Protesters march on a street during a rally against the extradition law proposal on June 9, 2019 in Hong Kong.  © 2019 Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
(New York) – The Chinese government’s heightened repression faced unprecedented resistance from Hong Kong people and growing criticisms from concerned governments, as the Chinese Communist Party marked the 70th anniversary of its rule, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2020.

This backlash was evident in months of demonstrations opposing Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms and public statements by countries critical of the oppression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. 

“President Xi Jinping’s policies have been challenged by massive protests in Hong Kong and joint statements at the United Nations,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments and international institutions should stand with those defending human rights in China and push back against Beijing’s repressive policies.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

The Chinese government continued to subject Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in the northwestern Xinjiang region to severe repression. An estimated one million Muslims are being indefinitely held in “political education” camps, where they are forced to disavow their identity and swear loyalty to the Communist Party. Authorities also forcibly separated some of the children whose parents are detained or in exile from their families, and are holding them in state-run “child welfare” institutions and boarding schools. They are also imposing mass surveillance systems – equipped with latest technologies – on the region’s residents, scrutinizing them and restricting their movement.

In Hong Kong in April, a court sentenced Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, scholars who led the 2014 pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement,” to 16-month prison terms on public nuisance charges. In June, anger over proposed revisions to laws that would allow extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China prompted a million people to protest. The Hong Kong government’s initial refusal to withdraw the bill and the police’s excessive use of force led to escalating protests. Hong Kong authorities repeatedly rejected calls for an independent investigation of allegations of police abuse. Since June, authorities have arrested nearly 7,000 people and denied at least 17 applications for protests.

In Tibet, authorities continue to severely restrict freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion. From May to July 2019, thousands of monks and nuns were reportedly expelled from a monastery in Sichuan and their dwellings demolished. In November, Yonten, a former Buddhist monk, became the 156th Tibetan to die of self-immolation since March 2009.

In 2019, authorities continued to crack down on human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers. In July, two months after being released from prison, activist Ji Sizun died from unidentified illnesses, continuing a pattern in recent years in which prominent human rights defenders died in custody or soon after release. Courts in Hubei and Sichuan sentenced activists Liu Feiyue and Huang Qi to 5 and 12 years in prison respectively. Authorities across the country also detained activists and netizens for supporting the Hong Kong protests, including journalist Huang Xueqin.

Authorities deepened their assault on freedom of expression. Police nationwide detained or summoned hundreds of Twitter users, forcing them to delete tweets criticizing the government or to close their accounts. The government launched a disinformation campaign that framed Hong Kong’s protesters as violent and extreme, prompting Twitter and Facebook to suspend hundreds of accounts originating in China suspected of being part of the campaign.

Beijing continued to muzzle criticism abroad by monitoring Chinese students on university campuses, harassing critics’ family members based in China, censoring Chinese social media platforms which are popular among the diaspora, and leveraging China’s economic clout. In October, after a National Basketball Association (NBA) team manager tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protests, Chinese authorities canceled the broadcasts of NBA games in China and demanded the manager’s firing. The NBA did not fire him.

A number of governments increasingly called out China’s repression, particularly through interventions regarding Xinjiang at the United Nations. In response, China organized a coalition of notorious rights-violating states to rebut the allegations. The United States government sanctioned 28 Chinese entities over Xinjiang abuses. Few other governments moved beyond rhetorical condemnations of Beijing’s egregious human rights violations to take concrete actions.