Dear Premier Wen,
We are writing on the occasion of the annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), at which you will be presenting your government work report. We welcome your commitment to promoting social justice and building the rule of law, though note that there is a great deal still to do in these areas.
You recently wrote that, “Along with the boosting of our comprehensive national strength and enhancement of international status, the international community's expectations of us will grow by the day” (People’s Daily, February 26). Expectations about China’s human rights situation are particularly heightened not only by the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, but also by China’s membership on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
We urge you to begin meeting some of these expectations at the NPC session by launching legislative and policy reforms—backed up by concrete action—that firmly establish respect for human rights as a central feature of China’s ongoing reforms.
We have outlined ten urgent key reforms below, which we respectfully request that your government set as priorities in order to improve its promotion and protection of human rights.
1. Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
The undue delay in ratifying this key international human rights covenant—which China signed a decade ago but never ratified—greatly undermines the credibility of China’s commitment to respect and protect human rights and develop the rule of law.
We urge you to submit the Covenant for ratification to the National People’s Congress this year, so as to ensure that future legislation will be in full conformity with international human rights law and standards. The ratification can provide the necessary impetus to carry out the critical legal reforms with the support and participation of China’s burgeoning civil society.
2. Allow non-governmental organizations (NGO) to register freely
A stringent set of requirements for state approval prevents NGOs and associations from registering for legal status. In addition to the requirement of being attached to a government entity, onerous procedures and arbitrary denials of registration leave no other alternative to the majority of civil society organizations but to carry their activities without the benefits of a guaranteed legal status. These restrictions hinder their work and leave them open to interference and arbitrary closure.
We urge your government to eliminate excessive obstacles to the registration of NGOs and associations, and ensure freedom of association as guaranteed by China’s Constitution and international law.
3. End Repression of Activists and Petitioners
The government continues to use a vast police and state security apparatus to enforce multiple layers of controls on civil society activists, including lawyers, petitioners, migrant worker representatives, and rural protestors. The system includes threats to employment, restrictions on domestic and foreign movements, covert or overt tapping and surveillance of phone and internet communications, visits and summons by the police, close surveillance by plainclothes agents, unofficial house-arrests, and custody in police stations. Many are charged with vaguely defined crimes such as “disrupting social order,” “leaking state secrets,” or “inciting subversion.” Repression against petitioners remains endemic despite official recognition that the majority of them have valid grievances. Hundreds of petitioners were arbitrarily arrested and deported back to their home provinces in the week preceding the opening of the NPC.
We urge you to end the repression of activists and rights defenders, who are crucial to the growth of a strong, protected civil society, and to stop the routine crackdowns against petitioners on the eve of important national or international events.
4. Protect HIV/AIDS Activists
The central government has announced new steps to confront the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis, but serious challenges remain. Local officials and security forces continue to obstruct efforts by activists and grassroots organizations that contribute to prevention and education efforts and to organize care-giving, such as restricting access to and closing facilities for the affected populations.
We urge your government to ensure that HIV/Aids activists are free of harassment from and obstruction by local authorities. Two decades of worldwide experience in combating the epidemics have demonstrated that grassroots organizations play a critical role in prevention and provision of services to high risk communities such as sex workers and injecting drug users. We urge you to turn into action the government’s pledge to enroll the help of civil society in fighting HIV/Aids.
5. Grant full independence to lawyers, revise the Guiding Opinions on Handling Mass Cases
Statutory control of lawyers by the Ministry of Justice and a system of annual renewal of their licenses leave the legal profession vulnerable to interference by judicial and other state institutions, which in turn thwarts effective human rights protection for ordinary Chinese citizens. An independent legal profession is a crucial benchmark for rule of law and a necessity for China’s long term stability.
We urge your government to make lawyers association fully independent organizations, and to lift restrictions on the type of cases that lawyers can handle independently. We particularly urge you to do so with respect to “mass cases” of protesters, which you have acknowledged often have legitimate grievances, and to enact statutes that effectively protect lawyers from harassment, interference and attacks when carrying their professional duties.
6. Recognize independent workers unions
Under Chinese law independent labor organizing is prohibited. All workers unions are required to register with the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). Labor disputes are escalating and there are endemic problems in wage arrears.
We urge your government to rescind the requirement that all trade unions be affiliated with the ACFTU. We also recommend that China drop its reservation to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which blocks the application of a clause of the treaty guaranteeing workers the right to form and join the trade unions of their choice. China’s reservation undermines the essence of the right to organize freely.
7. Restrict state secrets laws to matters of national security
What the government classifies through elaborate and vaguely-worded laws as “state secrets” are not limited to matters of national security. Rather, the classification extends to information pertaining to economic, social and political matters, allowing unchecked discretionary powers in controlling government-held and public information. All-encompassing state secrets laws effectively negate freedom of expression and information, are incompatible with the transparency required by good governance, and hinder the Chinese government’s capacity to respond to public health crises, environmental disasters and industrial accidents.
We urge your government to make it a priority to revise state secrets laws and restrict the scope of state secrets to matters of genuine national security, so as to fully comply with international standards on freedom of expression, which includes the right to freely receive and impart information. The classification of a particular matter should be challengeable through administrative and judicial procedures.
8. End censorship of the Internet and the media
Internet and media censorship in China remains wide-ranging, secretive and arbitrary. In addition to censoring websites and internet content at the national level, numerous governmental and commercial entities censor according to undisclosed guidelines and instructions from the Propaganda Ministry, the General Administration of News and Publication, and the Public Security Bureau.
We urge your government to create formal, well-documented and legally transparent processes by which content censorship requests are made to media outlets and Internet companies, formal written procedures by which companies can challenge or respond to censorship requests, and formal, transparent legal procedures by which members of the Chinese public can safely and fairly challenge the legality of any act of censorship without fear of reprisal. We also urge you to end the use of the criminal law against individuals on the basis of speech that would otherwise be protected under international law, and to release all such prisoners.
9. Halt policies that deny Tibetans the right to their own culture, religion and language
Intrusive developmental policies in Tibet, such as the forced resettlement or compulsory reconstruction of homes, are imposed with virtually no due process, or political participation. The government, which has in the passed viewed Tibetans’ exercise of their cultural, religious, and language rights as a form of separatism or a “threat to national unity,” has stated its goal of building a “new ethnic culture.”
We urge you to reaffirm publicly the right of ethnic communities in China to exercise their distinct cultural identity, promote their language, and safeguard their ways of life, and the government’s commitment to investigating and prosecuting as appropriate officials found violating these rights.
10. Abolish rather than reform reeducation-through-labor
The NPC is currently examining a draft “Law on Correction of Illegal Acts” that would be a substitute for the discredited reeducation-through-labor system. The new law would alter but not abolish the existing system of arbitrary detention in labor camps for minor offenses which are not considered to amount to “crime.” These provisions are incompatible with international human rights law and standards that guarantee the right to a fair trial for all punishments that entail a deprivation of liberty.
We urge your government to abolish reeducation-through-labor and bring all offences punishable by deprivation of personal liberty within the scope of the Criminal Law. The “Law on Correction of Illegal Acts” should transfer all powers to impose imprisonment as a punishment from the police to the courts.
As a member of the newly formed Human Rights Council of the United Nations, China is committed to protect basic rights and freedoms. You have already voiced your commitment to reform. Now, as a measure of respect for your people, we ask that you demonstrate this commitment by making every effort to uphold and improve China’s important international human rights obligations.
We look forward to discussing these and other human rights matters with you and your government in the coming years.