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China: A Year of Illegal, Politically-Motivated Disappearances

Enforced Disappearances sow Fear; Chinese Public Increasingly Asserts Rights

(New York) – The Chinese government’s use of illegal enforced disappearances to silence dissenters was just one of several ominous setbacks to human rights protections in 2011, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2012, released today.

The 676-page report assesses progress on human rights in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. In its chapter on China, Human Rights Watch outlines the threat posed by a provision in China’s draft criminal procedure law to effectively legalize such disappearances, which remain a serious crime in international law.

Triggered by the leadership’s nervousness over the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and by the initial phase of the leadership transition in China, these developments suggest a more hard-line response as the public increasingly demands the rule of law and respect for the freedoms of association, belief, and expression.

“The Chinese government’s sharp crackdown on critics – while trying to cover abuses with a fig leaf of legality – is an alarming sign of what the next year could be like for Chinese citizens, government critics, and human rights defenders,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time for other governments to stipulate to Beijing that a worsening in China’s human rights environment in 2012 will have a direct impact on bilateral ties.”

Beginning in February 2011, Chinese security agencies rounded up dozens of the country’s most outspoken critics, including the internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, and “disappeared” them for weeks outside of any legal protection and judicial procedure. Upon their release, several of those individuals reported being subjected to forced sleep deprivation, interrogations, and “abusive threats” while in custody.

In December 2011 alone, the Chinese government signaled its no-tolerance policy for outspoken political dissent through the persecution of high-profile human rights defenders. 

  • December 29: Beijing’s Xicheng District People’s Courty tried disabled human rights activist and former lawyer Ni Yulan and her husband, Dong Jiqin, for “creating a disturbance” – and also tried Ni for “fraud.” The verdict has not yet been released.
  • December 26: The Guiyang Intermediate People’s Court in Guizhou province sentenced veteran Chinese pro-democracy activist Chen Xi to a 10-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power.”  The conviction was based on articles Chen had published on various websites criticizing China’s one-party rule.
  • December 23: The Suining Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan Province sentenced veteran pro-democracy activist Chen Wei to a 9-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power.” The court convicted Chen on the basis of several essays he had written on constitutional democracy, civil society and human rights.
  • December 16: The Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court abruptly withdrew the grant of probation for the disappeared human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and ordered him to serve the entirety of a three-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power,” handed down on December 22, 2006. The court justified its decision on the basis that Gao had “seriously violated probation rules” despite the fact that he had been the victim of an apparent enforced disappearance – and thus in police custody – since April 2010.

The report also details considerable risks Chinese citizens took to express their dissatisfaction with abuses. One of the more dramatic public challenges involved attempts by dozens of Chinese citizens to visit the illegally detained human rights defender Chen Guangcheng in Shandong province. Since Chen’s release from prison on September 9, 2010, on a politically-motivated conviction for “disrupting traffic,” he and his family have been illegally detained in their home and reportedly subjected to vicious beatings for defying their captors. The security cordon around Chen’s village, manned by plainclothes thugs who appear to operate at official behest, apparently have detained, beaten and subjected to illegal search and seizure many of those who tried to visit him. In another expression of public solidarity, thousands of Chinese citizens raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in November 2011 to help pay the US$2.4 million tax bill imposed on the activist Ai Weiwei by Beijing municipal tax authorities.

Despite the Chinese government’s well-documented attack on human rights defenders and civil society activists in recent years, in July 2011, the Chinese government declared its National Human Rights Actions Plan (2009-2010) a resounding success. It remains unclear whether the follow up action plan and other rhetorical commitments to better rights protections and the rule of law will be adequate responses to rising public anger. More than 100,000 “mass incidents” or protests are estimated to occur annually in China and the Chinese government now budgets more funds for “social stability maintenance” than national defense.

Few foreign governments gave as much attention to the crackdown in China or to the Chinese government’s failures to honor international human rights obligations as they did to economic or security concerns. At several points during 2011, American, European, and United Nations officials expressed concerns about particular developments, but consistently failed to link those concerns to broader bilateral relations or make them an unavoidable topic in all high-level interactions with Chinese officials. As a result, the Chinese government feels little pressure to change.

“It is incumbent on all those with a stake in China’s future to prioritize helping end human rights abuses in that country, rather than occasionally speaking up about a few particularly egregious cases,” said Richardson. “The Chinese government will only be a truly reliable partner when it respects the rule of law and the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.”


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