A human rights activist, a secret prison and a narrative from Xi Jinping’s new China

Peter Dahlin spent 23 days in a black prison in Beijing, where he says he was deprived of sleep and questioned with a communication improvement machine. Here he tells the story of his incarceration and expulsion from the Peoples Republic

Some nights Peter Dahlin says he tucks a big-ass knife under his bed in case interlopers come for him as he dozes; others he cannot sleep at all.

Theyve kidnapped people several times here before, says the 36 -year-old Swedish human rights activist, chain-smoking Marlboro cigarettes as he recollects the 23 days he spent in secret detention in China.

It has been a year since Dahlin became one of the first foreign victims of President Xi Jinpings war on disagreement.

On 3 January 2016 Chinese security agents encircled the activists Beijing home and spirited him and his Chinese girlfriend, Pan Jinling, off to a covert interrogation centre he now calls The Residence.

Months have now passed but the memories of that spell in custody have proved hard to shake. These facilities are built to break you, the campaigner says during a seven-hour interview at a home in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand where he and Pan have lived since he was deported from China amid one of the most severe crackdowns in decades.

The story of Peter Dahlin, told here in unprecedented detail, offers a rare and troubling snapshot of Xi Jinpings China, where an unforgiving offensive against civil society is now unfolding.

Peter Dahlin speaks on camera in a still from video released by China Central Television. Photo: AP

In the four years since Xi became Chinas top leader in November 2012, feminist campaigners, journalists, academics, bloggers, publishers, human rights lawyers and even foreign non-governmental organisation workers such as Dahlin have all been targeted in what experts suspect is a coordinated Communist party push to prevent the development of organised opposition to the regime.

The political situation, which some call the most dire since the Tiananmen Square carnage in 1989, has degenerated so fast under the current leadership that one intellectual asserts Xi has built the perfect dictatorship an ever-more repressive system that however avoids major international censure.

During his stint behind bars the Swedish activist says he was given a firsthand savor of the harshness with which that battle for control is being waged.

He claims he was blindfolded and confined to a cell with expressionless guards who refused to engage in conversation but noted down his every move; was for days deprived of access to his embassy, the right to exert or even to sunlight; was forced to endure depleting late-night interrogation conferences conducted by hectoring inquisitors determined to paint him as a spy; subjected to a lie-detection machine intended to extract information about his work; and suffered periods of sleep deprivation that he believes were intended to weaken his resolve.

Dahlin, who until his detention had operated a Beijing-based rights organisation called the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group or China Action, said during the seven years he lived and worked as an activist in China friends and diplomats had always considered him an optimist about the countrys future.

Those illusions have been shattered by the things he witnessed in the lead-up to his incarceration at The Residence.

For the first time I am not optimistic any more, he says. This is how China will operate for the next 20 years. Now its a new hard line.

The underground activist

Peter Dahlin arrived in China from his native Sweden in the summer of 2004, a 23 -year-old political science graduate keen for a taste of the world outside a lecturing theatre.

I was just there to backpack and learn, recollects Dahlin, whose travellings took him through Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen, the south-eastern port where Xi served as vice-mayor in the 1980 s.

Three years later he returned, throwing himself into human rights work alongside Hou Wenzhou, a Chinese activist he had met online.

Dahlins first project was a report denouncing the existence of an illegal nationwide network of secret detention facilities called black incarcerates. It identified eight such prisons in Beijing.

About the same time Dahlin met Wang Quanzhang, a crusading civil rights lawyer known for his defence of Chinas downtrodden and outspoken criticism of the governmental forces. Together, in 2009, they founded China Action, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to supporting human rights defenders in the one-party state.

Increasingly draconian laws make it effectively impossible for such non-governmental rights organisations to operate legally in mainland China. Instead the pair registered their group as a company in Hong Kong and decided they would strive to operate in the shadows so as to avoid attracting attention.

I decided we had a shot at doing something quite special, Dahlin says of the groups creation. The Swedish activist says he was partly driving in middle-class guilt but also a conviction that people should be the masters of their own fates.

Ive never been particularly political, he says. Ive never paid attention to Tibet and these issues very much. I merely believe in the idea of self-determination.

Whether it is Scottish people, the Catalan people, the Tibetan people or even merely a village somewhere in China; that the people there should be the ones that have an influence, whether it is by forming an organization, a labour union, their own media, whatever.

Guided by those faiths, Dahlin set about build China Action into a small but potent force-out for social change.

