March 23, 2016

Hon. Malcolm Turnbull MP
Prime Minister
Parliament House

Re: China Visit and Human Rights

Dear Prime Minister Turnbull,

We write on the occasion of your first visit to China as prime minister to urge that you speak out both publicly and privately for greater respect for human rights in China.

We appreciate Australia’s support for the March 2016 joint statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning China’s detention of peaceful activists, enforced disappearances of citizens and foreigners, and televised confessions of criminal suspects. We also recognize Australia’s other interventions at the Human Rights Council, as well as its official bilateral human rights dialogue.

These efforts are important, yet will be most effective if backed up by regular public statements about serious, systemic human rights violations in China from all levels of government. We are currently seeing the worst crackdown on Chinese civil society in at least a decade, as well as dramatic overreach by state security forces.

We understand your visit has multiple priorities, and that a key one is cementing closer economic ties with China. We also know that you have repeatedly talked about the importance of the rule of law as being at the core of Australia’s democratic system.

The rule of law is under a sustained and intensified attack in China. The hopes that many Western leaders had that greater economic prosperity would translate into greater rights for Chinese citizens has not occurred – in fact the space is shrinking dramatically.

Public pressure does make a difference. In the past year intense and unapologetic international pressure has demonstrably helped mitigate worst-case scenarios in at least three individual cases: medical parole for septuagenarian journalist Gao Yu, who had been serving a seven-year sentence for violating state secrets laws; release on bail rather than continuing detention for the “Five Feminists” on baseless charges of “disturbing public order”; and a suspended sentence for prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang.

We note that Canberra did weigh in publicly on Pu’s case. We believe international pressure has also helped postpone the adoption of the Foreign NGO Management Law, which will severely and arbitrarily restrict the ability of civil society organizations in China to cooperate with or seek funds from international organizations. The law will also place vague and overly broad restrictions on foreign organizations, including business associations, universities, and museums.

Consequently, we urge that on your upcoming visit you publicly and privately ask your Chinese counterparts to:

  • Commit to respecting the human rights of Chinese nationals and others beyond its borders. The government’s abduction outside China and arbitrary detention in China of foreigners and Chinese dual-nationals—from booksellers to businesspeople—is of serious concern. China’s law enforcement and other security forces have increasingly been operating without permission in other countries, ostensibly in the context of President Xi Jinping’s “anti-corruption” campaign. We ask you to raise Australia’s concerns with these unlawful actions and that you reiterate that cooperation across the full spectrum of the bilateral relationship depends on adherence to the rule of law.
  • Immediately end the unprecedented assault on civil society. Over the past two years Chinese authorities have arbitrarily detained, prosecuted, forcibly disappeared, tortured and otherwise mistreated in detention hundreds of peaceful activists, lawyers and others. Authorities increasingly treat peaceful dissent as a threat to public order or national security, epitomized by the prosecutions of Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, a proponent of inter-ethnic dialogue who is now serving a life sentence on “separatism” charges, and more than a dozen human rights lawyers for “subversion.” The government continues to advance legislation that will allow for police supervision of civil society activities, and publicly derides work by civil society it opposes as “anti-state.” We ask you to call on authorities to release those detained for peacefully exercising their basic human rights, and to allow activists and organizations to work free of intimidation.
  • Substantially revise the State Security Law, passed July 1, 2015, the Counterterrorism Law, passed December 27, 2015, and the draft Cybersecurity Law to be in conformity with international law on the rights to free expression, peaceful assembly, and a fair trial, among others. These three laws cast peaceful public activism and criticism of the government as state security threats, and define terrorism and terrorist activities so broadly as to include peaceful dissent or criticism of the government or the Communist Party’s ethnic and religious policies. These laws provide legal cover to ongoing human rights violations and facilitate future abuses, especially in an environment in which the rights of criminal suspects are routinely denied.
  • Ensure respect for rights and accountability in the criminal justice system. Despite measures adopted in 2009 and 2013, the police still rely on confessions for criminal convictions. Police retain enormous power to deny detainees access to lawyers, family, and independent doctors. Judges are unwilling to enforce the “exclusionary rule” concerning coerced confessions, allowing unlawfully gained evidence to be used in court and police who commit abuses to do so with impunity.
  • As you know, Australia is finalizing an extradition treaty with China, which President Xi has sought with Western governments as part of his global “anti-corruption” drive. While carefully drafted and enforced extradition treaties can enhance the due process rights of individuals facing trial abroad, China’s basic disregard for the rights of criminal suspects raises grave concerns about any such treaty. Australia needs to be sure that the treaty won’t facilitate abusive practices, including politicized prosecutions, pervasive ill-treatment and torture, and the use of the death penalty.
  • In addition, Australia should ensure that bilateral police cooperation does not permit participation of abusive police officers, and should remain skeptical of assurances by Chinese authorities that criminal suspects returned to China will be well-treated.
  • Roll back restrictions on Internet use to conform with the right to freedom of expression. In China, the Internet has offered a marginally freer space than other mediums of expression, and enabled commercial activity. But the government censors politically unacceptable information through regulations, policies and practices collectively known as the “Great Firewall.” In 2015, government agencies issued multiple new directives, including tightened restrictions over the use of usernames and avatars, requirements that companies aid government surveillance, and an intention to station police in major Internet companies headquarters to more effectively prevent “spreading rumors” online. The government has also shut down or restricted access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and prosecuted peaceful activists for their on-line speech.

We believe that your visit to Beijing cannot be considered a success unless you deliver a clear, public message to the Chinese people that China’s authorities have an obligation to reverse the increasing violations of human rights in the country. A failure to do so would miss a critical opportunity to demonstrate to China’s leadership Australia’s support for China’s embattled civil society and the basic rights of everyone in China.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director