Civic space in China is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. China’s authoritarian state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has systemically repressed fundamental freedoms. Human rights defenders and activists report harassment and intimidation; unfair trials; arbitrary, incommunicado and lengthy detentions; and torture and other ill-treatment for exercising their fundamental rights.

Ruling CCP leader Xi Jinping is bidding for an unprecedented third term in office at the 20th party Congress later in 2022. According to analysts he has elevated loyal party workers and subordinates to positions of power to secure his rule and also launched an anti-graft campaign to weed out people deemed disloyal.

In May 2022, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet conducted a six-day visit to China where she met several civil society organisations, academics, and community and religious leaders. However, human rights groups criticised the visit, characterising it as a “highly predictable propaganda exercise for the Chinese government”. According to Human Rights Watch, she failed to condemn the government’s mass repression of the Uyghur ethnic minority and the attack on fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong. 

In June 2022, dozens of independent UN human rights experts urged the Chinese government to “cooperate fully” with the UN human rights system in regards to abuse allegations and grant the UN “unhindered access” – particularly to prisons and detention centres.

On 31st August 2022, The UN Human Rights Office finally issued an assessment of human rights concerns in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It found that serious human rights violations have been committed in the context of the government’s application of counter-terrorism and counter-“extremism” strategies which may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity. NGOs had repeatedly requested the report to be made public, which Bachelet said was being “finalised” since 2021.

In recent months, protests against COVID-19 restrictions and around a banking scandal were reported. There was surveillance and restrictions of activists around the Tiananmen massacre anniversary in June 2022, while a number of activists and lawyers have been prosecuted and sentenced for their activism, some in closed door trials. A new report shows how authorities are still locking up critics in psychiatric facilities. There has been ongoing censorship of criticism and politically sensitive topics, including around the zero COVID-19 policy, while journalists have continued to face arrest and harassment.

Peaceful Assembly

Protests at two Beijing universities against the COVID-19 lockdown

Protests involving hundreds of students were reported at two universities in Beijing on 24th May 2022. The demonstrations took place against COVID-19 restrictions.

According to Radio Free Asia, hundreds of students at the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) and at Beijing Normal University (Beishida) gathered to protest restrictions on their movements, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rolled out its zero-COVID policy across the country. The protests came as officials in Beijing's Haidian district announced a local lockdown, with classes at the two universities suspended.

Students at CUPL gathered in the hundreds outside the main building to demand greater transparency from the school administration on the restrictions. The rally was followed by a similar gathering at Beishida, during which some protesters shouted historic slogans linked to China's first peasant uprising in 209 BC.

Students in Tianjin protest over COVID-19 restrictions

On 26th May 2022, hundreds of students in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin gathered on the Tianjin University campus to protest COVID-19 restrictions.

Chanting, "Down with formalism! Down with bureaucracy!", the students gathered on the university's Beiyang Square to call for information from the university administration on the ongoing zero-COVID restrictions.  The protests took place after the Tianjin municipal government locked down the city's Nankai district, forcing residents to stay home and take regular COVID-19 tests.

Violent attack on protesters over frozen bank accounts 

A protest in central Henan province to recover frozen funds was violently broken up by unidentified security personnel.

Around 1,000 protesters had gathered on 10th July 2022 in front of the Zhengzhou sub-branch of the People’s Bank of China to attempt to recover frozen savings held in rural banks. The protesters said the banks had frozen their deposits because of supposed upgrades to their internal systems in April 2022 but had not communicated with them since.

According to reports, protesters demanded that the local authorities help them retrieve their savings. Some held banners that said: “Henan banks, give me my money back!”, while others called for China’s Premier Li Keqiang to personally intervene.

Videos of the protests on social media showed a group of unidentified men in white shirts - believed to be security personnel but dressed in plain-clothes - shoving the protesters and throwing water bottles at them. Some demonstrators were violently dragged, kicked, and beaten.

One protester who had travelled to Henan for the demonstration told BBC Chinese about the protestors being attacked, stating that: "A group of people without police uniforms [on] rushed towards us. They hit us hard, especially [the] men”.

