(New York) – The Chinese government has undertaken a nationwide crackdown on dissent in an apparent campaign against perceived challenges to one-party rule, Human Rights Watch said today. Since February 2013 the government has arbitrarily detained at least 55 activists, taken into custody critics and online opinion leaders, and increased controls on social media, online expression, and public activism, rolling back the hard-won space China’s civil society has gained in recent years.
The crackdown is unfolding as China campaigns to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN’s preeminent human rights body, in November 2013, and prepares for the review of its human rights record before the council in October 2013.
“The Chinese government has embarked on a repressive drive at home that attacks the very freedoms that Human Rights Council members are supposed to protect,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Every arrest of a peaceful activist further undermines the Chinese government’s standing at home and abroad.”
Seventeen of those arrested in recent months had participated in the New Citizens’ Movement, a peaceful civil rights platform that rejects authoritarianism and promotes freedom, justice, equality, and the rule of law. The New Citizens’ Movement organizes a range of activities, including a nationwide campaign that advocates for the disclosure of assets of public officials as a way to curb corruption, and monthly gatherings over meals for activists around the country to exchange ideas and build solidarity.
On August 2, 2013, the State Prosecution approved the formal arrest of Xu Zhiyong, the most prominent activist detained so far and considered the intellectual force behind the New Citizens’ Movement. Xu has been held since July 16 for “gathering crowds to disturb public order,” even though he has been under house arrest since April. If convicted, Xu faces up to five years in prison. Xu, 40, is a law lecturer at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, and was once distinguished by the state broadcaster CCTV as one of the “top ten rule of law people” in China. In 2009 he was forced to disband the legal aid center he helped set up, the Open Constitution Initiative, after police detained him and a co-worker for tax evasion.
“Xu Zhiyong is one of the most important activists behind the birth of China’s ‘rights-defense’ movement that emerged around 2003,” Richardson said. “While Xu’s cautious approach has helped keep him out of jail for the past 10 years, his recent arrest indicates that even safer strategies won’t spare activists from severe consequences.”
The 38 other activists recently detained were taken into custody for organizing and participating in other public, collective actions not directly related to the New Citizens Movement, including protests. Many were charged with crimes such as “gathering crowds to disturb order” and “creating disturbances” and of those, 16 have been released, some on bail. But a number of the activists detained have been charged with the more serious crimes of “inciting subversion” and “subversion.” Inciting subversion carries up to 15 years in prison, while subversion can result in life imprisonment.
Among those detained is prominent activist Guo Feixiong. Guo, a 47-year-old Guangzhou-based lawyer, who has been detained since August 8 for “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” Police have denied Guo access to lawyers on the grounds that his case involves national security. Beyond his right to legal counsel, Guo’s lawyers are concerned that denying him access to lawyers makes him more likely to be subjected to torture. Guo was tortured during his previous imprisonment between 2006 and 2011.
Government efforts to curb criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party have widened to individual critical voices on the Internet. Since August, the government has taken into custody hundreds of Internet users accused of “spreading rumors” online. Most have been released, but some remain detained under criminal charges. The campaign has targeted influential online opinion leaders, or what the state media call the “big Vs” (V for “verified users”).
According to state media, the State Internet Information Office held a meeting on August 10 with some of these bloggers, including liberal commentator Xue Manzi (also known as Charles Xue), “achieving a consensus” that these opinion leaders would not breach “seven bottom lines,” including China’s “socialist system,” the country’s “national interests,” and “public order.” On August 23, Xue, 60, who has 12 million followers on Sina weibo, one of China’s main social media networks similar to Twitter, was detained for “soliciting a prostitute,” an administrative offense under Chinese law. State-owned media harshly criticized Xue while explicitly warning other “big Vs” against becoming the “loudspeakers” for rumors. Since May, the government has closed down more than 100 “illegal” news web portals, citizen-run websites that have provided important channels for citizens to expose government misconduct.
The crackdown on dissent reflects the general hardline shift taken by the Xi Jinping leadership in recent months. It contrasts sharply with Xi’s rhetoric at the beginning of his presidency in March, when he promised to “uphold the constitution and the rule of law” and “always listen to the voice of the people.”
In April, the office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued an internal directive stressing that the party must eliminate “seven subversive currents” in China today, including those who advocate for “Western constitutional democracy,” “universal values” such as human rights, civil society, and “Western press values.” In June, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a notice demanding that prosecutors at all levels “combat the crimes of endangering national security” by “resolutely combating crimes such as illegal assemblies, the gathering of crowds to disturb social and public order, and others, which aim to subvert state power.” Reflecting an apparent departure from a rule of law approach, the notice stressed that legal organs should “unify social, political, and legal results” in their work, rather than solely base their decisions on the law.
China is currently seeking a seat at the UN Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body charged with addressing human rights violations and promoting respect for human rights. In a pledge submitted in connection with its candidacy, the Chinese government said it “respects the principle of universality of human rights,” and that it “has made unremitting efforts for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Chinese people.” The next elections for the council are slated for November.
Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to drop all charges against individuals for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and to ensure that they are not subject to torture or other ill-treatment in detention.
“The authorities’ abuse of the law to go after critics is counter-productive, as it closes one of the only effective channels for airing grievances about the government,” Richardson said. “The government’s only ‘unremitting efforts’ on display these days are the denial of universal rights.”