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Pro-democracy lawmaker Andrew Wan is arrested by riot police during a protest in Hong Kong, China, July 1, 2020. Wan was one of the first people arrested under Hong Kong's new National Security Law.    © 2020 Yat Kai Yeung/NurPhoto via Getty Images

(New York) – The Chinese government’s heightened repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are emblematic of the worsening human rights situation under President Xi Jinping, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. These crackdowns, along with the authorities’ initial coverup of Covid-19, which contributed to the global pandemic, have generated growing international mobilization against Beijing’s rights record.

“Governments increasingly realize that Beijing’s rights abuses at home have global consequences,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “That momentum should translate into support for independent investigations into Xinjiang, a new United Nations mandate to monitor human rights abuses, and an end to the Chinese government’s impunity for serious violations.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 

The Chinese government’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak prioritized governmental control over transparency. The authorities initially withheld information from the public, under-reported cases, downplayed the severity of the infection, and dismissed the likelihood of transmission between humans.

The authorities also detained people for “rumor-mongering,” censored online discussions of the outbreak, and curbed media reporting. In some areas under lockdown, they failed to ensure appropriate access to medical care, food, and other necessities. Beijing also pressured the World Health Organization to delay declaring a global warning on the virus, and restricted international experts’ access to investigate its origin.

In Hong Kong, the Chinese government imposed the draconian and vaguely worded National Security Law on June 30, its most aggressive assault on human rights in the territory since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kong authorities also disqualified a dozen pro-democracy figures from the upcoming legislative election, postponed that election, and then drove most of the opposition out of the legislature. They raided a pro-democracy newspaper; prosecuted peaceful protesters, elected officials and journalists; and purged pro-democracy teachers and curtailed expression in schools.

In Xinjiang, the Chinese government’s efforts to erase the identity of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims persisted. While the authorities appeared to have shut down some political education camps and “released” detainees following global outrage, an untold number of Turkic Muslims remain in detention and prison. Some “released” Uyghur detainees are forced to work in factories inside and outside Xinjiang.

Chinese authorities continue to silence human rights lawyers and activists, and tighten restrictions on the internet and the media, making it more difficult to obtain accurate information about China.

An increasing number of governments, United Nations officials and rights experts, and civil society groups around the world, publicly expressed concerns about China’s human rights violations in 2020; particularly in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. An unprecedented group of 50 UN human rights experts issued a joint statement, calling on states to “act collectively and decisively to ensure China respects human rights and abides by its international obligations.”

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