Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Recent Reports 
 Support HRW
World Report 1999
Order Online

Human Rights Watch - Home Page


Controls on basic freedoms were tightened during the year, in part because of Chinese authorities' desire to ensure stability on several sensitive dates. These included the fortieth anniversary of the March 10, 1959, Tibetan uprising, the tenth anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, and the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949.

Trials of dissidents-and there were many-were neither fair nor open. Gao Yu, a prominent journalist accused of leaking state secrets, was released from prison early, but like many other released prisoners, continued to face a variety of restrictions.

A prolonged economic slump coupled with illegal and excessive fees and taxes fueled unrest and heightened the government's concerns with stability. On the political front, President Jiang Zemin's determination to bolster the Chinese Communist Party, to placate hardliners, and to secure his own place in history contributed to heightened intolerance of any organization openly critical of the Party's platform or attempting to function outside Party control. Individuals and groups suspected of ties to "hostile" foreign organizations and those disseminating sensitive political information overseas were particularly targeted.

State control of religious affairs in Tibet intensified. Dozens of judicial executions were reported from Xinjiang, where some ethnic Uighur groups were advocating a separate state; other alleged "splittists" were sentenced to long prison terms. Judicial independence and the rule of law in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong were seriously undermined when the SAR government asked Beijing to interpret a ruling by the SAR's highest court.

The two key human rights treaties signed by China in 1997 and 1998 remained unratified. For the most part, the West and Japan continued to use bilateral dialogues rather than pressure as their method of choice in addressing human rights issues. The U.S. human rights dialogue was suspended in the aftermath of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May.

On the positive side, legal reform efforts continued, although the legal system remained highly politicized. Supreme Court President Xiao Yang announced in March that in the interests of transparency, trials would be open and verdicts quickly made public, except for cases involving state secrets. In April, he announced plans to curb government interference with the legal process. Chinese judicial and legal experts continued to meet with their counterparts in many countries in an effort to further the reform process.

Human Rights Developments

On November 23, 1998, former Premier Li Peng announced that China would not tolerate any political system that would "negate the leadership of the Communist Party." A month later, three organizers of the opposition China Democracy Party (CDP) received heavy sentences. Veteran dissident Xu Wenli in Beijing, Qin Yongmin in Hubei province, and Wang Youcai in Zhejiang were sentenced to thirteen, twelve, and eleven years in prison respectively on charges of subversion. Other CDP members were also tried. During the first week of August alone, Zha Jianguo and Gao Hongming received nine- and eight-year terms in Beijing, and She Wanbao and Liu Xianbin received twelve and thirteen years respectively from courts in Sichuan. The following week, two Shanghai CDP members, Cai Guihua and Han Lifa, instead of being released on schedule, had their terms extended. Some thirty CDP members were still in custody as of mid-October, and the crackdown on the CDP had extended to some twenty provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities.

Legal authorities also squashed the China Development Union (CDU), a nongovernmental organization committed to environmental and political reform. In February, its leader, Peng Ming, was detained for fifteen days on a charge of soliciting prostitution. Instead of being released, he was then administratively sentenced to an additional term of eighteen months.

Labor and peasant activists also received long sentences. Unrest in Hunan province resulted in sentences of up to six years for nine peasants who protested the imposition of exorbitant taxes; the arrest of Liao Shihua for organizing workers to demand an end to pervasive corruption in the province; and two-year terms for six farmers who alleged that local elections had been rigged.

Throughout the year, China repeatedly demonstrated its determination to prevent contacts between mainland and overseas dissidents and to obstruct information flows. On January 20, the Shanghai No.1 Intermediate Court announced a two-year sentence for computer entrepreneur Lin Hai for passing some 30,000 e-mail addresses to VIP Reference , an overseas dissident publication. Fang Jue, a former economic planning official in Fujian province, whose essay on democratic reform was published abroad in 1998, was sentenced to a four-year prison term in June 1999 on what appeared to be spurious fraud charges. In March, a district court sentenced Gao Shaokun, a retired police officer, to a two-year term after he informed the foreign press about a peasant protest. On May 11 a Beijing court sentenced Liu Xianli to a four-year term for his attempts to publish a work about well-known Chinese dissidents. Song Yongyi, a Dickinson College (Pennsylvania) researcher, was detained in August when he returned to China on a Chinese passport to continue his research on the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese authorities were clearly concerned about increasing use of the Internet. New regulations in January required bars and cafes with Internet access to register and inform the police about their business operations and customers. In May the Ministry of State Security installed monitoring devices on Internet service providers capable of tracking individual e-mail accounts. Special computer task forces began round-the-clock checks on bulletin boards. In January one of those bulletin boards, "Everything Under the Sun," was ordered closed for posting messages critical of the government. In February Chinese authorities shut down the "New Wave Network," a popular bulletin board that featured political discussion. In September police detained Qi Yanchen, a former China Development Union member and a member of the China Democracy Party, whose electronic magazine Consultations pushed the CDU agenda. In early September, after overseas dissidents hacked into the website of the official newspaper, People's Daily , a police circular called for a crackdown on all anti-Party and government articles on the Internet.

