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Dear Foreign Minister Ayrault,

We are writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch on the occasion of your forthcoming visit to China. France has long been a crucial voice around the globe in promoting respect for human rights.

However, with respect to the human rights situation in China, France has been noticeably quiet. We believe your visit provides an important opportunity to speak out publicly on respect for human rights, which continues to deteriorate under the current government.

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who will remain in power until 2022 and possibly beyond, the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion is dire. In July 2015 more than 300 human rights lawyers and legal activists across the country were detained in a nationwide sweep; over 20 remain in detention. Chinese authorities continue to adopt highly abusive laws on issues ranging from cybersecurity to civil society groups, and refuse to consider the grievances of ethnic minority and religious communities. China’s forcible disappearance of critics from Hong Kong and other countries garnered headlines globally, and raises concerns about the country’s deployment of law enforcement officials abroad.

Thus far, France has taken little public action to condemn this worsening rights environment in China. We appreciate France’s overall efforts at the United Nations Human Rights Council, so we were surprised and disappointed that France did not join the unprecedented March 2016 joint statement at the council. In your August 2016 letter to Human Rights Watch concerning Chinese government restrictions in the G20 meeting held in Hangzhou in September 2016, you wrote that France “attaches great importance” to civil society’ participation in international issues. Yet France did not raise precisely such restrictions at the G20 meeting. While France supports the EU-China human rights dialogue, our three decades of work on China has made it clear that such dialogues are of extremely limited utility absent high-level, public interventions by senior officials.

Absent significant reform within China – including the establishment of an independent, nonpartisan judiciary, respect for freedom of the media and association, and holding the security forces accountable for rights violations – foreign governments will run into limits in their bilateral relations with China as its role in global politics grows. Ultimately change in China will be a function of what the people of that country demand – but outside pressure is critical.

We therefore ask that you:

  • Call publicly for an end to the crackdown on human rights defenders, including the several dozen human rights lawyers and advocates who have been detained since July 2015, and the release of wrongfully detained individuals such as 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and 2016 Martin Ennals Award winner Ilham Tohti.
  • Express publicly your government’s concerns about China’s new Foreign NGO Management Law, effective January 1, 2017, which gives police unprecedented power to restrict the work of foreign groups in the country, and limits domestic groups’ ability to obtain foreign funding and work with foreign organizations.
  • Urge the Chinese government to take steps toward abolishing the death penalty, which France has long opposed. While new measures, including the requirement that senior judges review all death penalty cases, has led to a reduction in its use, this punishment remains available for 46 crimes, including non-violent offenses.
  • Question Chinese officials on their legal basis for abducting foreign nationals abroad, including EU citizens, and bringing them to China where they have been forcibly disappeared.
  • Raise with senior EU and member state officials in Beijing the EU’s commitment to promoting and protecting human rights in China.

When France is expressing its human rights concerns to senior Chinese officials, it is crucial that this be known to China’s entire population. We urge that you seize this opportunity at this critical moment to work for lasting change in China.


Bénédicte Jeannerod
France Director
Human Rights Watch

Sophie Richardson
China Director
Human Rights Watch

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