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China: Intransigence on Rights Cases Requires New Approach

Nobel Laureate Remains Jailed Despite Global Condemnation

(New York) – The Chinese government’s increasing intransigence on high-profile human rights cases requires governments to make progress on such cases a benchmark for closer relations and high-level visits, Human Rights Watch said. Imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia are high-profile examples of cases of concern to the international community.

“It is time to make progress on individual human rights cases a real benchmark for engagement with China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. “When governments and visiting leaders fail to publicly call senior Chinese officials on their indefensible treatment of human rights defenders it allows Beijing to conclude there is no price to be paid for violations.”

As the first anniversary of Liu’s Nobel Prize approaches, the Chinese government’s willingness to comply with its international legal obligations as it continues its ascent on the world stage must also be called into question, Human Rights Watch said.

The international community’s approach to individual cases has often been marked by a preference for behind-closed-doors entreaties at the margins of diplomatic meetings or in bilateral human rights dialogues that take place regardless of the lack of progress. These discussions are often not backed by a commitment to press the Chinese government publicly when talks do not produce results and are sometimes undermined by high-level statements praising purported progress. Occasional passing references to individual cases are also held up as evidence of commitment to raise human rights issues with Beijing, yet the inconsistent, relatively quiet approach indicates to the Chinese government that there is no diplomatic penalty for ignoring such demands.

The Chinese government’s growing disdain for this inconsistent approach has become apparent in its refusal to receive or respond to case lists, and through its manifestly untruthful assertions regarding the status of citizens placed under extrajudicial measures.

Among the major individual cases that have dominated the human rights agenda for several years are:

  • Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, arrested on December 8, 2010, for his role in co-drafting an appeal for political reform and serving an 11-year prison sentence;
  • Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, who has lived under house arrest since the Nobel Prize ceremony in December 2010;
  • the lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been disappeared by the authorities since April 2010; and
  • the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, illegally imprisoned at his home since his release from prison in September 2010.

There are no legal charges against Liu Xia, Gao, or Chen, and Liu Xiaobo’s trial violated minimum standard of fairness and due process. Both Liu and Gao’s deprivation of liberty have been ruled “arbitrary” by the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Some foreign governments have repeatedly raised the cases of Liu, Gao, and Chen and called for their release over the years with little meaningful response from the Chinese government. Beijing routinely denies that any restrictive measures are being imposed on Liu Xia, Gao Zhisheng, or Chen Guangcheng, going so far as to suggest that Gao is merely “traveling” and that Chen is “at home.” In April 2011, Michael Posner, the US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said after the US-China human rights dialogue in Beijing that Chinese government responses to queries about individual cases gave “no comfort.” His and other governments’ requests to meet with Liu Xia have been repeatedly rejected.

Although international pressure contributed to the June 2011 release of the contemporary artist and outspoken government critic Ai Weiwei after a disappearance of 82 days, the government has continued to press a politically-motivated tax case, and has published proposed revisions to the criminal procedure law that would legalize secret detentions at locations chosen by the police for up to six months.

Such provisions would plainly undermine the prohibition on arbitrary detention of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, which China has signed but not ratified. Under customary international law, China is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty it has signed.

In September 2011, in a clear sign of growing intransigence on the diplomatic front, the Chinese government issued a list of “core interests” on which “no compromise is possible.” This list includes the “political system established in the Chinese constitution,” which enshrines the leadership of the Communist Party, and a “basic assurance for the general social stability.” Human rights defenders and government critics are often accused of being a threat to social stability or national security.

“It is time for presidents and prime ministers, foreign ministers, and ambassadors to publicly call for specific prisoner releases and for concrete steps towards respect for human rights,” said Richardson. “Xi Jinping and other senior officials deserve no red carpet welcomes until there is evidence the human rights environment in China is improving.”

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