The government also tightened controls on publishing and the print media. On January 1, new regulations required shippers of printed material to obtain government permits. President Jiang Zemin personally ordered senior officials to prevent the media from undermining the fiftieth anniversary celebration. His complaints about the number of publications in circulation resulted in a decision to stop issuing any publication permits at least through June. In September the government decreed that local newspapers and magazines had to be placed under Party management by October 30 or face closure, and it was estimated that some 20,000 publications would be closed.

In September, Chinese authorities banned newsstand sales of special editions of Time , Asiaweek , and Newsweek covering fifty years of Communist Party rule. Censorship even affected computer games and survey research, with authorities confiscating some 10,000 games that featured Taiwan repelling a mainland invasion.

Restraints on religion and belief increased significantly during the year. On April 25, ten thousand members of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), surrounded Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound housing China's top leaders. The peaceful, silent demonstration was to protest a newspaper article disparaging Falun Gong, a quasi-religious meditation society whose beliefs were loosely based on Buddhist and Daoist tradition. The size of the demonstration clearly shocked the government, and while authorities took no immediate action, they began a systematic crackdown three months later. On July 22, the Ministry of Civil Affairs labeled Falun Gong an illegal organization and accused it of spreading "superstition" and "endangering social stability." It banned public and private practice and distribution of the organization's literature. Police detained thousands of practitioners for reeducation and began to confiscate and destroy over one million books. A week later, the government issued an arrest warrant for Li Hongzhi, the group's leader, who had been living in the U.S. The government put the number of practitioners at two million; other estimates run as high as seventy million. Alarmed at the number of party members involved, the party leadership mounted a full-scale internal "rectification," using the opportunity to emphasize the value of Marxism and reinvigorate President Jiang's "three stresses" campaign to strengthen theoretical study, political awareness, and good conduct among Party members. As of mid-October, the first set of trials of Falun Gong leaders was under way in southern China.

Police detained members of at least three other sects, the Men Tu Hui or Disciples, Dongfang Shandian or Eastern Lightning, and a group known as God's Religion. The government continued its long-standing campaign to force Catholic congregations to register with the Bureau of Religious Affairs. The campaign, centered in parts of Zhejiang and Hebei provinces with large Catholic populations, was marked by detentions, disappearances, ill-treatment, fines, and harassment. A series of arrests in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, that continued into September, forced some clergy into hiding. In one still unexplained incident, Father Yan Weiping, from Hebei, was found dead on a Beijing street on May 13. He had been detained that same day while saying Mass. In a crackdown in southern Henan province, several prominent house church leaders were briefly detained. The raid followed an earlier one in central Henan on January 24 when pastor Chu Chang'en and forty-five others were detained. In May, three students in China's most prestigious Protestant seminary were expelled after protesting the government's control of religious affairs.

Free assembly fared poorly during the year. Police in several cities prevented those wishing to publicly commemorate the tenth anniversary of the June 4 crackdown from laying wreaths or visiting cemeteries. Jiang Qisheng, a student leader in 1989, was formally arrested for calling on people to remember the crackdown with a candlelight vigil.

In a move to ensure order before the October 1 celebration, the Beijing city government banned all public gatherings after July 1. Police detained or expelled those without papers, legal residence permits, or permanent incomes. They targeted migrants, beggars, hawkers, food vendors, the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill, prostitutes, and other "undesirables." On September 6, the Public Security Bureau notified hostels, hotels, boarding houses, and private citizens that they would be penalized for housing illegal migrants. Dissidents were under heavy surveillance, their movements restricted, and their phone lines cut. Any non-resident wishing to enter Beijing needed a detailed letter of introduction.

The death penalty continued to be in use, and mass executions were common. On September 27, the Guangdong Supreme People's Court declared it would hold fifty-seven public rallies to announce 818 sentences. Two hundred and thirty-eight prisoners were scheduled to be executed before October 1. Executions also took place in Changsha, Hunan province and Chongqing, a city formerly part of Sichuan province.