With grants from institutions that included the European Union, the National Endowment For Democracy and the Norwegian Human Right Money it ran training sessions for human rights lawyers and investigative journalists and offered support to young Chinese campaigners traumatised by run-ins with the security services.

Just as China Action was ramping up its operations, however, the human rights situation in China took a turn for the worse.

The crackdown begins

Many accuse Xi of initiating the current chill but some tracing it back to around 2008 when anti-government protests rocked Tibet just as China was preparing to host the Summer Olympics.

Deadly riots the following year in Chinas far west left authorities even more convinced that it was time to step up their controls over society.

In Beijing Dahlin sought to fly under the radar, moving into a one-bedroom studio hidden in the alleys around the 13 th century Drum Tower and disguising his trueline of work with a series of legends.

He told some he was the son of a wealthy Swedish industrialist who was in China researching the electric bicycle industry; to others he introduced himself as a legal researcher or expat English teacher, simply to see the way the conversation dies.

Even my close friends didnt know about my work, he says. They knew I did something to do with an NGO and human rights but that is about it. I always operated with a cover.

A self-professed history geek, Dahlin adopted the surname Beckenridge an allusion to John C Breckinridge, the vice-president of the Confederate countries but he maintained his first name. Any effective cover story has to have 90% truth and then 10% misinform you always keep your first name to avoid mistakes.

For a while the subterfuge paid off. Dahlins visas were renewed by public security authorities, despite the fact that his human rights work was officially illegal, and he sensed that police were happy monitoring the group from afar.

Were not a political organisation, he says by way of rationale for why his group was able to keep operating for so long. We dont deal with republic issues.

President Xi Jinping: turned his country into a controlocracy. Photo: Petr David Josek/ AP

But by 2013, the year Xi became chairwoman, the climate had begun to change. First came a sweeping crackdown on Chinas already tightly controlled internet; outspoken bloggers were detained and publicly humiliated in an attemp to kerb the wanton defamation of the Communist party.

Next came the obliteration of the New Citizens Movement, a collective of liberal canadian researchers and activists who had been pushing for moderate social and political change. The groups leader, a respected lawyer called Xu Zhiyong, was jailed for four years. Another prominent member fled into exile in the US.

It was the start of what many describe as a concerted clampdown on organizations of civil society designed to extinguish organised opposition to Beijing at a time when Chinas fading economic boom threatened to undermine its political legitimacy.

Stein Ringen, a political scientist whose new book, The Perfect Dictatorship, investigates the dramatic political tightening, said he believed that after a period of steely and foresightful analysis, Chinas top leaders had concluded they must tightened their grip over the population now that the epoch of mega-economic growth was over.

There is an absolute determination that the regime will persist and continue. That is number 1 for everything: the perpetuation of the regime.

Ringen, an emeritus prof at Oxford University, said that in just a few years Xi had turned his country into a controlocracy where an ingenious mix of hard and soft measures were used to ensure the partys regulation went unchallenged.

It is so smooth that in some respects it doesnt even look dictatorial, he said. Most dictatorships are very clumsy, raw, inelegant. But this one isnt. They have it sussed.

The arrest

As Xis crackdown unfolded up and down the country, agents from Chinas ministry of state security, a mysterious snoop bureau tasked with snuffing out political threats to the party, began to move against Dahlins group, trying to recruit his assistant as a mole.

We were well aware that from at the least 2013 country security and not only police were actively monitoring us, he says.

Dahlin began taking extra precautions, memorising the night flights out of Beijing and filling a brown leather satchel with bundles of money, hard drives, documents, a change of clothes and his passport.

In the summer of 2015 the situation deteriorated further still. A sweeping police offensive against Chinese human rights lawyers the so-called 709 crackdown began, sucking in a very large number of people is directly related to China Action, including Dahlins friend and partner Wang, who was seized near the eastern city of Jinan on 3 August.

With those detentions Dahlin sensed the noose was stiffening. Maybe there will be no more China, he remembers thinking.

Then on 3 January 2016 the end came. At about 2pm Dahlin realised China Action was under intense scrutiny when a Chinese associate reported being summoned to gratify security officials who had grilled him about a Swedish human named Peter.

Shortly before 4pm the Swede sat down at his computer and began to type an email to a group of close colleagues with the subject line: Situation.

There now seems to be an active investigation, he wrote, adding that he planned to flee the country and might not return to China if things get bad.

