On the day of his release from prison, Wang Quanzhang, one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, thought he was finally free.
After being held for nearly five years on charges of subversion of state power, Wang was escorted by police to an apartment building in the eastern city of Jinan. There, he was given a room with iron bars on the windows. Twenty police officers stood guard outside. His mobile phone was confiscated, and his use of it was later restricted and monitored.
Wang was effectively under temporary house arrest, but the authorities had another name for it: quarantine.
Rights activists say the coronavirus has given the Chinese authorities a new pretext for detaining dissidents. Summary quarantines — often imposed just after detainees, like Wang, had cleared a previous one — are the latest way to silence dissent, part of a broader campaign under China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, to stamp out activism through arrests, detentions and harsher internet controls, activists say.
Before the pandemic, China had already mounted an intensive crackdown on human rights, which many activists have described as the most aggressive since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
Activists in quarantine are often detained without their families’ knowledge. They are typically “not allowed to communicate with the outside world, held in a secret location and not given the option to self-isolate at home,” said Frances Eve, deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a rights watchdog.
“This treatment is de facto enforced disappearance,” she said.
Although two-week quarantines are common in Asia for returning travelers, and prisons have been identified as hot spots for coronavirus transmission, the details of Wang’s case suggest that he was not detained purely for public health reasons.
When he was forced into a two-week quarantine in April, the outbreak had already been tamed in Jinan, and people were free to move about the city and return to work. Wang said he had already tested negative for the virus five times in prison and had completed a 14-day quarantine before his release.
“All of China now is about epidemic prevention,” said Wang, who was kept in prison for three years before even being charged, and who was the last of hundreds of human rights lawyers to be tried and sentenced after their arrests in 2015.
“Under such a big slogan, personal freedom can be compromised and you can’t say anything,” he said.
Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the pandemic had given the government an excuse to restrict movement so that it can “justify the violation of people’s human rights.”
“These people are clearly not in any condition that needs to be quarantined,” Wang said. “It’s not science-based; it’s just an excuse for the government to restrict their movements and suppress their speech.”
Eve said her rights group had documented nine cases of activists who were recently released from prison and then held in quarantine but added that “there are likely many more.”
Among those forcibly detained in quarantine, the group says, are a citizen journalist who tried to raise awareness about the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan; five labor rights activists; and a laid-off worker who, in an interview with a foreign news outlet, had urged people to take up arms against the ruling Communist Party.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request for comment.
China’s government is not the only one to use the pandemic as an excuse to grab more power, restrict rights or crack down on dissent. The Indian government has rounded up and detained critics. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines recently empowered the police to enter people’s homes searching for the sick. And in Hungary, the prime minister can now rule by decree.
Although Chinese law grants the government emergency powers to quarantine people during a public health emergency, several local officials have indicated that the practice of putting released convicts into quarantine violates those regulations.
In the central province of Hubei, the police said that prisoners who complete their jail terms needed to be released within 24 hours, according to Shanghai Observer, a state-controlled news website.
The Paper, a news site run by the government of Shanghai, cited police officials in Sichuan province as saying that prisoners have to be released “in accordance with the law” after undergoing a 14-day quarantine inside the prison and a physical examination, which includes a nucleic acid test for the coronavirus, blood tests and a CT scan.
Jiang Jiawen, 65 — the laid-off worker mentioned by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, who had called for resisting the Communist Party — completed a 1 1/2-year sentence in March for “picking quarrels and causing trouble.” In July, he was en route to meet a friend at a Beijing railway station when he was waylaid by state security officers.
They took him to a detention center and interrogated him, Jiang said. Then they told him he had to be quarantined, and they brought him to a hotel room in the northern city of Dandong, more than 500 miles away. The room had iron bars on the door and the windows. Two police officers and two government officials kept watch outside.
No one took his temperature during the 14-day quarantine, Jiang said. Officials initially asked him to pay the $17 a day charge for the quarantine, he said, but he refused.
“They just want to find a reason to detain us,” Jiang said. “The epidemic has given them a good reason.”
Ding Yajun, a 51-year-old woman who had protested the forced demolition of her home, was released from prison May 11 in the northern city of Harbin after serving a three-year sentence, also for “picking quarrels and causing trouble.” When she was in prison, officials swabbed her throat, did a blood test and subjected her to quarantine.
Still, upon her release, Ding was placed in quarantine again. For more than a month, she was held in a windowless room that was kept locked with an iron baton, she said. She was finally released June 16.
Liu Xianbin, who spent 10 years in prison for writing articles critical of the Chinese government, was released June 27 and told to complete a 14-day quarantine. But he was allowed to do so at home in the southwestern province of Sichuan, according to his wife, Chen Mingxian.
“This is the national policy, and these are special circumstances,” Chen said. “So we support and understand it.”
Wang, the human rights lawyer, is now back in Beijing with his family. He says he is occasionally followed but does not believe he is under round-the-clock surveillance, as most dissidents are after being freed from prison.
Recalling his time in quarantine after his release, Wang said that police officers often checked on him, even though he was supposed to be in isolation.
“It was absurd,” he said. “The real purpose was to shut me up and tell me not to contact my friends.”