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Chow Hang-tung (R) arrives at the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong on June 8, 2023. © 2023 ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP via Getty Images

(Bangkok) – The Chinese government’s repression and social controls intensified in 2023, over a decade into President Xi Jinping’s rule, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2024. However, to attract foreign investment as the economy slowed, the government appeared to have toned down some of its aggressive rhetoric towards Western countries. More people in China begin to publicly question the country’s direction under Xi’s leadership, at great personal risk.

“President Xi Jinping’s repressive decade-plus in power and growing social control are taking an increasing toll on China’s economy and society,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s failure to seriously address human rights abuses generates uncertainty for the future throughout society, from youth to business executives.”

In the 740-page World Report 2024, its 34th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices more than 100 countries. In her introductory essay, Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that 2023 was a consequential year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. But she says there were also signs of hope, showing the possibility of a different path, and calls on governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations.   

The Chinese government continued its abusive policies against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which amount to crimes against humanity. Many Uyghurs are serving long prison sentences for peaceful acts, including the internationally renowned anthropologist, Rahile Dawut, whose life imprisonment became known in September.

In Tibet, the authorities still forcibly assimilate Tibetans. Extreme information controls make it very difficult to obtain and verify information from the region.

In Hong Kong, the Chinese government has erased the city’s liberties and freedoms, arbitrarily arresting people for national security offenses, offering bounties for 13 exiled democracy activists and former legislators, and expanding its political intimidation campaign to Hong Kong activists beyond China’s borders.

Across China, the government has further tightened its grip on civil society. Foreign businesses, which have long been welcomed, have increasingly suffered under the government’s arbitrary use of power. Vague amendments to the Counter-Espionage Law and police raids on the offices of global and foreign companies have left these firms uncertain as to whether previously acceptable business practices were now criminal.

A year after the abrupt end of the draconian “Zero-Covid” policy in late 2022, there has been no official investigation into the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak. Meanwhile, Chinese citizens and journalists who reported on it and who sought accountability for official abuses during the lockdowns have been harassed, detained, and prosecuted.

In November, crowds across the country mourned the unexpected death of former Premier Li Keqiang at age 68. Online, people shared one of Li’s recent quotes, “China’s reform and opening-up will continue to move on, just like the Yangtze River and the Yellow River can’t flow backward,” as a subtle criticism of Xi. For many, Li represented a more economically vibrant China, in contrast to Xi’s policies.

In 2023, Beijing launched several global initiatives at the United Nations and elsewhere that challenge existing global governance, security, and human rights norms and institutions.

“Foreign leaders should recognize that their country’s long-term interests will benefit from a Chinese government that is more transparent, accountable, and rights-respecting,” Wang said. “Publicly raising human rights concerns consistently and robustly is a first step toward bringing about change.”

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