South Africa


Young South African in five-month detention centre nightmare in China

Young South African in five-month detention centre nightmare in China
Homeward Bound; Joshua Doman at Guangzhou airport, about to board a flight home, at last. (Photo supplied)

Straightjacketed and strapped to a stretcher, with Chinese prison officials kicking and slapping him and forcibly pumping his stomach to expel the bleach he had just drunk. This was how 23-year-old South African Joshua Doman ended his year of teaching in China.

The tenth of June, 2020 was the lowest point of Joshua Doman’s five-month imprisonment in Beijing. He had swallowed bleach in sheer desperation, hoping it would make him so sick that prison officials would have to deport him. Instead, he would spend another six weeks in Beijing’s notorious No. 1 Detention Centre.

The Chinese government has denied ill-treating Doman, saying his account is “totally inconsistent with the facts”. It specifically denied that he had been kicked or beaten when prison officials treated him after he had ingested disinfectant. It said “doctors there treated him on the spot, thus avoiding causing serious consequences to his health”. The full statement is carried below.

Reunited; Joshua Doman and his mother Cynthia Immelman meet again after his extended stay in China. (Photo supplied)

Doman had been in China for a year teaching, visiting friends and travelling around. Distracted with making travel plans, his visa expired. The South African embassy in Beijing advised him to report it to the police, with Chinese immigration authorities assuring him his visa could be extended. But when he went to the police, he was taken into custody and sent to the detention centre, ostensibly for 14 days. 

When the fortnight was up, he should have been released to fly home on 3 March. After many emails and calls by his mother, Cynthia Immelman, to the SA embassy, she was notified on 23 March that the Chinese authorities had said she could book Joshua on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Beijing to Addis Ababa on 25 March, and then on to Cape Town.

Missed flight, then locked down

However, the embassy failed to get him onto that flight. She said embassy and Chinese officials subsequently told her the flight had been cancelled. Immelman said this was not true, and that the flight had taken off as scheduled. 

A day later, South Africa shut its airports to foreign aircraft.

With lockdown in effect, Doman says he “was told by Chinese officials that I was going to stay there for seven months and must ‘wait patiently.’”

Speaking to Daily Maverick, Doman said he came close to having a breakdown.

“I had no means of contacting my parents… the embassy in Beijing had not taken my details when I contacted them – nobody knew where I was. 

“I had no belongings, no mattress to sleep on, the lights were kept on at night, I wasn’t allowed outside… Our lives had no value to the prison officials and we were treated inhumanely.”

Allegations of ‘torture’

Doman said No. 1 Detention Centre was well known in Beijing. “They say it’s a detention centre, but it’s a jail… a prison. And the treatment is just inhumane, with mental and physical torture. It was truly a hellish experience.”

So was he literally tortured physically? He says he used that expression “because my feelings are that strong”. 

“You are forced to sit all day, two in a row, from 06:30 to 22:00. If you stood up you got yelled at to sit down. 

“They would put chains on you if you didn’t. You’re not allowed to lie down or sleep or anything during the day.”

Doman said the detainees were “packed like sardines”, with 16 or 17 people in a cell. They were each given two small blankets and the lights were never switched off.

‘Appalling conditions’

“The conditions are filthy. It’s disgusting… the state of the toilet, which is in the cell so you can imagine the smell.

“I don’t eat meat, so for five months they gave me something called manto, which is just a plain bun. I was given the odd meal without meat, but that was once in a blue moon.”

Doman claimed they were given one bucket of water per cell to share. In his first cell, where he was with mainly detainees from Myanmar, they had to drink from one cup. 

“We were spreading germs… I didn’t even drink that water for the first month. I drank small amounts when I really needed it. Just the tap water. For a month my throat and stomach were in such pain from the chemicals in that water. 

“Towards the end of the first month I stopped drinking water and just had the watery porridge in the morning.” 

Conditions improved slightly when he was moved to another cell, but he said conditions were still unsanitary.

“My health really deteriorated quickly. At the moment, I don’t have an ounce of muscle in my arms and legs… not that I ever really had a lot, but now it’s just skin and bone.

“For a long time I had no one to talk to,” Doman said. The Myanmar detainees in his first cell spoke no English and it was only when he was moved to a cell with other Africans that he could have a conversation.

Worse for others from Africa

Doman said many of the detainees from Africa and developing countries were in an even worse situation than him. Some had finished jail sentences and were now awaiting deportation. 

“They were told they’d have to wait until airline tickets returned to normal, which would probably only happen next year. Yet people from First World countries get deported immediately.

“Many Africans have stopped taking their medication and refuse to eat in the hope of being deported because of illness. The officials make sure they hurt you when inserting the feeding pipe up your nose, so you would rather eat.

Doman says that in April he went on a hunger strike for five days to pressure the authorities into allowing him to phone his parents. 

