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China: As Paralympics Launch, Disabled Face Discrimination

Hiring Bias, Harassment of Disabled Organizations Undermine Laws

(New York) - Despite recent positive steps, discrimination against persons with disabilities continues in China and organizations for the disabled face government pressure and harassment, Human Rights Watch said today on the eve of the September 6 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

“The Chinese government deserves praise for enacting laws and ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But so far these protections have meant little to persons with disabilities and their advocates in China who struggle to promote their rights and, in particular, to fairly compete for employment.”

The Chinese government has in recent years enacted a variety of new laws including the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons, Regulations on the Education of Persons with Disabilities, and the Regulations on Employment of Persons with Disabilities, which on paper provide impressive protections of the rights of China’s estimated 82.7 million persons with disabilities. Human Rights Watch applauded the Chinese government’s August 1, 2008, ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Human Rights Watch said that the new laws have not ended discriminatory employment practices. In June 2007, shocking images of workers who had been held in slave-like conditions in Shanxi brick kilns were published; many of the workers proved to have mental disabilities. Over the next two months, authorities endeavored to free 1,340 people from similar working conditions in kilns, mines, and other forced labor situations. In August 2007, the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced that 367 of those freed had mental disabilities, underscoring that this population remains highly vulnerable to such exploitation.

A 2007 survey by the China University of Political Science and Law of 3,454 people in 10 cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou and Nanjing, among others, revealed that 22 percent of the respondents said their physical disabilities had prompted employers in both the public and private sectors to reject them for jobs. Those attitudes may have contributed to unemployment of the disabled. Official statistics show that more than 8.58 million employable people with disabilities did not have jobs in 2007 and that this number rises by 300,000 per year. Although the government has imposed a mandatory quota requiring that people with disabilities comprise a minimum of 1.5 percent of all employees of government departments, enterprises, and institutions, there is little evidence of official efforts to enforce that quota.

Human Rights Watch called for the Chinese government to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Optional Protocol, and to loosen restrictions on grassroots civil society organizations dedicated to assisting people with disabilities. Citizens of states which join the Optional Protocol can seek redress at the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities after they exhaust domestic legal remedies for convention violations.

The Chinese government has only in the past two decades begun to tolerate grassroots civil society organizations, which operate outside official bureaucracy and control of the Chinese Communist Party. However, such organizations, particularly those devoted to addressing the needs of China’s HIV/AIDS and chronic hepatitis B sufferers, continue to be targets for repression by Chinese security forces suspicious of such groups.

Meng Weina, founder of China’s Huiling Community Services, a nongovernmental organization which assists disabled people in eight major Chinese cities, complained of harassment by Shanghai police in a letter to the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees. A group of Meng’s mentally disabled students were harassed en route to the Special Olympics in Shanghai on October 11, 2007; Meng described the incident as evidence that Chinese police “believe that events initiated by civil society must be ‘dangerous’ and ‘destructive.’”

“Until the Chinese government tolerates a civil society which operates without threat of official repression and improves ordinary citizens’ access to justice, its commitments on paper to people with disabilities will remain limited,” Richardson said.

Human Rights Watch said that the Beijing Paralympics also offer the Chinese government an opportunity to fulfill its Olympics-related commitments to media freedom and internet access. During the August 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the Chinese government continued to obstruct media freedom and to restrict foreign journalists’ access to the internet.

“The Paralympics are the Chinese government’s last chance to live up to the Olympics-related human rights commitments made to the international community, but which were repeatedly violated during the Beijing Games,” Richardson said.

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