In May 2020, it has been over 300 days since Cheng Yuan and his fellow NGO workers, Liu Dazhi and Wu Gejianxiong, were detained in Changsha and they have still not been allowed to meet with their lawyers. The family and friends of the so-called Changsha Three inhabit an information black hole. Apart from official notification of the decision, in August 2019, to arrest the three on ‘suspicion of state subversion’, the families have received no further details. It has been impossible for lawyers to challenge the use of detention or see evidence supporting such a serious charge.

“Dismissed by his own son!”

In March 2020, the six lawyers appointed by the families to represent those detained each received a letter of dismissal. Explaining their decision to submit a letter of complaint to Changsha state security, family members expressed incredulity that the three detainees separately, and of their own volition, chose to dismiss the defence lawyers appointed by their families. Even Wu’s father, lawyer Wu Youshui, was “personally” dismissed from taking his case by his own son. The treatment, by the Chinese authorities, of these three non-discrimination activists follows a now familiar pattern, first observed during the ‘709’ crackdown on lawyers in 2015. 

In a letter about the Changsha case, the United Nations has requested further information from the Chinese government. Held incommunicado, UN experts wanted reassurance on the physical and psychological integrity of those detained and asked, more generally, “what measures have been taken to ensure that human rights defenders in China are able to carry out their peaceful and legitimate work in a safe and enabling environment without fear of threats or acts of intimidation and harassment of any sort?” China’s published response fails to provide any details stating only that the three were detained “in accordance with the law” and are in good health. In June, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that the Changsha Three have been arbitrarily detained.

China’s recent moves to introduce national security legislation in Hong Kong puts the country’s own use of national security measures under the international spotlight. It is inevitable that those seeking to interpret what this will mean for Hong Kong will look to China’s treatment of its own citizens as guidance.