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Letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel on Human Rights Concerns in China

December 4, 2023

Dear President von der Leyen and President Michel,

We are writing to you on behalf of Human Rights Watch in advance of your upcoming summit in China, which comes at a pivotal moment for European Union-China relations.

We encourage you to make it clear, both privately and publicly, that there can be no business as usual with the Chinese government as it intensifies pervasive repression across China and beyond, and that the EU will pursue accountability for crimes against humanity and other severe human rights violations as a top priority.

In Xinjiang, the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims have included mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, separation of families, forced labor, sexual violence, and violations of reproductive rights. In Tibet, the authorities continue to repress and forcibly assimilate Tibetans. In Hong Kong, the Chinese government has erased the city’s liberties and freedoms after imposing a draconian National Security Law on the city. Across China, the government has further tightened its grip on society, and party-controlled courts have handed down harsh sentences on human rights defenders. The Chinese government’s transnational repression has been extended as it offers bounties for exiled Hong Kong democracy activists and former legislators. At the United Nations, the Chinese government is undermining the international human rights mechanisms by rewriting norms, while helping to shield other governments from accountability through its veto power at the UN Security Council.

European citizens in China face growing risks, including those of arbitrary detention, as the Chinese government enacted vague amendments to the Counter-Espionage Law this year and encouraged the population to catch “spies.” European citizen and bookseller Gui Minhai remains arbitrarily imprisoned, as was Uyghur scholar and Sakharov Prize laureate Ilham Tohti. Yu Wensheng, a lawyer, and his wife, Xu Yan, were taken into detention en route to a meeting with the EU ambassador. Many other human rights advocates have been detained for political reasons.

We appreciate that the EU has repeatedly voiced strong concerns about human rights in China, including in international forums, and that it has listed several Chinese officials and one entity under its global human rights sanctions regime. We are disappointed that the EU recently resumed a human rights dialogue with China, which has been rendered meaningless by the Chinese authorities’ unwillingness to genuinely engage.

These efforts by the EU are woefully inadequate to effectively push for human rights improvements in China and to counter the systemic threat the Chinese government poses as it is “becoming more repressive at home and more assertive abroad,” as EU President von der Leyen said in March.

We urge you to use the upcoming summit to express firm, unequivocal messages to the Chinese leadership, including:

  • Stating clearly and publicly that the EU does not see the Chinese government as an accountable and reliable partner, and that this will be the case as long as Beijing does not genuinely engage on its own human rights record, systematically crushes the rights of people at home and abroad, and commits crimes against humanity and other serious violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and throughout the country.
  • Stressing your commitment to ensure that the upcoming EU legislation on forced labor and on human rights and environmental due diligence will be able to address abuses, including crimes against humanity, committed by the Chinese authorities, which will have considerable impact on bilateral business and trade relations.
  • Publicly calling upon President Xi Jinping to release Gui Minhai, Ilham Tohti, Yu Wensheng and Xu Yan and all others imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights.

We also continue to encourage EU institutions and member state governments to seriously reconsider their approach toward human rights in China. They should commit to taking more effective action to address rights violations and advance prospects for accountability. In particular, the EU and its member states should:

  • Consider the adoption of further targeted sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for serious abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in the country.
  • Commit to taking the lead at the UN Human Rights Council towards a dedicated UN monitoring mechanism on China as a follow-up to the August 2022 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and as recommended by 50 UN human rights experts in 2016, engaging strategically with Human Rights Council members to ensure support for the successful adoption of a resolution to that end.

We would be pleased to discuss these important issues with you at your convenience.

Yours sincerely,

Philippe Dam                                                         Maya Wang
EU Director                                                            Interim China Director
Human Rights Watch                                           Human Rights Watch

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