on March 16, 2000, to protest the ban on Falungong. The demonstration on Tiananmen Square was disbanded by the Public Security forces. Held in custody for five days, Tang was transferred back to Guangzhou and detained for another 15 days at the Yuexiu District detention facility until her release on medical grounds.

A few weeks later, on April 20, Tang returned to Beijing and met with groups from other parts of the country to request the right to practice Falungong freely. Again, participants, including Tang, were detained. After 10 days, Tang’s former work unit and the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau (PSB) requested her transfer back to Guangzhou. After her release on April 30, she had to report to the PSB and was under strict orders to remain in Guangzhou. Nonetheless, on May 7, she left the city and went back to the capital. The Guangzhou PSB issued an arrest warrant for her, and Tang was detained six days later, sent back to Guangzhou and held without trial for 25 days until her family bailed her out.

But the feisty Tang would not give up. On June 18, during a 150-strong demonstration in front of Guangzhou City Hall, she was picked up by the police. As she refused to eat in detention, police officers, worried about her growing physical weakness, asked Tang’s relatives to look after her. Then, on July 5, the political officer of her former work unit suggested she spend some time in the city suburbs to get some rest. She never made it there: the following day on her way there, Tang was detained by PSB officers.




After an initial period in police custody, Tang was accused of “disrupting public order” and ordered to serve two years of RTL. The elderly lady was committed to the women’s Chatou Detention Center, also known as Xiaodao, an overcrowded facility in Guangzhou holding some 800 inmates. As is often the case in China, most of the abusive treatment Tang suffered occurred during police custody, when police officers shoved her around brutally. Once in the RTL camp, she was reportedly held in solitary confinement with her hands tied to prevent her from doing her Falungong exercises.

The population in Chatou consisted mainly of prostitutes, drug users and Falungong practitioners. Due to the overcrowding, there was a constant flow of inmates in and out of the facility. Falungong practitioners were first held together, and later on mixed with other inmates.

In spite of her age, Tang had to sleep on the ground on thin straw mats, together with around 15 other detainees in her cell. Food was poor, and inmates were not permitted to take showers. Instead of latrines, cellmates had to share one bucket, not even isolated from the rest of the cell. As a result of these conditions, Tang developed skin rashes on her body. Although suffering from kidney stones and hypertension, she was denied any medical check-up or treatment. She was required to knit and help maintain the facility. Detainees did not receive any salary. Inmates were constantly insulted and yelled at by RTL guards.

Tang’s relatives realized how much the RTL facility had an economy of its own. While the final destination of the knitwear remains unknown, camp authorities found creative ways of supplementing the facility’s revenue and their own income. For example, the restaurant located in the visitors’ area listed prices three times as high as outside the detention center.




Deeply concerned about Tang’s condition, her relatives resolved to get her out of detention. Their initial step consisted in contacting the procuratorate in Guangzhou — this institution is supposed to supervise police - run detention facilities — which sent an official to visit Tang in detention. This proved relatively effective and a few months later, in November 2000, Tang’s conditions were improved. First and foremost, she was no longer forced to perform labor. She still had to “reeducate” herself, though, through the reading of anti-Falungong literature and Party pamphlets and newspapers. She was also given a bed and allowed to have a medical check-up — although she refused medical treatment owing to her Falungong beliefs. From monthly, family visits were allowed weekly. The timing of visits depended on the type of “offense” for which inmates were being held: in the case of Falungong practitioners, visits took place on Tuesdays.

Authorities within RTL facilities have virtually unlimited power to determine the treatment of detainees, since they report on the progress of their reeducation. Everything has a price, and RTL officials did not refuse “presents.” As for many others, Tang’s relatives had no choice but to “buy” her better treatment, such as a reduced workload or better hygiene. Such practices highlight the arbitrary nature of RTL.

The procuratorate hinted that Tang could be released by the beginning of 2001, but nothing happened. The family hoped that the Chinese lunar year would bring good news, but were again disappointed. Between the two New Years, though, the Chinese authorities started receiving requests from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.




With the help of in-laws residing in France, the family found out about the UN human rights procedures with the help of human rights organizations. By mid-November, Tang’s case had been conveyed to several special rapporteurs and working groups, who were urged to raise her case.

Special rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Commission on Human Rights. Their mandate is to investigate violations of human rights in their own specific fields, wherever they are committed. The areas covered by these mechanisms include torture, women’s rights, freedom of opinion and expression, housing, arbitrary detention, rights of migrants and so on. Their means of action mainly consist of the following: thematic analysis; following the receipt of information from victims of rights violations, their relatives or NGOs, requesting information from governments about abuses committed against specific individuals, with the aim of ending the violations; and visits to the countries where they feel that the scope of rights violations requires investigation. Their findings and analysis — thematic and case-related — are published in their annual reports to the Commission on Human Rights. Their supporting staff is part of the OHCHR. One of the thematic procedures that received information about Tang Xitao’s case was the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. This Working Group has expressed the opinion that RTL is “inherently arbitrary.” As a result, when the Working Group is informed that an individual is held in RTL in China, it usually states in its report to the Commission on Human Rights that such detention is “arbitrary.” (At the moment, we have no information about how the Working Group acted in this specific case.)

