China: Government elected to UN Human Rights Council as it prosecutes and jails human rights defenders and journalists
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.
Despite the severe conditions for human rights and fundamental freedoms, China was elected to the UN Human Rights Council in October 2023 by the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Prior to this, over 80 human rights organisations wrote to the UNGA to firmly oppose the candidacy of China for re-election to the UN Human Rights Council. The groups highlighted that the Chinese government has used its power and influence to attempt to silence the voice of civil society at the UN. Further, China has allowed access to only one UN expert since 2018. Multiple, repeated requests for country visits by at least 15 human rights experts stretching back two decades have been ignored. China has consistently dismissed all concerns about human rights violations raised at the Human Rights Council or by UN Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies, and attacked Special Procedures mandate-holders in public statements.
The groups also noted that over 40 UN experts have also called for “decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms” in China and called on the Human Rights Council “to act with a sense of urgency” to address human rights violations. The Chinese government has also cracked down on human rights defenders and rights lawyers with increasing severity.
In recent months, activist Qiao Xinxin was arrested for subversion while journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin and labour activist Wang Jianbing are facing trial on the same charge. Uyghur scholar Rahile Dawut was given a life sentence while Li Yuhan, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to 6.5 years in jail. UN member countries condemned abuses in the Xinjiang region, a satirical channel that targeted Xi Jinping was deleted on YouTube and proposed amendments to a public security law have raised concerns.
Activist arrested for subversion in China after disappearing in Laos
On 14th August 2023, Chinese authorities formally arrested free speech activist Qiao Xinxin on suspicion of "subversion of state power" after he called for an end to internet censorship from overseas. He is currently being held in a juvenile detention centre in Hunan's Hengyang city.
According to Radio Free Asia, Qiao, whose birth name is Yang Zewei, went missing and is believed to have been detained on or around 31st May from his home in Vientiane, Laos, after launching an online campaign to end internet censorship in China, known as the BanGFW Movement, a reference to the Great Firewall.
Secret trial of journalist and labour activists in Guangzhou
The trial of two prominent activists detained since 2021 began in secret in the Chinese city of Guangzhou in September 2023.
As previously documented, Sophia Huang Xueqin and labour activist Wang Jianbing were arrested in the Chinese city of Guangzhou on 19th September 2021, the day before Huang was planning to leave China for the UK to study for a master’s degree at the University of Sussex. They were detained on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power”. Chinese authorities have frequently used this state security crime against members of civil society, including for peaceful gatherings at private residences. If convicted, they face prison sentences of up to five years or longer.
Huang Xueqin is a journalist who has been involved in several #MeToo campaigns to provide support and assistance to victims of sexual assault and harassment. Labour activist Wang Jianbing has provided legal support for people with disabilities and workers with occupational diseases. He is also a prominent supporter of the #MeToo movement in China.
According to FIDH, the health condition of Sophia Huang Xueqin is alarming as she is believed to have experienced significant weight loss and amenorrhea (no menstruation) for at least five months. Credible reports indicate that her sleep is often interrupted and that she has been subjected to interrogations in the middle of the night.
Ahead of their trial in the south-eastern Chinese city of Guangzhou, 32 NGOs issued a joint statement demanding the charges against them be dropped.
Uyghur scholar given life sentence
China has sentenced Rahile Dawut to life in prison and would like the world to forget her. We must not - The Guardian https://t.co/2MCKHAPNEQ— Justice for Uyghurs - 🇨🇭Switzerland (@Justice4Uyghur) October 18, 2023
In September 2023, it was reported that Uyghur scholar Rahile Dawut was sentenced by a Chinese court to life in prison for allegedly endangering state security. Her sentence marks yet another Uyghur academic whose life has been caught up in the ongoing crackdown in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Citing a Chinese government source, the Dui Hua Foundation confirmed the conviction.
After first disappearing in 2017, Dawut was tried in 2018 for the crime of separatism, which is among the charges that the Chinese government often uses to target Uyghurs. Dawut appealed the subsequent conviction, but her appeal was apparently rejected. It is unclear when she was sentenced to life in prison.
A celebrated intellectual - known for documenting folklore and traditions of the Muslim minority - Dawut was a professor at Xinjiang University in the region’s capital Urumqi at the time of her disappearance. Throughout her career, she published numerous books and papers on Uyghur folklore and lectured at top universities around the world.
The non-profit Uyghur Human Rights Project in 2021 estimated that there are more than 300 Uyghur and other Muslim intellectuals detained by the Chinese government amid a broader crackdown.
A major UN report in 2022 showed Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim population are being violated through an industrial-level programme of mass incarceration, systemic torture and sexual violence.
Human rights lawyer sentenced to 6.5 years in jail
I deeply regret yesterday’s sentencing of lawyer Li Yuhan to 6 years and 6 months. This means she will only be released in April 2024. Together with EU and like-minded colleagues, our embassy attempted to attend the hearing in Shenyang, but we were denied access. pic.twitter.com/uEhlnK0x3j— Ambassador Patricia Flor (@GerAmbChina) October 26, 2023
Chinese human rights lawyer Li Yuhan was sentenced to a six-and-a-half-year jail term on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and fraud.