Clear all papers, USBs, computers, phones, pads etc, Dahlin instructed his workmates. These things need to be done ASAP.

Dahlin expended the afternoon tying up loose ends: shredding documents, saying goodbye to his girlfriend Pan, and taking care of the couples cats, Poopi and Dou Gonggong.

He booked a seat on a 3am Cathay Pacific Flight to Hong Kong and from there planned to take another flight to Thailand.

The apprehend of Peter Dahlin, as described to the Chiang Mai-based Mexican-American artist Nicolas Luna Fleck

But at 9.45 pm just hours before he had planned to set off for the airport there was a loud bang on the door.

Are you Peter Dahlin? said one of the uniformed agents packing the alleyway outside. Well, yeah, the activist replied.

The Residence

About 15 miles south of Dahlins hutong home , not far from Beijings Nanyuan military airbase, is a drab, four-storey office block used for the interrogation of those deemed foes of the Chinese state. Basically, it is a secret prison, says Dahlin.

In the early hours of Monday 4 January a convoy of police vehicles pulled up in the ground-floor garage of the U-shaped installation. Blindfolded, the activist was resulted out of one of the cars, into a lift and then along a corridor into a second-floor interrogation room.

You sort of only freeze It was sort of expected but still you realise that this could objective badly or this could end very badly.

Dahlins first interrogation began about 2am that wintertime morning, as temperatures outside The Residence plunged to six degrees below zero.

Two male inquisitors sat opposite the captive, who says he was seated in a hard wooden tiger chair with leg shackles that were left splayed out on the floor. Metals bars crisscrossed the rooms only window.

The initial questioning was less intimidating than the surroundings might have suggested. It started fairly innocuously. They were just trying to get a sense of me. Who am I? What am I doing in China? Very basic questioning.

Dahlins ties to three persons of interest seemed of particular concern: the human rights lawyer Wang; Xing Qingxian, an activist from south-west China; and Su Changlan, a womens rights campaigner who had been detained months earlier for offering online support to Hong Kongs 2014 pro-democracy protests.

But it was a gentle introduction to life in The Residence for the sleep-deprived activist: three hours later, about 5am, the session was terminated and he was led into a rectangular cell across the corridor with beige padded walls and two small windows that were also covered by metal bars. Thick blackout curtains stimulated it impossible to tell the time of day; three fluorescent lamps hung from the ceiling, including one directly above the bed. Even the lavatory seat was suicide-padded, Dahlin recollects.

Also inside were two guards, part of a squad that remained there and watched over Dahlin 24 hours a day and recorded every move or sound he made in a notebook but never uttered a word.

They would often stand up and go and stand and look when you take a piss, you take a shit, you take a shower. Its a bit odd, Dahlin says, adding with a laugh: Luckily Im Swedish and Sweden has a instead relaxed notion of nudity.

The following days were a blur of interrogations. They made it clear that they had followed me, surveilled me intently for a while and were well aware, “theyre saying”, of what I had been doing.

Dahlin claims his captors demanded a map of who his group had been working with and became very, very angry after he refused to talk unless he was allowed to see the representatives of Swedish embassy.

The activist says his interrogators then refused to let him sleep until he offered them detailed information and only relented after he protested to the centres boss a woman who devoted her name as Mrs Zhang that his therapy contravened the UN convention against torture, which China ratified in 1988.

She was very upset, Dahlin says of her reaction. And went on about how nicely Im being treated.

Eventually he was allowed to sleep.

As the questioning sessions continued, often lasting up to six hours at a time, Dahlin, who correctly suspected that Pan and several colleagues were also being detained in the facility, chose his best alternative was to avoid incriminating others by painting the officers a big picture with nothing in it.

But the interrogators hit back, telling the activist his friends and colleagues were turning against him. This is your only chance, they said. They are blaming everything on you. If you dont strike back it is over for you.

Dahlin says he held firm, telling his captors China should be proud of its human rights lawyers and flatly repudiating recurred demands for him to surrender information about them or passwords for email accounts and encrypted hard drives that had been confiscated from his home.

As night fell on the covert prison, unnerving voices find their route into the activists cell from other parts of The Residence, which Dahlin calculated had been built to house about eight captives. I could hear created voices. I could hear muted sounds of what I assumed would be someone slammed against the wall and floor.

I was quite prepared that there was going to be six months of this. That was my timeframe. I was counting the working day in my head.