“I had had no contact with them since 18 February.”

Though he was also painfully force-fed through his nostrils, Doman says his actions did serve some purpose.

“On 21 April I was given a phone to call my father. I cannot begin to express how that felt. I had only managed to speak to my mom for the first time three months after being detained. That brought tears to my eyes.” 

Hopes for a repatriation flight

Doman’s parents told him they hoped South Africa would organise a repatriation flight for South African citizens stranded in Beijing. They also said they were exploring ways to get him a seat on a cargo flight. 

“I pretended that I was fine and was being treated well, because I didn’t want them to worry. If they knew the truth, it would kill them. 

“After that I heard nothing… the weeks kept ticking by.” 

Then, on 10 June, “out of sheer desperation”, he drank some bleach that was meant for disinfecting the cells. “I hoped that I would get sick and be deported immediately.”

Wardens took him away to have his stomach pumped but he refused to cooperate. “You hear stories about how they make sure prisoners don’t survive, and then harvest organs and stuff. 

“So I was put in a straightjacket and got kicked and slapped before they pumped my stomach. I thought I was never going to see my family again.”

A few days later, a Chinese immigration official told him he would be leaving on an SAA repatriation flight on 17 June. Then, on 16 June, he was told the flight had been cancelled. 

“Mr Zhuo, the head of the immigration services, phoned the SA embassy but they apparently said they did not want to speak to me… I was shocked” 

Finally, freedom

Speaking to his father in July, Doman learnt about a private repatriation charter flight with Maple Aviation, arranged by South Africans stranded in Wuhan. 

Escorted by four Chinese immigration officials, Doman flew from Beijing to Guangzhou in southern China on 23 July. From there, he took a Maple Aviation flight via Kuala Lumpur and arrived in South African on 28 July.

Doman was undergoing his mandatory 14 days quarantine in a government facility in Benoni when he spoke to Daily Maverick. He has since returned home.

‘Angry’ with the Chinese – and the SA embassy

Doman says he and his parents are “very angry” with the Chinese authorities for the “inhuman” treatment meted out to him during his five months in detention. And they are very disappointed with the South African embassy in Beijing for not having helped resolve the situation.

For five months, Cynthia Immelman has pleaded with the embassy and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) in Pretoria to help bring her son home. 

She says the embassy failed, “through sheer neglect and indifference”, to get Doman out of the detention centre and onto the Ethiopian Airlines flight home which she had booked before lockdown kicked in.

Although they were told by South African and Chinese authorities that that flight had been cancelled, this seems not to have been the case.

Immelman said she was penalised by Ethiopian Airlines after Doman failed to turn up for the flight. The airline also confirmed to Daily Maverick that the flight from Beijing to Addis Ababa, and the connecting flight to Cape Town, had both flown on 25 March. 

Embassy ‘failed’ to do its job

Doman said the first time he heard from the SA embassy in Beijing was a call telling him that the SAA flight on 17 June flight had been cancelled. The only other call was in mid-July informing him of the Wuhan flight.

Apart from failing to get him on the flight in March, he said the embassy should at least have got him out after 90 days of detention because it was “illegal under Chinese law” to detain someone for longer than that. 

“So it just comes down to them not doing their job. I don’t think they even knew I wasn’t supposed to still be there after 90 days.

Doman has returned from China with a mission – tell the world about the plight of other detainees still inside Beijing’s No. 1 Detention Centre. And especially the Africans, whom he believes are receiving particularly bad treatment by Chinese officials and by their own embassies.

Fellow inmates beaten

He tells how one Nigerian inmate was assaulted. “One day the wardens chained him to a chair and sprayed four bottles of pepper spray into his face, almost blinding him in one eye.” 

Doman says the Nigerian claimed that officials had “harvested” his blood, tapping his veins several times a month. “This man was scared for his life. He really thought he was going to die… they sucked him dry.” 

Doman said he had feared the same thing happening to himself, but after officials had taken 12 vials of blood during his first few days in detention, supposedly to do tests, he had refused to let them take any more. 

Daily Maverick sent this story to the Chinese embassy in Pretoria, and to Dirco, on August 7 for comment. Dirco said it would investigate Doman’s claims but was yet to get back to us by 3 September.

The full Chinese embassy response is below. 

Chinese government report on the investigation of the Joshua Doman case

Upon investigation and verification by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, the facts of South African citizen Joshua Doman’s illegal overstay in China are officially confirmed. The case was properly handled and there was no such thing as the so-called “ill-treatment” or “unfair treatment” during his detention in Beijing. Phillip’s accusations are totally inconsistent with the facts. 

