Imprisoning popular bloggers. Maintaining the “Great Firewall” to censor the Internet. Expunging from history books references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Maintaining a Propaganda Department to disseminate the state’s—and only the state’s—version of reality.
Despite a constitutional guarantee to the right of freedom of expression, these are some of the familiar methods the Chinese government uses to restrict that right inside the country.
Yet there are also a number of ways Beijing increasingly seeks to curtail peaceful critical commentary about China beyond its borders. This has important consequences for debates about the ways in which the People’s Republic engages the world, including African states.
China has flexed its growing diplomatic muscle more often in recent years to minimize the space for critical debate at the very international institutions devoted to that purpose. The Chinese government’s efforts to limit criticism of its domestic human rights record at the United Nations have been clear for some time. China has consistently voted against UN Human Rights Council resolutions calling on all states to uphold international standards – most recently opposing a general resolution on protecting human rights in the context of peaceful protest.
Beijing recently went to appalling lengths to limit criticism of its human rights record in its October 2013 Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Under this mechanism, all UN member states’ human rights records are reviewed by other members on a four-year cycle at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The process also allows for input from civil society and independent voices inside and outside each country under review. In its first review in 2009, China had allowed no independent input into its state report, and sought to ensure only friendly states would speak during the Geneva dialogue.
At the second review in 2013, more activists from China sought to ensure their critical views would be heard as well – with deadly consequences. One in particular, Cao Shunli, requested in 2012 and 2013 that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs disclose ways in which the government has fulfilled its obligation to allowing independent voices to contribute to the state report. She was told that the matter was a “state secret.” Cao and fellow activists tried staging multiple protests to demand participation in the drafting process, but were dispersed. In September 2013, Cao tried to leave China to attend a training program about the UPR process in Geneva but the authorities detained her at the Beijing airport. She was “disappeared” for several weeks before the announcement of the charge of “illegal assembly” against her in October; over the course of the autumn her lawyer and family members consistently told prison authorities she was in need of medical care. But she was not transferred to a hospital until her conditions became critical in February 2014, where she died at age 52 of multiple organ failure.
At the final phase of China’s UPR just days later in Geneva, civil society representatives accredited to speak sought to use their speaking slots to instead hold a moment of silence for Cao. Chinese officials were so desperate to prevent this gesture that they invoked a procedural vote as to whether silence constituted a form of speech—in ironic effect, trying to oblige people to speak rather than remain silent. A number of governments, including South Africa, disgracefully supported this surreal proposal.
Pressuring other governments to limit speech and intimidating civil society.
Despite claims to “non-interference” in other countries’ affairs, Beijing has unambiguously pressured other governments not to discuss—even on their own soil—human rights issues in China or with visiting Chinese officials. The methods vary, but some governments, such as Nepal, have effectively agreed to employ Chinese political imperatives as laws: it is now common to hear Nepal government officials use the term “anti-China activities”—a construct with no legal meaning or basis in Nepal--to prohibit peaceful expression by Tibetans in Nepal.
In April 2014, the European Union again acquiesced to Chinese demands not to have a press conference following a visit to Brussels by Chinese President Xi Jinping, thus denying Europeans the kind of accountability they expect about such important interactions. In September 2011, South Africa declined to issue a visa to the Dalai Lama, who had hoped to attend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations and to deliver a lecture at the University of the Western Cape. South Africa’s reluctance appeared to be based on no more than a fear of irking Beijing.
Chinese authorities also attempt to impose restrictions on independent organizations and individuals, often doing themselves enormous reputational damage.
There is no better example than the ongoing treatment of Norway since the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s 2010 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned critic of the Chinese government, and of related efforts by Beijing to discourage dozens of countries from sending representatives to the December 2010 prize ceremony.
Finally, Chinese corporations, some of them state-owned, and media outlets, which are wholly-government run entities, now operate all over the world, and in some circumstances they too enable restrictions on the freedom of expression. Many Chinese companies operating internationally claim to have corporate social responsibility policies, yet the lack of independent scrutiny of their application makes it difficult to know whether they have any meaning in practice.
For example, Human Rights Watch research has documented how the oppressive Ethiopian government has been monitoring opposition groups and journalists to silence dissent via surveillance and data collection. The technology used by Ethiopia was sold primarily by ZTE, a Chinese telecom equipment company. Human Rights Watch wrote to ZTE in late 2013, enquiring whether it had adopted policies to ensure these products are being used for legitimate law enforcement purposes and not to repress opposition parties, journalists, bloggers, and others. ZTE is known to have sold similar technology to other notoriously abusive governments, such as Libya under Muammar Qaddafi. ZTE failed to respond to HRW’s letter. It is unclear whether ZTE has taken any steps to address abuses linked to surveillance systems or training it may have sold to the Ethiopian or other governments.
Chinese conglomerate Huawei has also invested in Ethiopia’s telecommunications infrastructure. Huawei replied to HRW’s inquiry, stating that it “complies with all applicable laws and regulations regarding the protection of human rights,” and that it was not aware of any human rights abuses that might stem from the use of Huawei products. In keeping with the company’s Common Business Guidelines, Huawei stated that it would “never tolerate misuse of information or telecommunication technology to conduct surveillance on end users’ communications and/or movements.” While Huawei also noted that it had not been explicitly asked by any government to provide information on or monitor individuals, it did not explain how it avoids or addresses the existing problems of abusive, state-driven surveillance.
Limitations on the freedom of expression were also evident in Zambian copper miners’ ability to air grievances about working conditions and the freedom to associate in four facilities run by the parastatal company China Non-ferrous Metals Mining Corporation (CNMC). In a November 2011 report, Human Rights Watch had to withhold names and identifying information of miners to protect them from reprisal. Many expressed serious concern of being fired if management identified them as having spoken to Human Rights Watch.
Much has been written in recent years about the extraordinary expansion across the world of Chinese state-run media. Major American newspapers now regularly include paid inserts from the China Daily, and China Central Television is now nearly as ubiquitous as the BBC or Al-Jazeera- including through its huge operations in Africa, headquartered in Nairobi. Xinhua’s news feed provides content to hundreds of media outlets worldwide.
These feeds rarely include criticism of the Chinese government, coverage of human rights abuses in China, or room for independent voices—something international newspapers do, and they often include anti-human rights invective or attacks. The Propaganda Department has over recent years provided training to thousands of journalists from the developing world—while at the same time imposing extraordinary restrictions on thousands of foreign correspondents inside China.
Certainly the government’s resistance to scrutiny in precisely the forums that exist for that purpose, such as the United Nations, fuel skepticism about China’s willingness to uphold at home or tolerate abroad the international standards on free expression broadly recognized the world over.
There are some incremental steps inside China that may indicate a slightly greater state tolerance for the freedom of expression, particularly at a time when senior leaders appear more concerned about popular frustration with corruption and a lack of accountability. The “Open Government Initiative” formally went into effect in 2007, in some circumstances guaranteeing citizens access to state information, though there are clauses in place allowing authorities to deny such requests. In January 2014, the Ministry of Justice began to make all court decisions available on-line.
While the Internet remains subject to endless cat-and-mouse games of censorship, the mice nevertheless continue to use the medium to communicate, share information, and try to hold officials to account.
In sum, as China becomes more powerful, the government’s attitude towards peaceful dissent at home is likely to increasingly influence the state of free expression around the world, including in Africa.
Those outside China who enjoy the right to the freedom of expression have a responsibility—and a need—to help ensure it for people inside China.
Dr. Sophie Richardson is China director at Human Rights Watch