As Dahlin floundered in the secret incarcerate the world outside went on. Exactly one week after he was seized, on 10 January, David Bowie died in his New York flat, news the Swedish activist only received after his release.

Two days later, on 12 January, the first reports of Dahlins detention began to emerge in the international media. Having initially denied knowledge of the activists disappearance, the Chinese government now admitted coercive measures had been taken against him.

Three days later, on 15 January, a state-run newspaper published an editorial accusing the activist of funding revolutionary political activists who were seeking confrontation with the Communist party.

Friends and relatives called for his release, warns that without access to his medication, Dahlin, who has Addisons disease a rare hormonal ailment also suffered by John F Kennedy could die.

Cut off from the world in this conceal incarcerate, Dahlin knew nothing of “whats going on” outside. He use music to assistance him cope with the boredom and stress, attempting to alleviate the tedium by recollecting the lyrics of ballads by REM, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

You think through everything. Not once or twice but 100 times for each thing. Every friend “youve had”. Every relationship “youve had”. Every date you had If you sit there for weeks on end with nothing to do you start having weird supposes because there is nothing left to think about.

About 10 days into his captivity Dahlins ordeal took an Orwellian turning when interrogators told the activist they wanted to use a communication enhancement machine a species of lie detector to assist with their investigations.

Peter Dahlin faces his interrogators. Illustration: Nicolas Luna Fleck

Electrodes were attached to the activists fingertips and small cameras trained on his pupils while he was asked questions. Dahlin suspects it was a clever psychological play to induce him uncover details of his groups run and sponsors but the device appeared to fail.

They seemed to have some problem given the fact that my fingertips would sweat so they couldnt get good readings, he says. I dont think they get much from it.

On about day 13 of Dahlins stay at The Residence the omens improved. He was granted a visit from two Swedish consular officials who inquired if he had been given any fruit Merely one small bite of an apple, the captive replied then left.

Two nights afterwards came a second positive signal. At about 3am a group of officers came into his cell and one, whom he knew as Mr Zhang, perched on the edge of his rock-hard mattress. I realised something was happen, Dahlin says.

The confession

Zhang told the activist he would need to pen a self-criticism in which he confessed to a series of crimes.

Crucially, Dahlin should admit that the human rights lawyers with whom he had worked were criminals and taking fund from the National Endowment for Democracy, a US-funded non-profit which has been demonised in countries such as China and Russia as an instigator of colour revolutions.

Even though they were not among our biggest funders, that was a very core phase, says Dahlin, who believes the attempt to connection China Action to the endowment group was intended to help paint his group as a hostile foreign force that had been plotting to undermine the Communist party.

The following night Dahlin received a second visit. We need one more thing, the policeman told him. Lets make a video.

Dahlin knew immediately what was being suggested.

Since Xi had taken office apparently forced broadcasted confessions had come back into vogue, are applied to humiliate a range of government foes including Gao Yu, a veteran journalist who was jailed for leaking a politically sensitive document, and Charles Xue, an internet celebrity known for his online outspokenness on social and political issues.

Within hours Dahlin had been ordered to remove his prison uniform, don his normal clothes and was seated in a room opposite a glamorous female correspondent from the China Central Television, the state broadcaster. He was handed a situated of 7 or eight pre-written answers that had been typed on to a sheet of A4 paper.

Prime time! the activist says he believed as the camera began to roll. Great!

Dahlin, who had lost nearly 6kg since his detention began, says he immediately agreed to the recording, knowing it would accelerate his release and, more importantly, that of his girlfriend.

I have been given good food, plenty of sleep and I have suffered no mistreatments of any kind, he told his interviewer. I have no grievances to make. I suppose my treatment has been fair.

The confession of Peter Dahlin

Dahlin says he tried to deflect blame from his Chinese associates by shouldering persons responsible for the working group activities.

He refused to label the Chinese lawyers he had worked with as felons but admitted: I have violated Chinese statute through my activities here. I have caused harm to the Chinese government. I have hurt the impressions of the Chinese people.

I apologise sincerely for this and I am very sorry that this ever happened, he concluded before the camera was to turn.

The next day those remarks were splashed across Chinas party-controlled media with Xinhua, the countrys official news agency, using the interview to prove police had smashed an illegal organisation that sponsored activities jeopardising Chinas national security.

Dahlin, Xinhua claimed, had been planted in the country by western anti-China forces-out bent on stirring opposition to the regime.