At the beginning of the year, authorities announced a three-year campaign to free rural Tibetans from the "negative influence of religion," and to work against the Dalai Lama's "splittist" struggle. They continued to deny access to Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the ten-year-old boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. No one has seen the child or members of his family since 1995 when the Chinese government recognized another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the reincarnation. On June 17, that boy arrived in Tibet for the first time.

In response to a World Bank proposal to resettle some 58,000 Han Chinese and Hui Muslims in a predominately Tibetan and Mongolian area in Qinghai province, an Australian, Gabriel Lafitte, an American, Daja Meston, and their Tibetan translator, Tsering Dorje, traveled to the area to assess for themselves the feelings of residents in the resettlement region. State security forces detained all three on August 15 but released them within two weeks. Lafitte and Meston, who was severely injured in an escape attempt, were permitted to leave after confessing to wrongdoing.

During the year, security forces detained Tibetans who openly advocated independence. On March 10, the fortieth anniversary of an abortive uprising against China, two Tibetan monks, Phuntsok Legmon and Namdol, demonstrated in Barkor Square in Lhasa. On July 9, they reportedly received three- and four-year sentences respectively, a report that Tibetan officials have denied. In a preemptive move, some eighty people were detained before March 10. Monks from major monasteries could not enter the city, and the Jokhang, the most religious site in Tibet, was closed for "cleaning."

Prison conditions in Tibet remained substandard. In February the official Chinese news agency acknowledged that "quasi-military" training for staff and prisoners had been carried out in Drapchi prison "to improve police officers' managerial abilities and enhance prisoners' discipline and awareness of the law." The use of torture continued, sometimes resulting in death. Legshe Tsoglam, a Nalanda monk who resisted reeducation, died in April, several days after his release from Gutsa Detention Center. A Ganden monk, Ngawang Jinpa, died two months after serving his full four-year term, and Norbu, also from Nalanda, died almost three years after severe prison beatings damaged his kidneys. All three were in their early twenties. Several monks, arrested in 1998 for putting photos of the Dalai Lama on the main altar in Kirti monastery in Sichuan Province, were sentenced in July and August 1999. Ngawang Sangdrol, a twenty-three-year-old nun, severely beaten after a protest in Drapchi prison in May 1998, had her original three-year sentence extended for the third time for a total of twenty-one years.


Local authorities, claiming that "splittist" elements in the region were using terrorist tactics, ordered intensified efforts to maintain stability in the run-up to the October 1 anniversary celebrations. Executions of so-called "splittists" were commonplace, as were long prison sentences and public sentencing rallies. In January, a court official in Ili prefecture, the scene of massive demonstrations and rioting in 1997, confirmed that twenty-nine people, all but two of them ethnic Uighurs, had been given the death penalty. In July a court in Nonshishi sentenced another eighteen men to terms ranging from ten to fifteen years for, among other things, allegedly destroying the Party's religious policy. In an apparent attempt to decrease the flow of information overseas, public security officers in Urumqi, the capital, seized Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent Uighur businesswoman, on August 11 as she was on her way to meet a visiting American. She was later charged with trying to transmit information across borders. Rebiya Kadeer's husband, a U.S. resident, publicly advocates independence and appears regularly on Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America. Rebiya, her son, Ablikim Abdyirim, and her secretary, Kahriman Abdukirim, remained in prison as of October.

Hong Kong

This year China took several steps to curtail Hong Kong's autonomy and the rule of law. The independence of the courts in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) was placed in jeopardy after Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa invited Beijing to intervene in a decision of the highest court in Hong Kong, the Court of Final Appeal. Tung campaigned against the court's decision on right of abode in Hong Kong that would have allowed many more mainland Chinese to reside in the SAR. (How many more was a matter of intense debate.) Fearinga flood of Chinese immigrants, on May 18 Tung invited the Standing Committee of China's People's National Congress, as the ultimate authority under Hong Kong's constitution, the Basic Law, to overturn the ruling. Leading judges and lawyers questioned the political decision of the Chief Executive to invite Beijing to intervene. The Standing Committee effectively reversed the Court of Final Appeal's decision.

Municipal councils, the middle tier of elected office in Hong Kong, were abolished by Tung this year, in a transparent effort to weaken the influence of pro-democracy political parties in Hong Kong.

Chinese officials barred entry to pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmakers. On September 12, Margaret Ng was prevented from attending a seminar on China's constitution. China also interfered with requests for travel to Hong Kong, refusing to consider a papal visit because the Vatican and Taiwan maintain diplomatic relations. A senior official from Taiwan was prevented from attending an academic conference at the University of Hong Kong.

Defending Human Rights

Public defense of political and civil rights was virtually impossible, and social organizations concerned with aspects of worker rights or basic freedoms found themselves unable to register with the government or, in some cases, they were banned altogether.

