Tang Jitian, a Chinese human rights attorney, has not been heard from since Dec. 10, according to close friends and family.
The 53-year-old’s whereabouts were last known when he texted friends to tell them he was planning to attend an event for Human Rights Day at the European Union office in Beijing. A few hours before the event was scheduled to begin, Tang said he did not “feel safe” and has not been heard from since. Repeated calls to his cellphone have also gone unanswered.
Tang is a prominent human rights lawyer from China’s Jilin Province who has taken on a wide range of cases surrounding human rights abuse at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), particularly jailed adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual practice. Tang has also represented cases involving land rights, HIV/AIDS victims, religious freedom, and political dissent.
According to the Chinese constitution, citizens enjoy many of the same basic rights as those guaranteed by the law in democratic countries. But in practice, the CCP overrides Chinese law, and most attorneys, judges, and prosecutors defer to the Party line in sensitive cases.
Front Line Defenders reported that as a result of his persistent activism and exposure of governmental abuse, Tang’s license to practice law was revoked in 2010 and a travel ban was placed against him. Some experts believe Tang was specifically targeted by the government for defending Falun Gong practitioners.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a Chinese traditional spiritual discipline practiced by tens of millions of people in China and around the world since its introduction to the public in 1992. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began a massive campaign to eradicate the popular faith in July 1999, incarcerating millions of people over the following decades. Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have since died from torture and abuse, with the number still on the rise.
Tang was among a group of four Chinese rights lawyers tortured by police after being detained for 15 days in March 2014. Tang was arrested during a protest outside a detention center in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang after traveling there to demand information on Falun Gong practitioners believed to be incarcerated in Jiansanjiang.
Since his disbarment, Tang has continued his work in human rights, and as a result, has been subjected to beatings, surveillance, travel restrictions and multiple arrests at the hands of Chinese authorities.
Tang also campaigned for the governing bodies of national and local lawyers associations to be democratically elected by members, hoping that it would bring change to China’s judicial process and human rights awareness.
Tang and others appear to be subjects of ‘enforced disappearances’
U.S. based scholar Teng Biao and a friend of Tang said: “I think it’s definitely more serious, [Tang’s disappearance], we have heard nothing from Tang Jitian since Dec. 10, so it looks like an enforced disappearance.”
Teng added that he believed Tang’s situation to be similar to that of Chinese dissident and former legal advocate Guo Feixiong, also known as Yang Maodong. Guo also “disappeared” after writing an open letter to Chinese premier Li Keqiang.
In his letter, Guo addressed Li and asked for the government to lift a travel ban imposed on him so he could visit his terminally ill wife Zhang Qing in the United States, Teng said.
“They have both played a prominent role in rights activism in China, and they are almost certainly in the custody of certain departments,” he added.
RFA also reported that Zhao Zhongyuan, another friend of Tang’s, said the lawyer was at the point of physical and mental collapse when he disappeared. Tang was barred from traveling to Japan to visit his 25-year-old daughter Tang Zhengqi who has been in a coma since April due to complications from tuberculosis.
“[Tang] had no medical insurance to seek treatment even if he was sick,” Zhao said.
“His health had reached the point of collapse, because he had been persecuted for a long time,” Zhao added. “He couldn’t work, couldn’t leave the country and was homeless, forced to stay a couple of days with one friend, and a couple of days with another.”
Barred from visiting critically ill daughter in Japan
SCMP reported that in June of this year, border control authorities at the Fuzhou airport prevented Tang from boarding a flight to Tokyo to see his daughter. Authorities at the airport told him that the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau had imposed an exit ban on him because his travel abroad “may endanger national security”.
“I’m physically and mentally exhausted over my daughter’s illness for the past month and a half. Now I can’t even see her in the hospital – there are no words to describe how I feel other than deep regret,” Tang said. “If it wasn’t for my girl, I’d have long given up on the hope of ever leaving China again.”
Tang’s daughter was declared brain dead after developing a serious bout of meningitis. She remains on life support in a hospital in Japan, Zhao told RFA.
“If they switched off the life support, she would be gone,” Zhao said. “Kiki lived very frugally, and when she got sick with tuberculosis, she self-medicated, so treatment was delayed. By the time she went to the hospital, she was already in a coma.”
“It was extremely cruel of the CCP to not let him go and visit his daughter during this sensitive time.”
Chinese authorities have a long history of imposing arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement, including both domestic and international travel bans. In 2017, Tang was also denied entry at the Lo Wu border crossing in Hong Kong after border patrol officials identified him. Tang said he had been diagnosed with leukemia after being released from detention and was hoping to seek medical treatment there. Officials there told him he had to turn back as his travel ban remained in effect.