Dialogue Amongst Coronavirus Clampdown

A prison official teaching female inmates to wash hands in an unnamed prison. Image Credit: Oriental Daily News

Like virtually all companies and organizations operating in China, the coronavirus pandemic that began in late 2019 has affected Dui Hua’s work. Because its Chinese interlocutors are reluctant to communicate about sensitive matters by email and the use of encryption software by Chinese officials is prohibited, Dui Hua relies on face-to-face meetings in places like Beijing, Hong Kong, San Francisco, New York, and Geneva to hand over prisoner lists and receive responses.

Chinese officials can no longer visit Hong Kong for such meetings, nor can Americans, as of mid-March. The Hong Kong government has closed all border crossings except three, and the Chinese government has restricted permits to officials who wish to enter the Special Administrative Region. Even officials in Chinese overseas embassies and consulates have been discouraged from meeting with foreigners so as not to interfere with the “people’s war” against the novel coronavirus and its disease, now named SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, respectively, by the World Health Organization.

Fortunately, and to a very limited degree, the Chinese government has been willing to use messaging apps to exchange information and ideas on human rights. In a sign of the importance the Chinese government places on its dealings with the United Nations, Beijing fielded a delegation to the Human Rights Council meeting that began in Geneva in late February and ended on March 13, a week early.

Traveling to Beijing and Hong Kong is also difficult due to travel advisories and the suspension of flights to both places by airlines, including United, Delta, and American Airlines. Travelers to Beijing are subject to quarantine, and travelers from China have been barred from entering numerous countries. Even Russia has closed its border with China.

Another source of information on prisoners – generated by family and, where applicable, consular visits to foreign nationals held in detention centers and prisons – has been crippled by the coronavirus. Carceral facilities have been closed to outsiders since early February. On February 21, prisons across three provinces reported that coronavirus infections had spread among prisoners (see box below), prompting the local authorities to fire prison officials in Shandong, Hubei, and Zhejiang. The news raised fears among family members for the well-being of their loved ones in Chinese prisons and detention centers.

Political unrest and the rapid spread of the coronavirus have led to the cancellation or postponement of many international events planned for Hong Kong, including the International Symposium on Girls in Conflict with the Law, originally scheduled to take place at the University of Hong Kong in April 2020. Dui Hua and its other partners are now planning to hold this event – the first of its kind – in San Francisco in early November 2020.

The twin blows of political unrest and the coronavirus have hammered the Hong Kong economy. Dui Hua has a small but growing number of donors, mostly businesspeople, based in Hong Kong.  The hit to their finances could well lead to a reduction in support for human rights causes. Stock exchanges around the world have fallen sharply due to news of the spread of the novel coronavirus, and this has raised fears that donations to charitable organizations will be hard hit in 2020.

<strong>COVID-19 in Chinese Prisons</strong>

Prisons across Hubei, Zhejiang, and Shanghai have reported over a thousand cases of coronavirus infection. While there have been no reported deaths, over 800 inmates in Wuhan had reportedly been infected as of February 29. The biggest number of infected inmates in a single prison – 279 confirmed cases – was in Hubei Wuhan Women’s Prison, a facility said to hold around 3,000 prisoners. Since February 24, provincial officials have ceased reporting prison outbreak figures separately from infection tallies in Wuhan as a whole. It is unclear whether the prison outbreaks have been contained because no official updates have been provided since February 24, 2020.

There are many Falun Gong practitioners in Hubei Women’s Prison. Dui Hua’s political prisoner database has records on 33 female Falun Gong prisoners in Hubei, most if not all of whom are held in Hubei Women’s Prison. Two of the longest serving female prisoners in Hubei, Feng Yunqing (冯蕴青) (due for release in 2024) and Zhu Ya (祝亚) (due for release in 2025), are in the women’s prison. One male prisoner, Zheng Jufang (郑具芳), is serving a sentence for endangering state security in Hubei Hanlin Prison, where confirmed infections have been reported. Hubei’s most famous political prisoner, Qin Yongmin (秦永敏), the 66-year-old co-founder of the China Democracy Party, is not believed to be in a prison where infections have occurred.

In all of the cases of infected inmates, the virus is thought to have been introduced into the prisons by prison officers and police who failed to report their trips to highly infected areas. This prompted dismissals and other disciplinary action against more than 20 officials.

Chinese netizens were furious when it was learned, on February 26, 2020, that a female inmate from Wuhan Women’s Prison who was infected with the virus was released and brought back to Beijing by her family. A team from the Ministry of Justice, Supreme People’s Court, and the Ministry of Public Security went to Hubei to investigate and issued a decision punishing prison officials. The warden, provincial prison bureau director general, bureau party secretary, and several other officials were removed from their positions. On February 27, the provincial epidemic prevention committee, led by newly appointed party secretary Ying Yong, announced the curtailment of prisoner releases under a new policy of “in principal, no exit, only entry.”