The Role of the International Community

Human rights concerns dropped even lower on the agenda of China's major trading partners in 1999 as Beijing used the Belgrade embassy bombing to create a crisis in its overseas relations. The Chinese government suspended a bilateral human rights dialogue with the U.S., put off a planned visit by the German chancellor until later in the year, and delayed talks on China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). International protests against the banning of Falun Gong and the crackdown on activists prior to the June 4 and October 1 anniversaries were mild or nonexistent. At the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in April, China sustained its successful campaign to prevent a debate on its human rights record, persuading the European Union (E.U.) and other governments to refrain from backing a last-minute resolution by the U.S., dooming it to failure. Meanwhile, the E.U., Australia, and Canada continued human rights dialogues and rule of law seminars; the exchanges were sometimes useful, but they appeared to have little direct impact on the human rights situation. Jiang Zemin visited Australia in September and European capitals in October. Except for a brief visit to the U.S. by the Chinese labor minister in March and a Canadian-led seminar in July, concerns about violations of worker rights' were largely absent from the agenda.

United Nations

A split between the U.S. and the E.U., traditional cosponsors of resolutions on China at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, enabled China to once again escape U.N. scrutiny during the Commission's annual meeting in April. Under intense domestic pressure, the Clinton Administration tabled a last minute resolution which was blocked by a Chinese no-action motion. That motion was adopted by a vote of twenty-two to seventeen, with fourteen abstentions. The E.U. and individual member states refused to cosponsor the measure; Poland agreed to serve as a cosponsor.

China made no progress in ratifying the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both were under review by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson sent a technical mission to China in March to follow up her visit to China in September 1998. The results of the mission were inconclusive. The High Commissioner was publicly silent about the crackdown on the Falun Gong movement in July, despite appeals to intervene, although she did raise concerns privately with Chinese authorities.

The U.N. Committee reviewing China's compliance with the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women issued a report in February and recommended that China invite the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women to visit China. It listed among its concerns domestic violence and custodial abuse, sexual harassment in the workplace, and various aspects of the implementation of China's population policy.

European Union

Germany, in the presidency of the E.U. in the first half of 1999, made no effort to overcome E.U. opposition to sponsorship of the resolution on China at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva. At the E.U. General Affairs Council meeting on March 22, the foreign ministers decided that maintaining unity within the E.U. was a higher priority than criticizing China. It also prevented individual E.U. states from cosponsoring any measure put forward by the U.S. (The E.U. did oppose China's no-action motion.)

On February 7-8, Germany hosted an E.U.-China dialogue in Berlin on human rights focused on China's relationship to various U.N. human rights mechanisms, the recent crackdown on political activists, and Tibet. NGOs were invited to attend part of the meeting, but most declined to participate. There was no public report on the results of the dialogue.

In March, an E.U. troika delegation (Germany, Austria, and Finland) visited Beijing to press for human rights progress but returned empty handed.

An E.U.-China summit planned for May was called off after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Instead German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder went to Beijing in an effort to apologize to China's leaders on behalf of NATO for the alliance's deadly mistake. Another E.U.-China summit was re-scheduled for November in Beijing. Schroeder also planned to lead a delegation of company executives and members of parliament to China in early November.

Meanwhile, the E.U. continued with its policy of dialogue with China. Finland, the new E.U. president, chaired a seminar on ethnic minorities, discrimination against women, and other human rights concerns in early September. The next formal E.U.-China human rights dialogue meeting was scheduled to take place in Beijing in mid-October.

The E.U. issued a mild demarche in Beijing on the banning of Falun Gong, but made no public protests.

The E.U. strongly supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization, and this was expected to be the major focus of a visit by Jiang Zemin to London, Brussels, and other European capitals in October. Beijing reportedly voiced objections to the appointment of Chris Patten, former British governor of Hong Kong, as the European Commission's new foreign affairs commissioner. In hearings before theEuropean Parliament, Patten declared that trade and economic links with China should be not allowed to overshadow human rights concerns. He also said that development of E.U. relations with Beijing would depend, in part, on its human rights record.

United States

The Clinton Administration had no clear strategy to follow up the president's visit to China in June 1998, except to continue dialogue and to use the occasion of high-level contacts to protest abuses. Following the Belgrade bombing, the administration was preoccupied with getting bilateral relations back on track, largely putting human rights concerns on the back burner.

A dialogue with China took place in Washington, D.C. in mid-January, in which State Department officials pressed for an end to administrative detention, made a request (which was denied) for access to the Panchen Lama, and objected to arrests of political activists. Further meetings were suspended by China after the Belgrade bombing.

