The number of Chinese citizens imprisoned in their own homes under house arrest is expected to soon exceed one million as the Communist regime increasingly weaponises the law to crush its critics, according to a new report by human rights group Safeguard Defenders.
The use of the “Residential Surveillance” law, which allows authorities to detain an individual who is under investigation, awaiting criminal proceedings, or vaguely identified as a threat to national security, for up to six months, has become rampant under President Xi Jinping, the investigation reveals.
The arbitrary use of house arrest outside of the law remains unknown.
It has been deployed frequently against activists, lawyers, and their families - including young children who have been forbidden to play outside and who are accompanied by the police and monitored when they go to school.
Victims are often kept under oppressive surveillance inside their homes, forbidden to leave without police approval, and denied access to external communications or visitors.
In one of the most extreme examples, the police installed a barred security gate, which could only be opened with a fingerprint reader, in the hallway leading into the home of Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer.
Since President Xi rose to power in 2012, the use of lawful house arrest has risen rapidly, jumping from 5,549 to 28,704 in his first year of office and growing annually ever since.
From 2013 to 2021, there were some 270,000 mentions of the use of residential surveillance in the official Supreme Court database, but it is estimated that at least 560,000 to 860,000 people have been held under the law during Mr Xi’s rule, said Safeguard Defenders.
“The use of lawful house arrests since Xi Jinping came to power will almost certainly cross the 1 million mark soon. Considering just how rare the use of Residential Surveillance was during the initial reign of Xi Jinping, it is a significant, so far entirely unknown, and transformative change.”
Among those targetted is Li Wenzu, the wife of detained human rights lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, who has faced extended periods of house arrest with her young son since 2015, the year of a mass arrest of civil rights lawyers known as the “709 crackdown.”
Ms Li has been frequently threatened for advocating for the release of her husband.
In a Telegraph interview, Ms Li said being imprisoned in the family home had been particularly tough on her young son who was only four years old during their first spell of detention for two weeks in March 2016.
“There was a group of people hanging around under the windows downstairs every day, watching me 24 hours a day,” she said.
“I told the police it was impossible for me not to go out for half a month, because my child was still young, and if he stayed at home every day, he would get sick and suffocate,” she added.
“We need to breathe air; we need sunshine, we need to be outdoors. Secondly, I have to eat, and then I have to buy groceries.”
The police finally allowed her to take her child to the yard to play, but “I was surrounded by a group of people whenever I went out,” she said.
The authorities were even more heavy-handed during another period of home detention in 2018, when Ms Li was threatened with violence when she tried to meet people at her front door.
“At around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, my aunt wanted to take the child out for a walk, and a man blocking the door shouted at us, ‘If you dare to come out, you will be killed’,” she said.
Visitors were physically held back by a gang of men, and Ms Li said the police gathered about 100-200 people, including “hooligans” outside her home.
“Some friends who visited had their phones taken away by these people, and a Japanese journalist who came to cover the event was dragged out of his car and beaten by them,” she said.
“This kind of house arrest is mentally devastating and damaging to people.”
Victims of the arbitrary bouts of detention are particularly anxious about the long-term psychological impact on their children.
Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer who was arrested during the 709 crackdown, said a doctor had assessed her son was “suffering from significant physical and psychological damage” from being victimised by the authorities.
Her son was placed under house arrest for the 13 months she was in jail, and then endured a further 13 months of home detention with his parents when the whole family was exiled to Ms Wang’s hometown of Ulanhot, Inner Mongolia from August 2016 to September 2017.
The child was escorted to school by the police and CCTV cameras were installed in his classroom.
At home, the family was forced to live in one room, opposite another room holding more than 20 police officers to monitor their movements, to the point where two people followed them if they went downstairs to throw out the garbage.
The building was installed with cameras with facial recognition and Ms Wang believes either audio or video surveillance was carried out inside their room. On rare outings to Tianjin, the family were not permitted to walk further than two metres away from their minders’ line of sight.
“Human beings have always sought freedom, but this kind of house arrest or residential surveillance directly restricts human freedom, so it will deepen the dictatorship and autocracy in this country,” said Ms Wang.
Her son now lives in more freedom abroad, but the impact of China’s surveillance state has been devastating.
“He is really lonely because my husband and I are both restricted from leaving the country, and it is really hard to heal this damage,” said Ms Wang.
Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer who now lives in exile in the United States after a series of house arrests from 2003 to 2013, agreed that “the most painful thing was the effect on my children.”
He, along with other former detainees, pointed out that house arrests often appeared to coincide with sensitive political periods or visits from foreign dignitaries.
“One time when members of Congress from the United States came to China and wanted to meet with some human rights lawyers, I and a few others were placed under house arrest, and we were released only after the members left,” he said.
“China's criminal procedure law has legalised residential surveillance..But the problem is that in practice, [it] has been abused, leading to de facto enforced disappearances and so on. There is also no legal reason to place human rights defenders and dissidents under residential surveillance,” Mr Teng added.
“I am afraid that this trend will not change in the near future…it is difficult to reverse this suppression of civil society.”