Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to take part in this national consultation process. Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental organization that investigates and reports on human rights in over 90 countries, including China.
Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether a country should enter into a free trade agreement. However, not only should a trade agreement have provisions that promote respect for human rights, but its implementation will depend on country conditions in which human rights are respected. Reaching a trade agreement with China, which has an egregious human rights record, will demand the incorporation of human rights protections into the agreement itself. Human rights, such as the rule of law, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and freedom of expression on the internet are fundamental freedoms that underpin successful bilateral trade relationships.
A free trade agreement raises important human rights concerns. More than three decades after pledging to “reform and open up,” there are no signs that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intends to relinquish its authoritarian control. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who will remain in power at least until 2022, the Chinese government has carried out a ferocious crackdown to silence independent civil society voices, promulgated abusive new laws, and waged a highly politicized anti-corruption campaign that is further undermining an already weak judicial system.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a meeting hosted by the Canada-China Business Council in 2016, said that Canada will encourage “China to do more to promote and protect human rights.” Ambassador John McCallum noted at a March 2017 news conference that Canada “ha[s] responsibility on the human rights side” when negotiating a free trade agreement with the Chinese government.
Trade best flourishes when there is government transparency, accountability, and a free flow of information. It is difficult for Canadian businesses to thrive in China if they cannot count on a fair justice system, especially when they run into conflict with local governments or with state-backed businesses. Many international trade organizations in different countries have raised these concerns. The 2016 American Chamber of Commerce report on China, for example, cites “inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws” as the top challenge reported by American businesses in China.
Some might still be wary of pressing for human rights for fear of provoking China’s wrath. But it is important to distinguish the Chinese government’s threats from their actual impact. Even after China’s outrage at Norway over the 2010 Nobel Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo, trade between the two countries rose by 19 percent between 2011 and 2012.
It is therefore important for the Canadian government, at the outset for any negotiations with the Chinese government on a possible free trade agreement, to stand firm on human rights. It should set clear benchmarks for human rights improvements as outlined in this submission for China to meet before signing a free trade agreement. A Canadian government standing firm on its principles will be treated as a formidable partner in bilateral trade.
Below are Human Rights Watch’s specific areas of concerns.
Lack of Rule of Law
The CCP maintains firm control over the criminal justice system, including the police, the procuratorate, and the judiciary, and systematically denies many basic fair trial rights.
Human Rights Watch has documented the routine use of torture by police in criminal detention facilities, including beatings, prolonged sleep deprivation, and subjecting detainees to long periods of painful stress positions. Criminal justice reforms to date, such as the introduction of the exclusionary rule, which prohibits the use of evidence directly obtained through torture, are easily circumvented. Police officers who commit torture or ill-treatment are rarely held accountable.
The Chinese government continues to operate a number of extralegal or administrative detention systems, including the unlawful shuanggui system run by the CCP’s internal disciplinary body, the Commission on Disciplinary Inspection (CDI). The CDI investigates alleged infractions of Party discipline or corruption by depriving those under investigations of liberty for days, weeks, or months, and subjecting them to repeated interrogations and often to torture and ill-treatment.
The government has also targeted China’s most outspoken lawyers for detention and imprisonment, as well as issuing revisions to two directives on law firms and lawyers to further undermine the independence of lawyers and the rule of law. Those explicitly require lawyers and law firms to “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” and to establish Party branches in law firms. Lawyers are prohibited from expressing opinions that “reject the fundamental political system” of China or may “endanger national security.”
The Chinese government’s failure to deliver genuine legal reforms is all the more striking given President Xi’s promise to “rule the country according to the law.” It is now apparent that this slogan merely describes the Party’s ambition to further sharpen its criminal justice system into, in President Xi’s words, a “knife” held “firmly in the hands of the Party” against any perceived enemies, including those who seek equality, justice, and social change.
- The Government of Canada should press the Chinese government to take steps to end torture, abolish the unlawful shuanggui detention system, and repeal the two directives on law firms and lawyers.
Detention and Abduction of Foreign Nationals
The lack of a fair and independent judicial system has proved harmful to the many Canadian citizens and dual nationals currently detained or imprisoned in China. Those include Huseyincan Celil, a Uyghur man imprisoned on terrorism charges in 2007; Sun Qian, a Falun Gong practitioner held since February 2017; and John Chang and Allison Lu, businesspeople arrested for smuggling. All have Canadian citizenship.
Since President Xi came to power in March 2013, authorities have apprehended citizens of other countries – inside and outside China – for their work helping Chinese human rights lawyers and activists or for speaking critically of Chinese leaders. Those detained include Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist; Gui Minhai, a bookseller also from Sweden; James Wang, an American bookseller; Lee Bo, a British bookseller; and Li Ming-Che, a Taiwanese democracy activist. Some of the detainees were also forced to give confessions on state media.
Notably, Canadian-Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua was abducted by Chinese security agents from a Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong in January 2017, and his whereabouts have remained unknown.