According to Amnesty International, Li Yuhan, a lawyer in her seventies, has represented human rights lawyers and victims of human rights abuses. She was sentenced by a court in the northeast city of Shenyang on 25th October 2023, following a secret trial two years earlier, in October 2021.The sentence includes time served, meaning that supporters expect Li Yuhan to be released in April 2024. Li reportedly stated in court her intention to appeal the judgment.
During her years as a human rights lawyer, Li Yuhan faced frequent threats to herself and her family from Chinese authorities due to her defence of sensitive cases involving freedom of religion and belief, such as Falun Gong and Christian house churches. She also served as the legal representative for Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu during the “709 Crackdown” on lawyers and legal activists.
UN member countries condemn abuses in the Xinjiang region
Read here the UN Third committee joint statement (51 states) on the human rights violations in East Turkistan & led by 🇬🇧:https://t.co/nVTTAIO4fb— World Uyghur Congress (@UyghurCongress) October 19, 2023
"We urge China to end its violations of human rights in [East Turkistan], engage constructively with the OHCHR, and fully implement…
51 UN member countries issued a joint declaration condemning the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity committed against Uyghurs and other Turkic communities and calling on Beijing to end its systematic human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.
The cross-regional statement, delivered to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee by Britain’s Deputy Permanent Representative James Kariuki on 18th October 2023 said: “Members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang continue to suffer serious violations of their human rights.”
The statement quoted the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ damning August 2022 report on Xinjiang.
This independent and authoritative assessment found evidence of large-scale arbitrary detention and systematic use of invasive surveillance on the basis of religion and ethnicity; severe and undue restrictions to legitimate cultural and religious practices, identity and expression, including reports of destruction of religious sites; torture, ill-treatment and sexual and gender-based violence, including forced abortion and sterilisation; enforced disappearances and family separations; and forced labour.
It concluded that the abuses were so severe and widespread that they “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
Satirical channel that targeted Xi Jinping deleted on YouTube
In October 2023, YouTube deleted a channel that produced satirical spoof videos featuring ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.
According to RFA, the @Voice_of_Chonglang channel, which frequently used the #InsultTheBun hashtag referencing Xi's fondness for steamed baozi buns, was deleted from the global video-sharing platform on 5th October.
The woman behind @Voice_of_Chonglang said she had received no warning of the ban, just an email informing her that the channel had seriously or repeatedly violated its cyberbullying policy. The channel producer said she had complained to YouTube by email, but that her email bounced back after five minutes. She said she could only guess that her channel was deleted for "insulting" Xi Jinping, citing a recent video satirising Xi, including his notorious claim to have hefted a 200-pound sack of wheat without changing shoulders.
YouTube bans content that "targets someone with prolonged insults or slurs based on their physical traits or protected group status, like age, disability, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or race," according to its help page. However, the rules make an exception for "debates related to high-profile officials or leaders" and insults made as part of "scripted satire" and "diss tracks."
Proposed amendments to public security law raises concerns
Proposed changes to a public security law have triggered the concern of legal experts, who say the amendments could be used arbitrarily.
The "Public Security Administration Punishment Law" mainly covers minor offences. The proposal - reported in September 2023 - is the first major reform of the law since it came into effect in 2005. The proposed amendment could criminalise comments, clothing or symbols that "undermine the spirit" or "harm the feelings" of the country. The punishment could also apply to those who "smear and deny heroes and martyrs' spirit and deeds" and those who "glorify invasion wars".
Violations of the law could lead to detainment for up to 15 days and fines up to 5,000 yuan (USD 1,068), according to the draft law.
Several legal scholars and bloggers wrote editorials and social media posts calling for the removal of certain articles in the draft. The scholars and commentators also encouraged citizens to give their feedback on the draft. Many people took to Chinese social media to express their worries that the amendments could lead to more censorship.
Australian journalist released after three years’ arbitrary detention
"[RSDL] is a very sophisticated and subtle form of torture. While you are clothed and fed, you are warm and you are safe. The safest you will ever be. You are undergoing, I think, the utmost pain emotionally, psychologically and of course physically" — Cheng Lei #abc730 pic.twitter.com/pByDdYTgs2— ABC News (@abcnews) October 24, 2023
In October 2023, Chinese-born Australian journalist Cheng Lei was released after more than three years of arbitrary detention in China.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), on 11th October 2023, Cheng Lei, a high-profile business news anchor working for state media group CGTN (China Global Television), was released and sent back home to Australia after being detained on alleged espionage charges. Cheng Lei was arrested on 13th August 2020 under suspicion of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas", a crime carrying a life sentence in China.
She told ABC News that she was held under Residential Surveillance at a Dedicated Location, or RSDL - which allows people to be detained in secret outside the protection of the law - in the first six months of her incarceration. She described it “as a form of torture”. She added: "While you are clothed and fed, you are warm and you are safe — the safest you'll ever be — you are undergoing, I think, the utmost pain emotionally, psychologically."
China ranks 179th out of 180 in the 2023 RSF World Press Freedom Index and is the world's largest captor of journalists and press freedom defenders, with at least 113 detained.
Cédric Alviani, RSF Asia-Pacific Bureau Director, said: “The liberation of Cheng Lei is good news, but the Chinese regime still detains 113 press freedom defenders, including two foreign media workers. We call on democracies to step up pressure for the regime to obtain their immediate release.”