China’s booming torture trade revealed

The flourishing trade, manufacture and export of tools of torture by Chinese companies is fuelling human rights violations across Africa and Asia, new research by Amnesty International and the Omega Research Foundation reveals. 

The new report - China’s Trade in Tools of Torture and Repression - shows there are now more than 130 Chinese companies involved in the production and trade of potentially dangerous law enforcement equipment – compared to only 28 Chinese companies a decade ago.  

Some of the devices openly marketed by these companies – including electric shock stun batons, metal spiked batons, and weighted leg cuffs – are intrinsically cruel and inhumane and therefore should immediately be banned. 

Other equipment - that can have legitimate use in policing - such as tear gas and plastic projectiles or riot control vehicles – is being exported from China even when there is a substantial risk of serious human rights violations by the receiving law enforcement agencies.

“Increasing numbers of Chinese companies are profiting from the trade in tools of torture and repression, fuelling human rights abuses across the world,” said Patrick Wilcken, security trade and human rights researcher at Amnesty International. 

“This trade – which causes immense suffering – is flourishing because the Chinese authorities have done nothing to stop companies supplying these sickening devices for export or to prevent policing equipment falling into the hands of known human rights abusers.” 

Chinese companies – most of which are state-owned – have an increasingly strong presence in the global market for law enforcement equipment. 

China is the only country known to manufacture spiked batons – which have metal spikes along the entire length of the baton or are plastic batons with a spiked metal head. These are specifically designed as implements of torture and can cause significant pain and suffering. 

Seven Chinese companies openly advertise these inhumane sticks for export. Chinese-manufactured spiked batons have reportedly been used by police in Cambodia and exported to security forces in Nepal and Thailand.

The research found 29 Chinese companies involved in the export trade were advertising inherently cruel electric stun batons. These devices make it easy for security officials to apply extremely painful multiple shocks by hand to sensitive areas of the body including the genitals, throat, groin or ears without long-lasting physical traces. 

Scores of Chinese companies manufacture and trade abusive restraint devices including heavy weighted leg cuffs and rigid restraint chairs; one company manufactures neck combination cuffs. These neck devices can endanger an individual’s life by restricting breathing, blood circulation and nerve communication between the body and the brain. 

A review of several of the companies’ marketing materials reveals this equipment is being sold to various law enforcement agencies across the world, including agencies that persistently abuse human rights.  

 “There is no excuse whatsoever for allowing the manufacture and trade in equipment for which the primary purpose is to torture or inflict cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment on people. These heinous acts are totally banned under international law and Chinese authorities should immediately place a ban on the production and trade in such cruel and inhumane devices,” said Patrick Wilcken.

One company – China Xinxing Import / Export Corporation – which has advertised equipment including thumb cuffs, restraint chairs, electric shock stun guns and batons – stated in 2012 that it has links with more than 40 African countries and its trade with Africa was worth more than US$100 million.

Amnesty International and Omega found evidence of what appear to be Chinese manufactured electric shock batons being carried by police in Ghana, Senegal, Egypt and Madagascar.

Chinese companies also continue to export equipment that can only have a legitimate use in law enforcement if its use is consistent with international standards and  officers are well trained and fully accountable. However, the report cites cases of exports of potentially dangerous law enforcement equipment from China to countries where there is a substantial risk the equipment will contribute to serious human rights violations. 

One example highlighted in the report is a large consignment of Chinese “anti-riot” equipment exported to Uganda in February 2011, despite concerns that torture and ill treatment by police was widespread in the country. 

Two months later, Chinese made riot control equipment was used by Ugandan security officials to harshly suppress protests against the rising cost of living in the country. Chinese manufactured armoured vehicles were used throughout the violent crackdown in which at least nine people were shot dead, over 100 injured and 600 detained. 

Chinese anti-riot equipment was also used to suppress dissent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the 2011 election, which resulted in violence with at least 33 dead and 83 injured. The export went ahead despite evidence of widespread human rights violations by DRC security officials.

The report shows that China’s export controls for law enforcement equipment are weak, lack transparency and do not appear to assess the human rights record of the recipient country.

“China’s flawed export system has allowed the trade in torture and repression to prosper. There is an urgent need for the Chinese authorities to fundamentally reform its trade regulations to end the irresponsible transfer of law enforcement equipment to agencies who will likely use it to violate human rights,” said Patrick Wilcken. 

China’s export system is not the only one that is failing to effectively control the transfer of law enforcement equipment to ensure respect for human rights. The worldwide trade in such equipment is poorly controlled, and even those countries with more refined regulations such as in the EU and the USA need to make improvements and close gaps as new products and technologies enter the market.

The growth in China’s international trade in tools of torture and repression has taken place against a backdrop of continuing human rights violations at home. Torture and ill-treatment as well as the use of arbitrary force remain widespread in detention and in suppressing protests in the country. Amnesty International has documented a wide range of physical torture in China including through the use of electric shock batons.

One Chinese torture survivor told Amnesty International: “They [police] used an electric baton on my face – it’s a kind of torture the police call “bengbao popcorn” because your face splits open and looks like popped corn. It smelled horrible, the smell of burning skin.”

The report also highlights the widespread misuse of mechanical restraint devices on detainees in China. Many detainees complained of being bound by the wrists and ankles, suspended from a ceiling or kept in stress positions. 

Amnesty International and Omega are urging the Chinese authorities and those of all other countries to:

- impose an immediate ban on the production and trade of inherently abusive equipment 

- immediately suspend or deny  trade licences for the supply of other equipment to law enforcement agencies and forces where there is a substantial risk the equipment will be used to commit or facilitate serious human rights violations 

- establish export control regulations and practices for the control of security and police equipment that can have a legitimate use but is easy to abuse

- end all torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, as well as the use of arbitrary force, and investigate all allegations of such acts to bring the perpetrators to justice.