Philip arrived in Beijing on December 29, 2018 on a tourist visa valid for 30 days and has not renewed it since the visa expired. Joshua Doman has no job or income in Beijing, and mainly depends on the support of his family in South Africa and his friends in Beijing for a living. On February 18, 2020, Phillip, who had overstayed in China illegally for 386 days, turned himself in to the Fangshan Branch of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau after an unsuccessful attempt to ask for financial help from his girlfriend.

In view of the seriousness of Joshua Doman’s illegal overstay in China, according to the first paragraph of Article 78 of the Law on Exit and Entry Administration of the People’s Republic of China, on February 18, the Fangshan Public Bureau imposed a punishment of 14 days of administrative detention on Phillip in accordance with law. 

He was then sent to the Beijing Detention Center on February 19 after undergoing a comprehensive medical examination according to relevant requirements. The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau notified the South African Embassy in China by telephone on February 20 and sent a formal note on February 24 according to procedure. The SA Embassy did not raise any objection. On February 26, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau decided to deport him back to South Africa according to law.

After Joshua Doman was detained, and considering the risk of the Covid-19 epidemic, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau promptly arranged for the South African Embassy in China to have a telephone conversation with him and assisted in arranging the flight back to SA for him. During his detention, the detention center, in accordance with relevant regulations, exercise unified management over all Chinese and foreign detainees and implement supervision, guarantee and other measures. 

As Joshua Doman was penniless, the detention center provided him with daily necessities for free on a regular basis. There is no such thing as so-called discrimination against him.

On March 3, after the expiry of his detention, Joshua Doman was temporarily unable to be deported to SA due to the suspension of international flight between China and SA. So the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau continued to take him in custody pending deportation in accordance with the law. 

During this period, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, together with the South African Embassy in China and his friends, contacted relevant airlines several times to arrange flight back to SA, but all failed due to flight rescheduling, cancellation and refusal of foreign citizens to board the plane. 

In the absence of an early deportation, Joshua Doman threatened with a hunger strike. On June 10, he grabbed and drank disinfectant that was used to disinfect the detention cell while the working staff was not attending. The police stopped it immediately, and the doctors there treated him on the spot, thus avoiding causing serious consequences to his health.

During his detention, there was no “unfair treatment” such as “no meat, no water, being forced to drink dirty water, or being beaten or kicked”. The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau and the detention center offered Phillip psychological counseling and arranged the SA Embassy and his friends to speak to and comfort him over the phone. He was relatively in a stable condition. 

On July 26, Joshua Doman boarded a Zimbabwean flight and returned to SA after the authorities coordinated with the relevant airline. Before leaving China, Phillip repeatedly thanked the Chinese public security authorities for providing him with food and lodging and all other relevant arrangements. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Scott Gordon says:

    Hmm , on a 30 day visa , he forgot for a year to renew it !
    Too busy travelling and teaching !
    no work is permitted on a visitor visa anywhere in the world !
    Then to go and blame DIRCO for his dilemma is lame .
    He clearly broke the law on 2 counts .
    he could have been locked up for longer .
    Mistreatment of foreigners in China is well known .
    Hence the calls by the African Union , black or white you are ‘foreign ‘ and a lesser person than Han Chinese .
    Once lockdown was introduced here , only the ‘privileged ‘ few students were flown back . Costing the tax payer R25 million .
    After that , all stuck overseas were ‘on your own’ , little to nothing that was done by Dirco !
    There was even the fiasco at OR Thambo when one flight ‘suddenly arrived’ !
    Qatar airlines helped many get back . Only to give up due to the confusion in SA .
    I am talking from personal experience , after being stranded in Taiwan for 3 months .
    In the beginning repatriation flights were only for SA citizens , not permanent residents .
    After exhausting the patience of a guy at Dirco in Pta , I again approached the consul in Taipei .
    Who then proved very helpful. At last notifying me of a possible flight from Kuala Lumpur .
    Then going so far as meeting me at the airport and helping me with the baggage issues .
    After arriving in KL , via HK , I learned that around 35 odd Saffers were stuck in China , sleeping in the airport lounge . Hence they missed the flight .
    Being in any prison is stressful .
    I cannot imagine what drove this guy to brink bleach ! And then think that would help his cause !
    Even those with a work permit are required to register with the nearest police station once a month !
    While some criticism of the Beijing embassy may be valid , he clearly broke the law !
    In one of most totalitarian regimes !
    The CCP does just what it wants , when it wants .
    Trying to fly anywhere was chaotic . Airports open , then closed . Happened to the Philippines and China .
    Went on for months !
    While I might seem heartless .
    Fact is , he radically failed to renew his visa for over 300 days .
    Only when things were getting tough in China did he hand himself in !
    And landed deep in a diplomatic toilet .
    And unable to get a flight home !
    Sure , blame Dirco , blame China .
    Who is to blame for the mess in the first place ?
    Not Dirco or China .
    Lesson learned I guess 🙂

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.