The scandal at the rural banks drew national attention, as Beijing is struggling to maintain economic growth in the face of President Xi Jinping's commitment to a zero-COVID policy which has prompted widespread lockdowns and a resulting economic slowdown.

Chinese authorities moved quickly to prevent more public discontent with the central bank regulator, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), claiming that it would "handle the risks associated with five rural banks".

Association

Dissident convicted for defamation 

On 25th April 2022, authorities in the central Chinese province of Henan handed down a two-year, 11-month jail term to dissident Xing Wangli. He was detained in May 2021 after he tried to visit Jiang Tianyong, a prominent rights attorney. Xing was sentenced by the Xi County District People's Court in a trial behind closed doors and which found him guilty of ‘defamation’. The case against Xing rested on an open letter he posted in which he accused a local propaganda official of corruption and intimidation.

Writer incommunicado after issuing open letter criticising Xi Jinping

Radio Free Asia reported on 2nd May 2022 that dissident writer and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Association Tian Qizhuang went incommunicado after he submitted an open letter opposing the personality cult around Xi Jinping, saying that it was in breach of the CCP charter. Several days after the letter was published, Tian received a visit from local state security police who swept his home for "evidence" and confiscated his cell phone and computer.

Activists tried over civil society gathering

Two human rights activists were tried behind closed doors in June 2022 for their activism. Legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi were accused on spurious charges of “subverting state power”.

According to Amnesty International, they are both prominent members of the New Citizens’ Movement, a loose network of activists founded by Xu in 2012 to promote government transparency and expose corruption. They were among dozens of lawyers and activists targeted after attending an informal gathering held in Xiamen, a city on China’s southeast coast, in December 2019, during which they discussed the civil society situation and current affairs in China.

Ding was held incommunicado in “residential surveillance at a designated location” for more than a year after being taken away on 26th December 2019. On 15th February 2020, Xu was detained while staying at the home of a fellow activist and subsequently also held incommunicado in “residential surveillance at a designated location” until 21st January 2021. Both men were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment during detention

Human rights lawyer tried behind closed doors

On 26th July 2022, human rights lawyer Chang Weiping was tried behind closed doors. Weiping was first arrested on 26th December 2019 for attending a civil society gathering in Xiamen, Fujian province which included about twenty lawyers and activists. The trial lasted about 90 minutes and ended without a verdict, which will be announced at a later date.

According to human rights groups, Chang Weiping is known for his public interest litigation in defence of the rights of people facing discrimination based on their health status, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation. He has provided legal counseling to human rights defenders, victims of defective vaccines, as well as women, LGBTQI+ people, and persons living with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B who face discrimination in the workplace.

In January 2020, Chang Weiping’s license to practice law was revoked. Shortly thereafter, he was placed under residential surveillance at a designated location by Shaanxi Province’s Baoji City Public Security Bureau from 12th to 21st January 2020. On 22nd October 2020, he was once again arrested and placed under residential surveillance for six months, after which he was transferred to a detention centre on 7th April 2021 on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power.

During a meeting with his lawyer, Chang Weiping revealed that he was subjected to torture during his detention. A non-disclosure agreement prevents family members and the public from knowing what happened during the trial.

Court jails poet who called on Xi Jinping to step down

On 27th July 2022, an outspoken poet was sentenced to six years in the eastern province of Shandong for calling on Xi Jinping to step down. Zhang Guiqi, 49, who is widely known by his penname Lu Yang, was convicted of "incitement to subvert state power". Lu's arrest came after he posted a video of himself calling on Xi to step down and calling for "an end to the CCP dictatorship".

Report finds authorities lock up critics in psychiatric facilities

A new report published on 16th August 2022 by Safeguard Defenders entitled, "Drugged and Detained: China’s psychiatric prisons", exposes how Chinese police and government agents are still sending activists to psychiatric wards for medically-unnecessary compulsory treatment, where some languish for years.

The incarcerations take place both at general medical facilities, and within the network of police-run Ankang hospitals designed to house criminals and suspects with mental health conditions. Doctors and hospitals are either coerced by, or collude with, the authorities by allowing this abuse to take place.