A list posted online by Twitter user  “中国文字狱事件盘点(@SpeechFreedomCN)” documented over 400 individuals who had been summoned, “admonished,” administratively or criminally detained, or placed under other measures for circulating information about the novel coronavirus as of the end of February 2020. While Dui Hua has yet to verify each of these cases of “spreading false rumors,” it is clear that some of them were politically motivated:

  • Guo Quan (郭泉), former professor at Nanjing Normal University, was arrested on February 14 for inciting subversion, a charge stemming from his online articles critical of the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak. The arrest came while he is serving his three-year deprivation of political rights. Guo completed his full 10-year sentence for subversion in November 2018 without having received a sentence reduction.
  • Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润) has been under house arrest since early February. Xu blamed the deficiencies of the authoritarian system that has increasingly concentrated power in the hands of Xi Jinping for causing the uncontrolled spread of the virus.
  • Citizen journalist Fang Bin (方斌) was criminally detained on February 10 for live streaming the epidemic in his hometown of Wuhan as the entire province was in lockdown. He also called on the Chinese people to resist the government.
  • Chen Qiushi (陈秋实), another citizen journalist, has been forced to undergo quarantine at an undisclosed location since February 6, also for reporting the outbreak in Wuhan. Chen had previously been harassed and silenced by mainland authorities for covering the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong.
  • Former CCTV 7 channel program host Li Zehua (李泽华) disappeared on February 26 after interviewing porters who were hired to transport the bodies of those who had died from the virus.

Swedish national Gui Minhai (桂民海 or 桂敏海) was sentenced on February 24 to 10 years’ imprisonment and five years’ deprivation of political rights by the Ningbo Intermediate People’s Court for illegally providing intelligence to foreign entities. Gui’s disappearance in Pattaya, Thailand, in 2015 rattled relations between Beijing and Stockholm. Their relations were further strained in January 2018, when Chinese law enforcement officers seized Gui on a Beijing-bound train in the company of Swedish diplomats. The Ningbo court claimed that Gui applied to restore his Chinese citizenship in 2018. Sweden has challenged this claim.

In the final days of 2019, over a dozen rights lawyers and activists from different provinces were detained or went missing after attending a private democracy gathering in Xiamen, Fujian. Among them, Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Zhang Zhongshun (张忠顺), Dai Zhenya (戴振亚), and Li Yingjun (李英俊) have been held on suspicion of inciting subversion under residential surveillance at a designated location in Shandong since December 26. Prominent activist Xu Zhiyong (许志永) went into hiding in Guangzhou after the initial crackdown. He was reportedly taken away in Guangzhou by Beijing public security on February 15. The following day, he was held under residential surveillance at a designated location in Beijing on suspicion of inciting subversion. Xu’s girlfriend Li Qiaochu (李翘楚) was also taken away by Beijing public security on February 16. The charges against Li and her place of incarceration remain unknown.


Featured: Human Rights Journal, February 19, 2020: China’s Criminal Trial Statistics: Hong Kong-Related Cases

One of the “No China Extradition” posters which were common during the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, which started in June 2019. Image Credit: kowloonsingjai via Facebook

Civil unrest in Hong Kong, which entered its ninth month in March 2020, was initially triggered by a now-rescinded bill that would have allowed for the Special Administrative Region to extradite fugitive offenders to countries with whom Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty, including mainland China. At the heart of these protests is a fundamental distrust for China’s judicial system among Hong Kong people.

While distrust for the legal system is widespread, some Hong Kong people do legitimately run afoul of mainland law. From 2001 to 2015, 9,400 Hong Kong people were subjected to criminal compulsory measures in China. Most of them were detained in Guangdong for fraud, smuggling ordinary goods, or drug-related charges under Chinese law. This post, the third in a series that draws on the Supreme People’s Court’s 12-volume Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, discusses criminal cases involving Hong Kong people tried by Chinese courts. 

Read more about Hong Kong people detained in mainland China here.

Press Statement: United Nations Body Finds American Citizen Mark Swidan Arbitrarily Detained, Urges His Immediate Release


John Kamm Remembers is a feature that explores Kamm’s human rights advocacy prior to and since Dui Hua’s establishment in 1999.

US Businessman Fong Fuming Released From Prison

In the two years that followed Dui Hua’s incorporation in April 1999, relations between the United States and China were roiled by two incidents: the May 7, 1999 bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade by US planes and the April 1, 2001 mid-air collision between an American EP3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet 70 miles off the coast of Hainan.

