Xi Jinping, General Secretary, Chinese Communist Party
No. 23, Xijiaominxiang
The People's Republic of China
Dear General Secretary Xi,
I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch on the occasion of the annual plenary session of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights in about 90 countries around the world.
Popular support for significant legal and political reform in China has grown substantially in recent years, and many of your remarks and those of other senior officials in recent months have asserted, in your words, that “the government takes seriously people’s aspirations and demands. This session of the NPC, the first under the new Chinese Communist Party leadership, is an opportunity to demonstrate the extent of these stated commitments to enacting crucial legislative reforms to improve human rights protections in China.
We urge that the NPC take immediate legislative action on four major issues on which there is broad support for [reform/legislation], as reiterated in recent months by senior Party and government leaders. These are 1) abolish re-education through labor; 2) abolish the hukou household registration system; 3) adopt a comprehensive domestic violence law; and 4) ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Abolish re-education through labor
The administrative system of detention of re-education through labor (RTL) is in contravention with China’s international legal obligations as well as China’s own constitution; as such, its abolition is long overdue. On January 7, 2013, this system was listed as one of the “four items of reform” by the Party Committee in charge of legal affairs, headed by then-Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu. Official media reported that the use of the system would be halted this year, until the NPC adopts a decision legislating its abolition or reform. Shortly thereafter, the Guangdong provincial chief justice announced that it was “ready” to abolish the system as soon as the NPC validated the decision.
Human Rights Watch has long urged the Chinese government to abolish in its entirety the RTL system, and to refrain from replacing it with any system of detention that would not comply with the right to a fair trial and other fundamental rights protected under international law, such as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Abolish the household registration system
China’s household registration, or hukou, system, which links government services to the birthplaces of citizens or their parents, chronically deprives China’s estimated 150 million migrant workers and their children of social welfare protection such as the unemployment, medical, and education benefits that are guaranteed to registered urban residents. The system is a source of deep resentment in China.
Demand from within China to abolish the hukou system is growing. In March 2010, 13 Chinese daily newspapers issued an editorial calling for the government to abolish the hukou system. In late 2012, a group of Beijing parents reportedly gathered tens of thousands of signatures calling for the scrapping of hukou restrictions on eligibility to take university entrance exams.
The current and previous administrations have stated repeatedly that the government intends to eliminate the hukou system, but has failed to provide any timetable for that abolition. On December 2012, the National Development and Reform Commission said the government "will speed up household registration reform" and "study and set policies to push forward with turning rural residents into urban residents in an orderly manner but without delay." On January 7, 2013, your government announced that hukou system reforms would be one of its four main areas of focus for political and legal reforms.
The latest directive issued by the State Council on February 24, 2013, suggests change to the hukou system is possible. The directive focuses on small and medium-sized cities, and allows those with rural hukou to obtain residency in these cities as long as an individual has a “stable residence” and a “stable job.” But the same directive also allows these cities to determine further restrictions to this general rule if it faces “pressure to its carrying capacity.” This vague terminology is subject to arbitrary and discriminatory interpretation. Previously, changes to the hukou system in some municipalities and major cities such as Shanghai gave permanent residency status on a discriminatory basis, awarding it only to a select minority of the migrant population that met rigorous educational, family planning, and tax payment history criteria.
We urge that you provide a concrete timetable for the abolition of the household registration system during the NPC’s annual session.
Adopt comprehensive legislation on domestic violence
Since 2000, local governments across China have passed local regulations on domestic violence, but these regulations focus on general principles and lack specific provisions to effectively protect women from domestic violence. As public support for effective domestic violence legislation has increased in recent years, the Supreme People’s Court and the All-China Women’s Federation undertook their own investigations into the issue, and in January 2013 made public two stark conclusions: that one in four women in China are subjected to domestic violence, and that current laws and regulations are insufficient to protect women from domestic violence.
According to the Supreme People’s Court, there is no clear standard stipulating the conditions under which investigations and prosecutions should be initiated; as a result, such investigations and prosecutions are rare. Even when such cases do come before courts, judges tend to treat domestic violence as a marital dispute and issue light punishments to abusers. The Supreme People’s Court investigation also pointed out that in cases where women respond to violence with violence, law enforcement agencies tend to discount their claims of abuse and failed to take them into account during sentencing.
Since 2008, the state-run All China Women’s Federation has recommended that the NPC draft a law to address domestic violence. Apart from an announcement that such drafting was in its work plans in early 2012, there has been no government information on details, timing, or when such draft laws might be discussed or adopted.
As China is a state party to several international treaties that guarantee women’s rights, the Chinese government is obliged to take effective measures to address domestic violence and its consequences for women. These actions should include effective legal measures, including penal sanctions, civil remedies, and compensatory provisions; preventive measures, including public information and education programs to change attitudes about the roles and status of men and women; and protective measures, including shelters, counseling, rehabilitation, and support services. China should enact a comprehensive law against domestic violence in accordance with the good practices detailed in the United Nations Handbook on Legislation on Violence Against Women.
Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Fourteen years after having signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Chinese government has yet to ratify it. Member countries to the ICCPR undertake to respect fundamental rights and freedoms, which include protections against mistreatment in detention and unfair trials, and the rights to free association and expression and to political freedoms.
The government’s position has long been that it was working on “preparing the conditions for ratification,” but without ever committing to a timetable. In May 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao said that China was readying itself to ratify the ICCPR “as soon as possible.” Yet there has been little noticeable progress since that time. Human Rights Watch was encouraged that China’s first National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) identified preparation for ICCPR ratification as an objective, but is concened that this aspiration is noticeably absent from the subsequent National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-2015).
Human Rights Watch urges the ratification without reservations of the ICCPR to be presented to the NPC as a matter of priority by the government, as a clear sign of commitment to improving human rights protection in the country.
To allow another session of the NPC to close absent steps towards ensuring the right to a fair trial, effective legal measures to protect victims of domestic violence and discrimination, and clear support for the universality of human rights will undercut China’s international human rights obligations and the expectations of the Chinese people.
We look forward to discussing these and other human rights matters with you and your government in the coming years.
Human Rights Watch
Wu Bangguo, Chairman, Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress
Nicholas Bequelin, “Re-education Revisited”, The New York Times, January 29, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/opinion/global/re-education-revisited.html?_r=0 (accessed February, 28, 2013).
“China: Fully Abolish Re-Education Through Labor”, Human Rights Watch news release, January 8, 2013, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/08/china-fully-abolish-re-education-through-labor (accessed February, 28, 2013).
 Wang Jun, “Rights Under Scrutiny”, Bejing Review, http://www.bjreview.cn/EN/En-2005/05-44-e/china-1.htm (accessed February, 28, 2013).