Safeguard Defenders called on the authorities to "take immediate steps to put a stop to the political abuse of psychiatry, release all those unjustly imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals and provide them with full access to remedy in seeking compensation for their ordeal and timely medical assistance in dealing with the psychological and physical consequences of their ordeal"’.

Expression

Ongoing censorship of criticism and politically sensitive topics

Censorship is rife in China and has increased even more since the emergence of COVID-19. President Xi Jinping’s regime controls news and information. Through the use of the Great Firewall, the government selectively blocks critical outlets and social media sites.

Radio Free Asia reported on 11th May 2022 that the comments by the WHO’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticising China’s zero-COVID policy as unsustainable were deleted from social media platforms. Tedros' comments were deleted from Weibo and keyword searches on Weibo for "Tedros" in Chinese, as well as the equivalent abbreviation to WHO yielded no results.

Chinese censors deleted a social media post from Weibo on 26th May 2022 which came from Tsinghua University law professor Lao Dongyan who criticised the blanket surveillance deployed against Chinese citizens as part of the zero-COVID policy. Dongyan has long been a vocal critic of mass surveillance and facial recognition under the ruling CCP.

On 13th July 2022, five years after the death of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in prison, activists were forced to mark the anniversary mostly in private due to ongoing bans on public references to him. Some people went on Twitter, which requires circumvention tools to access from mainland China, to leave messages commemorating Liu who died at the age of 61 from advanced liver cancer, while serving an 11-year jail term for "incitement to subvert state power".

On 15th July 2022, Chinese internet giant Sina Weibo said it was "banning the use of puns, homophones and other word-play claiming to be typos by people wanting to get around automated blocks and filters and refer to politically ‘sensitive topics’ behind the Great Firewall". Social media users have often used different characters that sound similar to banned phrases, including references to the ruling CCP leaders and sensitive keywords like 4th June (for the 1989 Tiananmen massacre) and anything else the authorities would block.

Journalists face arrest and harassment

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), China is the world's largest prison for journalists. According to RSF, "the media’s function is to be the party’s mouthpiece and to impart state propaganda. Independent journalists and bloggers who dare to report sensitive information are often placed under surveillance, harassed, detained, and in some cases tortured". The country was ranked 175th place out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2022 World Press Freedom Index.

On 9th August 2022, journalist Mao Huibin was arrested at his home in the city of Hengshui. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Mao is a freelance journalist who contributes health and society news to independent blogs on the Chinese social media WeChat. He had posted an article questioning the whereabouts of the victims of a June 2022 attack in the northeastern city of Tangshan, when a group of men assaulted four women who rejected their sexual advances at a barbeque restaurant. A day later he posted a video of the assault.

Mao was charged with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by the Tangshan police and is being detained in Tangshan City No. 1 Detention Center. If convicted, Mao faces up to five years in prison, according to the criminal code.

According to Radio Free Asia, the authorities have also been obstructing state media journalists after they tried to follow up on a crackdown on organised crime in the city, which was instigated by the video.

Surveillance and restrictions on activists around Tiananmen anniversary

As in previous years, authorities across China tightened security and ramped up surveillance of dissidents around the Tiananmen massacre anniversary in June 2022.

On 4th June 1989, the authorities violently suppressed student protesters who were demanding democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed, peaceful pro-democracy protesters were killed in Beijing and tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities across China were arrested.

The authorities ordered dozens of pro-democracy activists and dissidents under house arrest or other forms of restrictions. Dissident political commentator Zha Jianguo and veteran journalist Gao Yu are under house arrest at their Beijing homes, while rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and his wife were taken on a forced "vacation" out of town.

Dissidents in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing reported similar treatment. Democracy advocate Xu Wanping, who served 23 years in jail for trying to set up an opposition party, said he was taken out of town by police.

The authorities have restricted the movement and communication of members of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group that campaigns for compensation, redress, and transparency of information around the massacre. The group was also banned from giving interviews.