The Belgrade bombing led to the suspension of the human rights dialogue between the two countries. The EP3 incident, which resulted in the downing of the Chinese fighter jet and the capture of the US plane, came less than three months after President George W. Bush was inaugurated in January 2001. The US plane was forced to land on Hainan. The crew was held in China for 12 days before they were repatriated to the United States. During this roughly two-week period, newly elected President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney froze all contact between US officials and Chinese diplomats, with few exceptions. I was discouraged from attending a reception at the Chinese embassy in Washington.

On May 8, 1999, Chinese university students gathered outside the US embassy in Beijing to protest the bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade by US-led NATO forces. Image Credit: Liu Zhankun via

Seeking to repair badly frayed relations between the two countries, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced on April 23, 2001 that he would visit Beijing at the end of July 2001.

A goal of the July 2001 visit was to announce the resumption of the human rights dialogue with China, which had been suspended for more than two years by this point. Powell brought Lorne Craner, the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Rights, and Labor, with him on his three-day visit to China. As hoped, the visit resulted in an announcement that the human rights dialogue would resume in October 2001 in Beijing.

Not long after the announcement that the July 2001 visit would take place, Craner asked me to assist with the preparation of a prisoner list that he hoped to hand over to his Chinese counterpart, Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs International Department Li Baodong. The list was in fact made up of two lists, one of long-serving prisoners and the other of priority cases. Dui Hua drew up the long-serving prisoner list, a compilation of 50 individuals serving sentences for counterrevolution and endangering state security, and it contributed names to the priority cases list.

Craner was able to hand over the list to Li Baodong, who reluctantly accepted it but told Craner not to expect a response.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Chinese President Jiang Zemin made a strategic decision to improve relations with the United States. As part of this decision he ordered his Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make the human rights dialogue session taking place in October 2001 a success. Instead of Beijing, the session would take place in Washington. At the same time the Ministry of Justice was ordered to reply to the US prisoner list and to separately draw up a list of political prisoners who could be released.

The dialogue session that took place on October 10, 2001 was a success. The Chinese delegation handed over a document with information on 48 of the prisoners on the “long-serving list” and 26 of the prisoners on the “priority list” – a response rate of 92.5 percent. Releases of long-serving prisoners began in January 2002 with Tibetan ethnomusicologist Ngawang Choephel, followed later that year by the releases of elderly teacher Jigme Sangpo, Drapchi nun Ngawang Sangdrol, and Democracy Party Chairman Xu Wenli.

In testimony I delivered to Congress in 2005, I estimated that prisoners on the 2001 Craner list were three times more likely than prisoners not on the list to benefit from early release.

Bolstered by the success of the October 2001 dialogue session, Craner decided to prepare a list for the next round of the human rights dialogue to take place in Beijing in December 2002. Once again, he asked for my assistance. My colleagues and I put together a list of 250 names which I sent to Craner on November 7, 2002. Twenty names were removed from the list, which was then forwarded to the US embassy in Beijing. This list of 230 names was handed over to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of the names on that list was that of US businessman Fong Fuming (方复明).

Who is Fong Fuming?

At the dawn of the new millennium, Fong Fuming was a US businessman, engineer, and power industry consultant based in New Jersey. In China, he had been the deputy director and chief engineer of the Zhejiang Provincial Power Bureau. In the wake of the June 1989 killings in Beijing and other cities, he resigned his position and left for the United States. His decision did not sit well with the Ministry of State Security.

Fong Fuming in a 2012 video expressing support for Congressman Pascrell. Image Credit: Pascrell2012

Fong regularly visited China on business. In the late 1990s, officials from the Shanghai State Security Bureau contacted Fong’s agent with a request to cooperate with the bureau to earn money bidding for power plants. The agent rebuffed them. The Shanghai State Security Bureau, suspicious of Fong after he resigned his position and angry at his agent’s rejection, placed Fong under surveillance. The director of the Shanghai Bureau was promoted to Vice Minister of the State Security Ministry in Beijing, and the investigation into Fong intensified.

On February 28, 2000, Fong arrived in Beijing for a meeting with B&W Boiler Manufacturing. He was taken into custody by officers of the Beijing State Security Bureau at Beijing International Airport and placed under residential surveillance in a designated location (RSDL), a coercive measure that is often used to hold political prisoners for a period of up to six months and is rarely used against foreigners. During this period, those subjected to RSDL cannot receive visits from family members or lawyers. Foreigners under RSDL are permitted one 30-minute visit once a month from consular officers at their embassy.

Fong was moved around among State Security facilities in the outskirts of Beijing. His laptop, seized at the airport, was scrutinized. State Security found 32 documents containing specifications of various manufacturers’ power equipment. The State Security Bureau had these documents classified as state secrets. Fong was now suspected of obtaining and providing state secrets to foreign entities.

