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Human rights defenders in China face a hostile working environment and are routinely targeted by authorities because of their work defending the rights of others. Chinese HRDs are active in many spheres, and they include lawyers, journalists, academics, housing and land rights activists, bloggers, writers, HIV/AIDS activists and those involved in promoting the rights of ethnic minorities.
The obstacles they face from the Chinese authorities range from intimidation, harassment and house arrest, to abductions, torture and imprisonment. Furthermore, defenders must operate under very restrictive legislation:
● The 1989 Law on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations states that all demonstrations which have not been specifically approved by the Public Security Bureau are illegal. Since the enactment of the Law, the PSB is thought to have refused all applications to demonstrate against government polices or officials.
● Regarding freedom of association, the Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Organisations require government pre-approval for the registration of non-governmental organisations. To do this, NGOs must find a governmental agency willing to sponsor it, meaning that any NGO touching on human rights issues is refused permission to register. To circumvent these regulations, some NGOs – those which are permitted to exist but unable to find a sponsoring government agency – register as businesses, leaving themselves exposed to harassment from various arms of the state bureaucracy. A positive development did take place at the beginning of 2012 which allowed certain types of NGOs in Guangdong province, to register without a government sponsor, though it remains to be seen whether any human rights organisations will be permitted to register.
● Freedom of expression in all media forms is limited. Article 105(2) of the Chinese Criminal Code states a fixed term imprisonment for anyone inciting others “to subvert the State power or overthrow the socialist system”. This provision is used to routinely detain and imprison defenders who exercise their rights to free expression, and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo remains in prison on such a charge, following his role in drafting Charter 08. Despite these restrictions however, HRDs are making full use of new social media to expand the boundaries of free expression and to inform and organise both online and offline.
Lawyers who take on human rights cases are frequently singled out for special attention by the Chinese authorities and are routinely subjected to various forms of surveillance and pressure, including harassment, house arrest and imprisonment. Many of the most well-known human rights defenders in China are lawyers who have been punished by the state for attempting to hold authorities accountable to China's own laws. The cases of Gao Zhisheng and Chen Guangcheng demonstrate the extremes to which the local authorities, with the connivance of the central government, are willing to go to gag perceived troublemakers in order to pursue 'stability maintenance'.
The human rights community received a significant boost to morale – although tempered somewhat by the severe clampdown in the aftermath – when imprisoned human rights defender Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China". Liu was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment in December 2009 for the role he played in drafting Charter '08, a document calling for an end to one-party rule and its replacement by a system based on human rights and democracy. The crackdown which followed the Nobel Peace Prize announcement in October 2010 was unprecedented. Liu Xiaobo's wife, Liu Xia, remains under unlawful house arrest and largely cut off from the outside world.
An increase in the use of forced disappearances against HRDs was seen in 2011 when up to two dozen were disappeared after the emergence of anonymous online calls for a Middle-Eastern style 'Jasmine Revolution' to take place in China. Families of the disappeared were given no indication of why or where they were taken, nor were the disappeared themselves given access to lawyers. They were held from between a few days to a few months, during which time they were questioned about their human rights activities, subjected to physical and/or psychological abuse and severely threatened about their future activities. A blog post detailing the experience of one such HRD published by Front Line Defenders can be read here.
In mid-2011 the Chinese government announced that it had successfully met all tasks and goals of the country's first National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010). Despite this, human rights defenders reported a reduced, rather than enlarged, space in which to work since the implementation of the plan. In Tibet and Tibetan-populated areas of western China and in Xinjiang, conditions for HRDs have deteriorated drastically since outbreaks of violence in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Since then these areas have been flooded with Chinese security personnel, making it even more difficult for activists to carry out their legitimate human rights defence work. A rash of self-immolations by Tibetans have taken place in Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu provinces and Tibet itself since 2009 protesting against Chinese rule, and demanding that the Dalai Lama be allowed return to Lhasa. Xinjiang has recently seen sporadic rioting and violence and the police lockdown of such areas makes it difficult to obtain accurate information on HRDs working there.
In 2013, China was elected to the UN Human Rights Council at the same time that human rights defenders in the country were suffering under the new leadership of the CCP as it consolidated its grip on power. The nascent New Citizen Movement, which called for constitutional government, attracted human rights defenders from up to thirty cities around China who met regularly for dinner in order to discuss issues around political reform. Echoing President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive, these defenders also demanded that CCP officials publicly declare their assets. The authorities responded by arresting dozens of activists in a number of cities, including the Beijing lawyer and architect of the movement, Xu Zhiyong Notwithstanding this, people across China continue to meet under the New Citizen banner, running the risk of arrest and imprisonment.
While news in November 2013 of the government's intention to abolish the reeducation through labour system was welcome, it remains to be seen how and when this much reviled system, which was often used to punish human rights defenders, will be dismantled. Under such a system, police were permitted to send people to labour camps for up to four years without any judicial oversight and with no possibility of appeal. Other forms of arbitrary detention also continued to be used against human rights defenders. House arrest, black jails, forced travel and detention in psychiatric hospitals were all employed to remove the supposed threat of human rights defenders for periods of time, especially during 'sensitive' occasions.
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