At the very same moment that the Communist Party of China's (CPC) top officials were debating a landmark law to protect legal rights, activist Liu Ping was being bundled into a car and driven to an undisclosed location with a black cloth draped over her head.
Ms. Liu had gained nationwide attention last year when she contested a local-level election as an independent, later becoming a campaigner for public participation in politics. The retired factory worker and mother of one was being driven out of the Chinese capital on March 6, the day after the National People's Congress (NPC), the national parliament, began its annual session.
Blindfolded and accompanied by seven men, she was forcibly taken by provincial authorities back to her native Jiangxi. For the next two weeks, Ms. Liu would essentially be “disappeared” — cut off from all human contact, denied food and even beaten regularly, she told The Hindu in an interview on Tuesday.
Her only crime was appearing in the national capital at a time when authorities were conducting what has now become an annual ritual of creating a “harmonious environment” for the Parliament session. Activists and ordinary citizens who travel to Beijing to have their grievances heard by the central government during the session are rounded up by provincial authorities, who want to prevent them from petitioning, and detained in extrajudicial “black jails” during the course of the session.
The focus of the NPC's session this year was the passing of a landmark revision to the Criminal Procedure Law aimed particularly at cases like Ms. Liu's. After much debate, the NPC passed an amendment that now forces authorities to only hold people in formal detention centres. Relatives would also have to be notified within 24 hours. An earlier amendment that proposed legalising secret detentions was discarded following public outcry.
But as Ms. Liu's case shows, the protection of rights guaranteed under the law can often seem entirely irrelevant to those detained at the hands of local enforcement authorities. If the law is to be enforced properly, activists say, the government must start reform at the grassroots, starting with addressing the deeply entrenched practices of local authorities.
“The officials told me,” said Ms. Liu in an interview, “that we need not treat a person like you according to the law or any process.”
“We need not even show you who we are,” the seven Jiangxi men said when she asked for their identifications.
Ms. Liu was detained for 14 days in a decrepit room. She was not told the location of where she was being kept, and neither were her relatives informed of her detention. She faced regular beatings. “I did not have food to eat for days,” she said.
Her case underscores both the limits of the law in China, despite attempts to reform, and the continued drive among a small group of activists to bring change in the face of severe harassment.
Ms. Liu, a retired factory worker, came into prominence last year when she contested a local level election in Xinyu, a town in Jiangxi. China only allows direct elections at the village level, the lowest level of administration, but even these contests are often closely controlled by the party.
Ms. Liu used the Internet to spread her campaign, and helped trigger a spate of independent candidates at local-level elections. She, however, began to face harassment from local authorities for her activism, and was eventually disqualified as a candidate.
After her detention, she said she will continue her activism to promote public participation in politics. “That is my one aim now,” she said. “Even after what happened, I have no regrets.”