The first communication from the OHCHR to reach China was that sent by the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, in January 2001. According to Tang’s family, news of the Special Rapporteur’s letter gradually made its way down from Beijing to the procuratorate in Guangzhou, and from then to the Chatou camp officials, whose initial reaction was apparently one of concern and fear for their own individual positions. They reportedly asked that their names not be disclosed and made it clear that they had no clue what the UN human rights procedures, which they mistakenly thought originated from the United States, were about, or what was expected from them. As the government has so far failed to respond to her letter, Special Rapporteur Radika Coomeraswamy’s report to the Commission on Human Rights, held in March-April 2001, only reflected the information received from Tang’s family:


Tang Xitao, aged 64, from Guangzhou, Canton, was arrested on 6 July 2000 and was transferred to the Chatou detention center for women (also called Xiaodao) in Canton, province of Guangdong. Tang Xitao was sentenced to two years’ re-education through labor. It is reported that she has been subjected to torture and ill-treatment. She is allegedly placed in solitary confinement for days at a time, verbally threatened, her hands have been bound to prevent her from practicing Falungong exercises, she is not allowed access to medical treatment for her illness and is subjected to forced labor as part of the re-education program. Furthermore, as a result of the judgment her pension has reportedly been stopped and her apartment and personal belongings confiscated.” (UN document: E/CN.4/2001/73/Add.1)

The Special Rapporteur on Torture used the “urgent appeal” procedure in Tang’s case, employed when a person’s life is considered at risk. Typically, the letter would be sent from the OHCHR to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs via the Permanent Mission of the PRC in Geneva, where the High Commissioner’s Office is located. Such urgent appeal letters usually list the forms of ill-treatment individuals allegedly endured and ask the Chinese government to clarify the situation. The purpose of such action is to seek to ensure that the right to physical and mental integrity of the individual concerned is protected, with clear references to international human rights instruments, including the Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which China ratified in 1988.

As in the case of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s letter, the OHCHR still has to receive a reply to this urgent appeal. However, according to Tang’s family, it reached Guangzhou sometime in early March. The city procuratorate expressed annoyance at this method, seen as interference from a non-Chinese organization, to such an extent that the family thought for a while that it would have a negative impact on Tang’s situation. It appears that the camp authorities were made responsible for the initial draft reply, which the authorities in Beijing would then forward to the OHCHR. However, the urgent appeal generated a number of meetings at Guangzhou Procuratorate to decide on the fate of Tang Xitao. The latter was informed that she would “help” her case if she agreed to make her self-criticism, something she had refused to do so far — in other words, if she did, that could be cited as a reason for her early release.

Tang was eventually permitted to leave Chatou detention center on April 19, 2001, three months after the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women sent her letter to the Chinese government. Coincidentally, this happened just one day after the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted by a vote the no-action motion introduced by the Chinese delegation, as a way of preventing the body from examining a resolution on China’s human rights situation. Tang’s administrative sentence of RTL, however, was not reversed. Instead, on “medical grounds” it was changed into “residential surveillance.” Throughout the six weeks following her “release,” Tang was required to return to Chatou regularly in order to “reeducate” her former fellow detainees. Additionally, every week, Tang has to report to the PSB station where she was first held in custody. Her former tormentors are reportedly treating her with much more courtesy.




Although it is impossible to assess the individual impact of the various steps undertaken by Tang’s family — with the Chinese local authorities, or with the OHCHR — her release from RTL shows that the UN human rights mechanisms can have a positive effect. Nothing is known about the way the Chinese government deals with allegations of rights violations received from the United Nations. Knowing that they are in fact forwarded to the local authorities who deal directly with the individuals in question is very encouraging.

Thematic procedures, or “extra-conventional mechanisms,” as they are also known, have a particular significance in the context of current relations between the Chinese government and the OHCHR.

On the one hand, there is an appearance of cooperation. In November 2000, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) initiating a two-year project of technical cooperation on human rights which consists, for the main part, in training workshops aiming at improving the implementation of the rights contained in core international instruments. The first workshop, held in Beijing in late February 2001, focused on the punishment of minor crimes — in other words, on administrative detention. The High Commissioner seized this opportunity to urge the Chinese government to abolish RTL publicly, an statement that met with a distinctly hostile response from Chinese officials.

On the other hand, Beijing tries its utmost to neutralize or block efforts to engage in monitoring of its rights practices. There is an understanding between the OHCHR and the Chinese government that technical cooperation and monitoring activities should be strictly separated, mostly clearly signaled by the ban on OHCHR staff involved in implementing the MoU becoming engaged in any monitoring activities. This attitude is also reflected in the Chinese government’s attitude toward the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. Torture and ill-treatment in detention remain endemic in China. However, although the Special Rapporteur on Torture was invited to China in 1998, his visit has so far failed to take place because the government insists that it be called a “friendly visit” rather than a fact-finding mission, as is customary. Beijing also objects to the standard terms of reference for such mission, which allow UN experts significant latitude in determining the duration of visits and the types of detention facilities to be visited, and require that interviews with detainees be confidential.

The Tang case points to a need for the thematic procedures to be better understood, more publicized and used. Their role in monitoring respect for human rights in all countries in the world is matched only by UN treaty bodies, which assess how governments implement the rights guaranteed in the instruments they have ratified. Unlike treaty bodies, however, special rapporteurs and working groups receive their mandates from and report to the UN Commission on Human Rights, which means their work is more sensitive. They can also respond more immediately to individual cases of concern, and can act regardless of whether governments have submitted themselves to complaints procedures. This makes them very valuable when people are facing severe and continuing rights abuses.

Additional information



  • Information about the extra-conventional mechanisms of the United Nations on human rights:
  • “Arbitrary & Disproportionate Punishment: Reeducation through Labor,” China Rights Forum, Spring 2001, HRIC.


B□trice Laroche is UN Liaison for Human Rights in China.