After spending six months under RSDL, Fong was formerly detained on August 28, 2000 on state secrets charges and bribery. He was arrested the following month. Following two hearings, Fong was tried in March 2002. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. He was not given credit for the time he served under RSDL.

According to statistics released by China’s Supreme People’s Court, 19 people were convicted of obtaining and providing state secrets to foreign entities in 2002. Only one of them – American Fong Fuming – was a foreigner.

Fong entered Beijing Number Two Prison on June 6, 2002 and was placed in the cell block holding foreigners. These included three or four Americans, two Japanese citizens, and several South Koreans. Not long after Fong’s arrival, the foreigner group was transferred to Beijing’s Liangxiang Prison, where Fong was to serve the remainder of his sentence.

Fong was not physically tortured but was subjected to a number of indignities while under detention. His glasses, dentures, and hearing aid were taken from him; his dentures were returned at mealtime. On one occasion, the guards lost his dentures, and Fong refused to eat until they were found.


Shortly after Fong Fuming was taken into custody, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs notified the US embassy, which in turn notified Fong’s family in New Jersey. Fong’s wife and sons immediately began working to secure his release. They consulted the preeminent expert on Chinese law, Jerome Allen Cohen, and reached out to me for help. They appealed to senior officials of the George W. Bush administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Ambassador to China Clark “Sandy” Randt, and assistant secretaries James Kelley (in charge of the East Asia and Pacific Bureau) and Lorne Craner. President Bush raised Fong’s case when he visited Beijing in February 2002.

Congressman Pascrell. Image Credit: United States Congress / Public Domain

Most importantly, Fong’s family asked for assistance from the family’s congressman, Bill Pascrell. Pascrell, a Democrat elected in 1996, worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents. In his words, Pascrell launched an “avalanche of letters” to US and Chinese officials demanding Fong’s immediate release. He reached across the aisle and secured the help of Congressman Chris Smith, a fierce critic of China’s human rights record. Pascrell even engineered a resolution on Fong Fuming that was passed by the New Jersey State Assembly.

The family requested medical parole for Fong on four occasions. Their applications were ignored or rejected by the Beijing Prison Bureau.

The campaign to secure Fong’s release intensified in November 2002, when his name was presented to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the list compiled by Dui Hua for the human rights dialogue in Beijing.  This was in anticipation of the human rights dialogue to take place in December 2002. That same month, Dui Hua researchers found a December 1984 document issued by the Supreme People’s Court; the document stated that time spent under RSDL should be counted when calculating the date when a criminal sentence expires. I immediately sent this document to Fong’s family.

In January 2003, Congressman Pascrell visited Beijing. He forcefully raised Fong’s case in a meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Pascrell’s meeting was one of the last between Jiang and a US member of Congress. Jiang stepped down from his position in March 2003 and was succeeded by Hu Jintao.

On January 4, 2003, I faxed a petition to La Yifan, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Human Rights Division. I asked him to consider granting good behavior parole to Fong. Under Chinese law, a prisoner can be released on good behavior parole after he or she has completed half of his or her sentence. Citing records of consular visits provided to me by the family, I pointed out that Fong was considered an exceptionally well-behaved prison – “a model prisoner” – and argued that if Fong had been given credit for the time he served under RSDL, then he would have already completed half of his sentence months before. 

La Yifan, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Human Rights Division during Fong Fuming’s ordeal. Image Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China

I followed up on this message when I met with La in Beijing on March 3, 2003. In the months that followed, frequent follow-up calls were made to La after consultations with Fong’s family, Assistant Secretary Craner, and Ambassador Randt.

My next visit to Beijing took place from September 8-12, 2003. I met with a wide range of interlocutors and was informed by two sources that a decision had been made in August to grant Fong a nine-month sentence reduction. I argued that instead of giving Fong a nine-month sentence reduction, his sentence should be commuted, a procedure known as “jianxing shifang” (减刑释放) – literally “reduce sentence followed by release.” I felt progress was being made, so I briefed Craner by phone on September 12, 2003.

On October 19, 2003, President Bush met with Chinese President Hu in Bangkok. President Bush again brought up Fong. Eight days later, Fong was released from prison and flown back to the United States accompanied by an embassy officer. I received a phone call from La Yifan at 2 a.m. advising me that Fong was on a plane on the way back to the United States.

Fong arrived at Newark International Airport and was met in an emotional reunion by his wife and sons as well as his champion Congressman Pascrell. The congressman subsequently sent me a letter in which he thanked me for the “invaluable assistance” I provided. At the bottom of the letter, Mr. Pascrell penned a brief note: “We couldn’t have done this without your help.”