Social Tensions Rise; Harsh Sentences, Arbitrary Detention Continue
February 1, 2013
China is the only country in the world holding a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, in prison today – and unfortunately that’s a fair reflection of the state of freedom in the country. When challenged by its citizens, repression or tactical retreat rather than systemic reform remains the Chinese government’s default response.
Sophie Richardson, China Director

(London) – China’s human rights record remained poor in 2012, with minimal significant progress on political, civil, socio-economic, or cultural rights, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. As a decade of stalled reform under the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership came to an end in November, the new leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang has yet to signal that it is willing to respond to growing popular demands for greater adherence to the rule of law, accountability, and government openness.  

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

“China is the only country in the world holding a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, in prison today – and unfortunately that’s a fair reflection of the state of freedom in the country,” said Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch. “When challenged by its citizens, repression or tactical retreat rather than systemic reform remains the Chinese government’s default response.”

Against a background of mounting social tensions, long-awaited legal reforms to alleviate some of the most acute problems – including official malfeasance, abuses of power, abusive land and property confiscations, impunity for environmental pollution, and miscarriage of justice – did not materialize. The government adopted a second National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-2015), though this document weakens the government’s commitment to the universality of human rights, pledging instead to uphold those rights selectively based on “the principle of practicality.”

Chinese citizens’ fundamental right to political participation was denied in the selection of their new top leaders, the seven members of the new Standing Committee of the politburo led by Xi Jinping, unveiled at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 in Beijing. The tense leadership transition saw the spectacular downfall of one high-profile contender, Bo Xilai, and the unexplained disappearance from public view for several days of Xi Jinping himself, in the weeks preceding the Party Congress.

Despite these limits, citizens were increasingly vocal, especially online, in some cases forcing the government to make concessions, or even to take their demands into account. Both the Criminal Procedure Law, adopted in March, and the Mental Health Law, adopted in October, while still falling far short of international standards, were improved in key aspects as a result of intensive civil society efforts.

Activists, government critics, and ordinary citizens were subjected to a host of repressive measures, including police monitoring and harassment; baseless house arrest of individuals such as Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia; arbitrary detention such as “reeducation through labor;” unwarranted and forcible commitment to psychiatric facilities; or imprisonment on politicized criminal charges for activities completely protected by human rights.

Among the emblematic cases this year were the writer Li Tie, who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in January, and the poet Li Bifeng, who received 12 years in November, on contract fraud charges. Poet Zhu Yufu was given a seven-year sentence in February for “inciting subversion,” and activist Zhu Chengzhi was arrested in August, also on charges of “subversion,” for questioning the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of veteran democracy activist Li Wangyang on June 6, which the authorities ruled as a suicide.While the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng made international news by managing a daring escape from 18 months of house arrest, and ultimately being granted permission to travel to the United States after he sought refuge at the US embassy, his nephew Chen Kegui was sentenced on November 30, 2012, to three years and three months in prison, in an apparent act of retaliation by the local authorities.

Among other concerns, this year’s World Report 2013 also highlights that:

·         China still executes more prisoners than the rest of the world combined. Estimates range from 5,000 to 8,000 per year;

·         Over 90% of organ transplants from deceased donors come from executed prisoners;

·         The household registration (or hukou) system remained in place, denying millions of migrant rural workers living in cities the same socio-economic rights and benefits as urbanites;

·         China further increased Internet censorship in December by imposing real name registration and blocking software used to circumvent the country’s “Great Firewall”; and

·         Torture and forced confessions remained endemic in the criminal justice system.

Tensions in ethnic minority areas also showed no signs of abatement. The crackdown in Tibetan areas, initiated in response to the widespread 2008 popular protests, took a turn for the worst in 2012. Eighty-two Tibetans set themselves on fire in protest at Chinese policies during the year, including 27 in November. Authorities reacted by introducing even more hard-line measures such as collective punishment for relatives and neighbors of self-immolators. Religious repression against Turkish-speaking ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang reached new levels, with an enforced ban on state workers and minors participating in religious activities, including daytime fasting during Ramadan.

China’s impact on global human rights issues was also deficient. Despite claims to “making unremitting efforts” at peace and pursuing a “just” policy on Syria, the Chinese government, along with Russia, vetoed three resolutions aimed at pressuring the Syrian government.” China also demonstrated its disdain for international law by pushing back from Yunnan province at least 7,000 ethnic Kachin refugees into a conflict zone in northern Burma in August, insisting that they were not refugees. 

“The new leadership needs to understand that, as the world’s second largest economy and a Security Council member, people in China and all over the world have growing expectations of change, including respect for human rights,” said Richardson. “China can’t afford another decade without reform and rights protections.” 

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