As a reward for his video confession Dahlin says he was given a cup of Nescaf instant coffee and a couple of cigarettes. Less than a week afterwards he and Pan would be free.

Dahlin says the final stages of his three-week stint in a secret jail were among the hardest, although he has sensed his release was imminent. I would go from a sense of serene happiness to being exhilarated to being incredibly despondent and thinking, Fuck, this is it. Im dead.

Goodbye to China

On the morning of 21 January he was told he had been granted medical parole and would soon be deported. Four days later, after being allowed a fleeting meeting with Pan, he was blindfolded and escorted back downstairs into The Residences garage.

Flanked by four burly guards in martial art apparel, Dahlin was driven north towards Beijings international airport where he was told he was being expelled under the espionage act.

Stay out of difficulty now, he recollects being told by one of the security agents, who escorted him on to Scandinavian Airline Flight 996 to Copenhagen.

Peter Dahlins last position of China and his security minders

Onboard the passenger airplane Dahlin turned on his phone and snapped one final photograph of China: asurreptitious shooting of the security officers who had placed him on his last flight out of the country.

The flight attendant in first class police officials had utilized cash confiscated from Dahlins home to buy his ticket handed him a glass of champagne.

I killed it, Dahlin says. And then I had another glass. I had wine. I had a whisky. I had a brew and I had a coffee. All of the things I hadnt had.

Since touching down in Thailand in May, Dahlin says he has been gradually trying to rebuild their own lives.

After the trauma of 23 days in secret custody and seven years living with the daily stress of concealing his run, he says he is struggling to adapt to a more mundane routine and fears he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress ailment.

Ive gotten so used to living a lie. It takes time to break that habit down.

I get weird-ass dreamings that I never had before; anxiety; never being able to relax properly. I can deal with it but it takes time, he says. Your intellect plays tricks on you. You hear things by the gate at night.

One afternoon Dahlin remembers suffering a panic attack when he lost sight of Pan, who moved with him to Chiang Mai, in a supermarket and concluded she had been snatched by Chinese agents as appears to have happened to a wave of Thailand-based protesters and Communist party foes.

On another occasion Dahlins heart leapt when a group of Chinese humen surrounded the couple at a local hotel. I supposed, Fuck, is this it? Are they here to do something?

The here and now

Back in China, the situation is even gloomier. Recent weeks have watched a fresh round of detentions that suggest the crackdown on human rights lawyers has yet to run its course.

Dahlins former partner Wang remains in police custody awaiting trial. It is not a happy story, Dahlin says of his friend. I think he would rather die than admit defeat in this case[ by confessing to crimes he didnt perpetrate ]. He is ready to be a martyr.

Stein Ringen said he believed the world had failed to grasp the scale of the repression now playing out in China, still viewing the country as a benevolent dictatorship when in fact it had mutated into a very, very hard dictatorship which manages to look better than it is.

Peter Dahlin near his home in Thailand. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

The academic said he envisaged no change of direction while Xi, who will reach the halfway phase of his anticipated decade-long term in late 2017, was in power.

Regrettably, I guess the best we can hope for is that it doesnt get worse My money during Xi Jinpings tenure would be that what we have now is pretty much what we are going to get that is a hard tyranny that is nevertheless tempered by some pragmatism Im completely bleak.

The alternatives I think are chaos that the control transgress and that China falls again back into chaos which it has done over and over again over the last couple of centuries or that Xi Jinpings tightening of controls continues and pullings the system into one of fully fledged totalitarianism.

On the veranda of his new home, surrounded by gust chimes, hanging planters, and the soothing audio of bird song, Dahlin reminisces about happier days.

He speaks of his admiration for the Chinese campaigners still willing to sacrifice their liberty to promote change and fondly recollects nights expend at his favourite Mongolian whisky bar in Beijing.

You miss a few things because my exit consisted of going from solitary confinement into an airplane, he says. I left Beijing with a small suitcase, three books, two changes of clothes, some hard drives and a laptop.

You do seven years of something and now it is all gone: your work, whatever you have accomplished, your attire, your furniture, my cats, my friends.

But with no political thaw in sight the activist said he doubted he would ever be able to return to the country he once dreamed of transforming.

I assure no reason why they would ever give me a visa to go back. Why would they?

I believe the only reason I go back is after the government autumns. And Im not sure that is going to happen in my lifetime.


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