China: Human rights defenders jailed, protesters detained and activists harassed around the National People's Congress
China’s civic space is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. In 2022, the authorities detained and prosecuted scores of human rights defenders for broadly-defined and vaguely-worded offences such as ‘subverting state power’, ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ or ‘disturbing public order’. Unprecedented protests that erupted across China in December 2022, due to widespread public frustration with the government’s strict pandemic regulations, were met with restrictions, arrests and excessive force. The harassment of activists both off and online persisted.
In March 2023, China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, approved a third presidential term for ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Some 3,000 unelected delegates to the congress voted unanimously for Xi to continue in his post as president in a move that broke with an unwritten rule in operation since the death of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping that national leaders step down after two terms in office.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued their concluding observations on 3rd March 2023 on China and highlighted numerous concerns including about reports of excessive restrictions with regard to the operation of independent NGOs, both in law and in practice. The committee also highlighted how human rights defenders and lawyers working on human rights issues are systematically subjected to prosecution, reprisals and intimidation for their legitimate activities, including by being arbitrarily sentenced to long terms in prison or under house arrest, tortured, subjected to enforced disappearance and denied access to medical treatment.
On 7th March 2023, Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, presented his Annual Report and Oral Update at the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council. In his speech he said that in the Xinjiang region, his office had documented grave concerns – notably large-scale arbitrary detentions and ongoing family separations – and has made important recommendations that require concrete follow-up. He was also concerned about the severe restrictions of civic space more generally, including the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders and lawyers.
On 2nd April 2023, the European Union and China held their 37th Human Rights Dialogue. The EU highlighted the deteriorating situation of civil and political rights in China, marked by the arrest and detention of a significant number of human rights defenders and lawyers. The EU also raised individual cases and of those in detention.
In recent months, the authorities have arrested and harassed activists and jailed two prominent human rights lawyers for subversion. They also intensified surveillance of activists around the National People's Congress. The government also jailed a blogger for seven years, arrested activists for supporting protests and continued online censorship around criticism and references to the government. Four women are facing trial over the 'white paper' protests.
Ethnic Kazakh artist detained
Ethnic Kazakh Xinjiang resident Zhanargul Zhumatai says the Chinese authorities gave her two options: jail or a psychiatric facility. She chose a third option: to speak out.https://t.co/MGeGUnKHGR— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) January 6, 2023
Amnesty International issued an urgent action on the case of Zhanargul Zhumatai, an ethnic Kazakh journalist and artist, who was taken away from her mother’s house in Urumqi, Xinjiang on 10th February 2023. The state security police detained her after she had communicated with people. Five weeks prior to her detention police had reportedly urged her to check herself into a psychiatric facility.
She has faced multiple instances of harassment by Chinese authorities who are unhappy with her speaking up against government appropriation of ethnic Kazakh herding communities' lands in Xinjiang.
Zhumatai had previously been detained at the Dabancheng Vocational Training Center for two years and 23 days simply for purchasing a mobile phone in Kazakhstan that came with pre-installed Facebook and Instagram and having travelled to Kazakhstan. During her detention in the internment camp, she was reportedly shackled and handcuffed and developed some heart problems due to lack of medical care.
Zhumatai and her family were threatened multiple times after she had written several letters, including to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) Legislative Office and the Secretary of the Party Committee of Xinjiang, about corruption among some local authorities and had written to local authorities about her communities’ land rights.
Police harass activists at home on International Women's Day
State security police surrounded the home of rights activist Li Wenzu and her rights lawyer husband Wang Quanzhang on International Women’s Day, as a U.S.-based rights group hit out at the country's intimidation and harassment of dissidents. https://t.co/ZulZVWyGaj pic.twitter.com/FrHMsydaMy— Radio Free Asia (@RadioFreeAsia) March 13, 2023
On 8th March 2023, state security police surrounded the home of rights activist Li Wenzu and her rights lawyer husband Wang Quanzhang. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), the police blocked their door and prevented them from going out. They also used open umbrellas and shone their flashlights at their security cameras to stop themselves being captured.
The police also started knocking on the door and said they were there due to “special circumstances” as it was International Women’s Day. Altogether there were around 20 police present with several of their vehicles parked outside the door.
This comes as the ruling Chinese Communist Party stepped up “stability maintenance” measures during the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Fellow rights activist Wang Qiaoling said she believes the harassment could be linked to the fact that Li, who won the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in 2019, had planned to file an administrative review against her denied application for a passport.