- The Government of Canada should express concerns about the repeated abduction of individuals from abroad, urge the Chinese government to explain whether any security agents operate in Hong Kong, and call for the release of Gui Minhai, James Wang, and Li Ming-Che.
Abuses of Ethnic Minorities and Religious Freedom
In the ethnic minority regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, Beijing employs highly repressive rule, curtailing political activity and many peaceful expressions of ethnic and religious identity. Across the country, the government restricts religious practice to five officially recognized religions and only in officially approved religious premises. The government retains control over religious personnel appointments, publications, finances, and seminary applications.
Xinjiang, home to 10 million Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, is a site of pervasive discrimination, repression, and restriction on fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion. The Chinese authorities have in the past year issued a slew of draconian measures, including a new Counterterrorism Law that restrict freedoms in Xinjiang in the name of combating terrorism and extremism. The law defines terrorism in an overly broad and vague manner, and punishes a large range of activity relevant to ethnic and religious expression and customs. Other new rules issued in Xinjiang include bans on "abnormal" beards and full-face coverings, and bans on baby names that could “exaggerate religious fervor.”
In response to the Tibetan protests of 2008, authorities have turned the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) into a new kind of surveillance state that gives the state unprecedented access to individual homes, lives, and to some extent, their thoughts. An example of such control is the indefinite stationing of 21,000 officials in villages across the TAR who question villagers about their political and religious views, subject thousands to political indoctrination, establish partisan security units to monitor behavior, and collect information that could lead to detention or other punishment. The authorities have imposed a near-total ban on foreign travel for residents of the TAR, except on official business. The authorities have also demolished part of Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institution, expelled some of the monks and nuns who resided there, and forced them to take part in political re-education. They have also furthered their push on Tibetan children to speak Mandarin Chinese, leading to anxiety among the population about the survival of Tibetan language, religion, and culture.
Xi’s government has also targeted Christianity for tightened control. In 2015, the government of Zhejiang Province — known as China’s heartland of Christianity — tore down crosses from churches in the province. In 2016, President Xi gave a major speech on religion, in which he called on religions to “Sinicize.” In the same year, the Chinese government released draft revisions to its abusive 2005 Religious Regulations; these require that religion “protect national security,” and prohibit individuals and groups not approved as religious bodies from attending meetings abroad on religion.
- The Government of Canada should press the Chinese government to end restrictions on peaceful expressions of religious and ethnic identities, repeal the Counterterrorism Law and the 2005 Religious Regulations, and halt the demolition of Larung Gar and the expulsion and political re-education of the monks and nuns.
Assault on Civil Society
President Xi’s government increasingly depicts independent civil society, and its foreign supporters, as a national security threat. The clearest victims of this hostility included more than 300 human rights lawyers and advocates caught in a nationwide police sweep in July 2015; although most have been released, a number were given harsh prison terms. Democracy activist Hu Shigen and law firm director Zhou Shifeng were both sentenced to seven years in prison while human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang remains forcibly disappeared. The authorities’ widening assault on civil society is characterized by a disregard of the law — activists held are subjected to torture and ill-treatment, as well as secret and incommunicado detention without contact with families or lawyers of their own choosing.
New laws and rules promulgated to strengthen control over civil society include the Foreign NGO Management Law, issued in April 2016, 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. In August 2016, authorities issued new rules on domestic civil society groups, requiring a “strengthening” of the party’s “leadership role” over them. In September 2016, a new Charity Law went into effect; it may further limit fundraising by and strengthen state control over civil society.
- The Government of Canada should urge the Chinese government to free all individuals detained or imprisoned for exercising their fundamental human rights, including for expressing peaceful opinions such as to repeal the Foreign NGO Management Law.
Tightening Control on Internet and Cybersecurity
Tolerance for freedom of expression, already severely restricted through censorship and punishments, has further diminished under President Xi’s rule. In the past year, authorities issued multiple directives to tighten control and surveillance over different aspects of the internet, which has long been a beacon of hope as a relatively free public space. New rules, such as requiring app providers to keep user logs for 60 days to reduce the spread of “illegal information,” or banning the unauthorized use of internet circumvention tools in the megacity Chongqing, have been put in place.
In November 2016, the government passed a Cybersecurity Law. The law requires a range of domestic and foreign companies operating in China to censor “prohibited” information and restrict online anonymity, including by demanding that companies require users to provide their real name and personal information. It requires “critical information infrastructure operators” to store users’ “personal information and other important business data” in China. It also requires companies to monitor and report to the government undefined “network security incidents,” as well as provide undefined “technical support” to security agencies to aid in investigations, raising fears of increased surveillance. Much of the law — including who can be targeted by law enforcement — is vague, and thus heightens risks and compliance costs for Canadian companies operating in China.
- The Government of Canada should press the Chinese government to significantly revise the Cybersecurity Law to scrap the provisions that require internet companies to practice censorship, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance.