(New York) – Governments around the world should commit to pressing Beijing to respect human rights inside and outside China during President Xi Jinping’s new term, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling Chinese Communist Party is set to convene its 20th Party Congress starting on October 16, 2022, during which Xi is expected to further consolidate power and secure a landmark third term as the party leader.
“President Xi’s precedent-breaking third term bodes ill for human rights in China and around the world,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As the space for civil society activism further shrinks in China, it is imperative for the international community to take consequential actions to constrain Xi’s abuses.”
In a key example of the impact of authoritarian rule on rights, even as effective therapeutics and vaccines for Covid-19 became available, the Chinese government doubled down on its Covid-19 restrictions, imposing repeated, unpredictable lockdowns on hundreds of millions of people under its abusive “zero-Covid” policy.
The draconian measures have impeded people’s access to health care, food, and other life necessities. An unknown number of people died after being denied medical treatment for their non-Covid-related illnesses. Some jumped to their death from mass quarantine sites or residential buildings under lockdown. The lockdowns also caused economic harm, forcing businesses to downsize or close, cutting jobs and wages. Nevertheless, there is little sign that the authorities are lifting restrictions such as lockdowns and prolonged quarantines.
In the 10 years since Xi came to power in late 2012, the authorities have decimated Chinese civil society, imprisoned numerous government critics, severely restricted freedom of speech, and deployed mass surveillance technology to monitor and control citizens. Authorities’ cultural persecution, arbitrary detention of a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, and other abuses since 2017 amount to crimes against humanity. In Hong Kong, the government imposed draconian national security legislation in 2020 and systematically dismantled the city’s freedoms. All these have made it difficult for citizens to hold the government accountable and there is virtually no room for them to participate in government decision-making.
In July, China’s unemployment rate for youth aged 16 to 24 reached a record high of 20 percent. The National Bureau of Statistics’ announcement that the population of “flexible employment” workers had risen to 200 million in 2021 was met with widespread derision. Netizens accused the government of twisting the reality of lack of employment opportunities and social protection into a narrative about personal choice.
Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the impact of Xi’s unpredictable Covid-19 policies on the economic and social rights of those already in precarious economic situations, who are often more exposed to financial shocks because of socioeconomic inequalities and discrimination.
Many migrant workers are already in dire need, as a lack of employment often means they have no income if they are not enrolled in social insurance programs, which protect against lack of work-related income, or insufficient income, caused by sickness, disability, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, among other things.
Workers in the “gig” economy usually do not sign formal labor contracts, and many employers do not make social insurance payments on their behalf, even though it is required by law. Companies rarely face penalties for not making these payments because local authorities have long avoided investigating noncompliance, driven by economic development concerns.
In 2021, unemployment benefits were paid to just 6.1 million workers, while the official urban unemployment population is about 24 million workers, and this does not include the tens of millions of workers who were underemployed or on unpaid leave because of the pandemic.
In Ruili, a border city in Yunnan province, residents endured 7 separate lockdowns from March 2021 to April 2022, spending 119 days confined to their homes except for mandatory Covid testing. In Shanghai, a commercial hub of 25 million people, residents endured a similarly strict lockdown from March to May. Chengdu, a city of 21 million people, was locked down for 2 weeks in September. In October, Xinjiang authorities banned residents from leaving the region weeks after its last lockdown, which lasted for over a month in parts of Xijiang. In Lhasa, authorities have imposed a harsh lockdown since August.
Across China, numerous people shared on social media stories of lack of access to food, medicine, and other necessities due to financial difficulties. Many have lost jobs during the pandemic while lockdowns have driven up prices of vegetables and other food.
In August, a food delivery driver stabbed himself in front of his delivery hub, to protest being fined after he resigned and requested his unpaid wages from Ele.me, a major food delivery company.
In September, when Chengdu went under a lockdown after detecting a number of cases, a 16-year-old girl was found on surveillance camera stealing a neighbor’s food delivery. It transpired that she had no money because the internet cafe she had worked for was forced to shut down and she did not get paid for earlier work. A man who reportedly had not eaten for days because he was out of work and had no money fainted while lining up to take a Covid test.
While incidents like these become widely known through social media, the intensifying internet censorship means these are likely only a small sample of a far more widespread experience.
Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to ensure people’s rights to social security and an adequate standard of living, meaning that the rights to adequate food and nutrition, health and well-being, water and sanitation, and housing are protected and everyone can live in dignity. The Chinese government needs to ensure equal access to these rights for all, without discrimination on grounds such as gender, race or ethnicity, age, or disability.
China’s economic fallout is leading to the worsening of already severely curtailed civil and political rights, as the authorities respond to online and offline protests with more censorship, arbitrary detentions, and crackdowns. In June, Henan authorities beat bank depositors who sought to withdraw their life savings from banks that had run into a cash crisis. The authorities also tampered with protesters’ Covid-19 health code app to restrict their movement. In September, the authorities closed down online comment in the middle of live streaming the China-ASEAN Forum on Health Cooperation after it was flooded with calls for help from residents in Dongxing, a city in Guangxi province that been under prolonged lockdown.
As avenues for citizens to hold China’s government to account for its human rights violations become increasingly limited, foreign governments and multilateral institutions need to step up to protect rights, such as calling for the release of detained human rights activists, investing in open-source technologies that can enable people in China to more easily circumvent censorship, and banning imports made from forced labor in China. Foreign companies operating in China should perform and make public human rights due diligence, ensuring their operations are in compliance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
“China’s abusive and widely unpopular zero-Covid policy and its impact on the economy shows that political rights and economic rights are deeply intertwined,” Wang said. “A political leader with unaccountable power over citizens who are denied their rights is dangerous, not just for China, but for the world.”