In mid-February, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Beijing; a prominent journalist, Gao Yu, was released just prior to her visit. Albright urged human rights improvements, but received no specific promises in preparation for Premier Zhu Rongji's first official visit to the U.S. later in the spring.

There was little or no White House support for the effort to sponsor a resolution on China at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Zhu Rongji's visit in April was dominated by the debate on China's bid to join the WTO. Human rights concerns and Tibet were raised in his talks with President Clinton but without apparent results. Clinton also urged Zhu to pursue China's dialogue with the Vatican. Despite major concessions by Zhu on the WTO, the White House turned down a bilateral agreement. The visit was considered a failure by both governments, and WTO talks with the U.S. were cut off after the Belgrade bombing.

In June the president extended Normal Trade Relations (NTR) status, formerly called Most Favored Nation, to China for one year, triggering a Congressional debate that focused mainly on security concerns. On July 27, the House of Representatives voted 260-170 to defeat a bill that would have overturned Clinton's decision. Clinton also promised to lobby Congress for permanent NTR status (doing away with the annual renewal process) should China become a member of the WTO.

Also in June, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering traveled to China to explain the NATO bombing of the Belgrade embassy. The U.S. subsequently agreed to pay $4.5 million in compensation for the three people killed and twenty-seven wounded, opening the way for the restoration of high-level contacts.

The State Department protested arrests in the run up to the June 4 anniversary, and publicly appealed to the Chinese government to make a full accounting of those killed in 1989 as well as to release all those still serving sentences for their peaceful participation in the demonstrations.

In September, Clinton and Jiang met in Auckland, New Zealand in the margins of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and agreed to resume WTO talks. Discussion of rights concerns was perfunctory; the U.S. protested the crackdown on Falun Gong and other abuses. No human rights steps were announced, and China would not agree to resume the bilateral human rights dialogue.

Also undecided by October were plans for a visit to China by U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman- the first such visit by a U.S. labor official- in exchange for a visit to Washington in late March by her Chinese counterpart.

Pacific Rim Countries

Canada rejected appeals by NGOs and others to cosponsor the China resolution in Geneva and instead focused on its dialogue policy with China. A forum on human rights, jointly sponsored by Canada and Norway, took place in Qingdao in late July. Among the participants were government representatives and officials from national human rights commissions in thirteen countries from the Asia-Pacific region and academics, but no NGOs. The session was modeled after a similar meeting held in Vancouver in 1998 and debated issues such as the rights of ethnic minorities and labor concerns. Canadian officials used the meeting to protest the violation of Falun Gong members' rights to free association and assembly. No public report was issued on the results of the meeting.

Australia's major focus was on a visit to Canberra by Jiang Zemin en route to the APEC summit in New Zealand in September, during which human rights concerns were raised. Just prior to the visit, the third annual Australia-China human rights forum took place in Beijing and Qinghai province in late August. A wide range of topics, including Tibet and the Falun Gong crackdown, were on the agenda, and Australia later announced a joint program of cooperation for the next year, including exchanges and visits of judges, and legal and prison experts. But the session was eclipsed by the detention of an Australian citizen visiting a planned World Bank resettlement project in Qinghai.

Japan's prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, visited China in July to follow up an official visit to Tokyo by Jiang Zemin the previous November. During the 1998 summit, Japan had announced the next round of Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans for China for 1999-2000 totaling 390 billion yen (US $3.67 billion) for twenty-eight projects. A joint declaration noted that the two countries would pursue human rights concerns through mutual exchanges and dialogue "based on equality and mutual respect." In April Japan declined to cosponsor the Geneva resolution. Japan did, however, vote against China's no action motion in Geneva. Because of this vote, during Obuchi's visit Beijing refused to schedule the next session of its bilateral human rights dialogue with Japan, tentatively set for October.

World Bank

China continued to be the World Bank's leading recipient in loans. For fiscal year 1999, the Bank approved over $1.7 billion in loans to China, plus $45 million in technical assistance. In June, the Bank's board decided to fund a $160 million poverty reduction project in Western China that included $40 million for the voluntary resettlement of farmers to a traditionally Tibetan ethnic area. The project was approved over the objections of the U.S. and Germany, pending a visit to the project site by the Bank's inspection panel in early October and based on Beijing's agreement to allow open, unhindered access to the site for journalists, diplomats, and others. The detention in mid-August of an American and Australian visiting the site, together with their Chinese translator, triggered high level diplomatic activity to press for their release, and they were freed within two weeks. The Bank had made appeals in Beijing, along with the U.S. and Australian governments.

Top Of Page