After being wrongfully imprisoned for four-and-a-half years, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was released from prison in April 2020 after serving his full term. Li Wenzu had tirelessly campaigned for her husband since he was forcibly disappeared in August 2015 on politically motivated charges after a nationwide crackdown against lawyers and activists.
Prominent rights lawyers face long prison sentences for subversion
Lawyer Ding Jiaxi was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment; Legal scholar Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 14 years. Their closed-door trial took place in June 2022. pic.twitter.com/d2qivCeYIs— The 29 Principles (@the29principles) April 10, 2023
On 10th April 2023, a court in Shandong province sentenced Xu Zhiyong to 14 years in prison and Ding Jiaxi to 12 years after convicting each for the crime of “subversion of state power.” Their trials were conducted behind closed doors with numerous procedural problems and allegations of mistreatment.
Xu, 50, a former lecturer at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, was a co-founder of the now-banned legal aid centre Open Constitution Initiative and the New Citizens’ Movement, a nongovernmental group advocating for civil rights, government transparency and education equality. Ding, a former commercial lawyer, played key roles in both groups.
The authorities detained Ding, 55, in December 2019, after he and Xu participated in a gathering in Fujian province where a group of rights lawyers and activists discussed human rights and China’s political future. Ding was held incommunicado in “residential surveillance at a designated location” for more than a year.
In early February 2020, Xu criticised President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and called on him to resign. He was detained in Guangzhou, where he had gone into hiding and was subsequently also held incommunicado in “residential surveillance at a designated location” until 21st January 2021.
Family of jailed dissident poet under close surveillance
According to RFA, Chinese police in the southwestern province of Yunnan slapped a gag order, travel ban and round-the-clock surveillance on the wife and children of jailed dissident poet Wang Zang in March 2023 as part of a nationwide “stability maintenance” operation during the National People's Congress in Beijing.
Wang's wife Wang Li, who was sentenced alongside her husband for subversion in December 2021, but who was released after serving a shorter jail term, said she and her family are currently under round-the-clock surveillance by a 24-person security detail, who follow her wherever she goes, including to buy groceries and take the couple's children to school.
The ongoing surveillance of Wang Li and the couple's children, despite her release from prison at the end of her shorter sentence, comes amid a nationwide mobilisation of law enforcement agencies as part of China’s “stability maintenance” programme, which aims to nip any form of public protest or criticism of the government in the bud during key political events or politically sensitive dates in the calendar.
Lawyer ‘disappeared’ ahead of national congress
Liu Xiaoyuan was stopped by police on March 1 as he tried to travel to Zhuhai city from Ganzhou in the eastern province of Jiangxi, the Weiquanwang rights website reported.https://t.co/ag36COABAx— Radio Free Asia (@RadioFreeAsia) March 4, 2023
A human rights lawyer who represented Ai Weiwei against the Chinese government "disappeared" in March 2023 after trying to board a train to the southern province of Guangdong. According to RFA, Liu Xiaoyuan was stopped by police on 1st March 2023 as he tried to travel to Zhuhai city from Ganzhou in the eastern province of Jiangxi. He asked for a written record of the interaction, but they refused.
Liu, a former member of the now-shuttered public interest law firm Beijing Fengrui, represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei after he was detained by police at Beijing’s airport in April 2011 and held for 78 days in an undisclosed location. The Chinese authorities eventually said Ai was detained over alleged tax evasion. Other clients have included journalists and activists accused of subverting the Chinese Communist Party.
Former student leader stands trial
A former student leader of the 1989 protest movement at Hangzhou University has stood trial in the eastern province of Zhejiang for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
RFA reported that Xu Guang appeared in poor health and was extremely weak as he stood trial by video link at the Xihu District People’s Court on 3rd April 2023, following months of hunger striking and intermittent force-feeding while in a police-run detention centre. He told the court that he had refused food and drink in detention to remind the world to “never forget June 4th,” the date of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre that put an end to weeks of student-led protest in Beijing and other major Chinese cities.
Shanghai court jails blogger for seven years over 'subversive' posts
Ruan Xiaohuan was that rarest of things in China—a government critic writing from within the country. For years, he managed to evade surveillance by keeping his online identity hidden, even to those closest to him.https://t.co/spv2vrUids— VICE World News (@VICEWorldNews) April 3, 2023
On 10th February 2023, a court in Shanghai sentenced a blogger Ruan Xiaohuan to seven years in prison for allegedly inciting the subversion of state power. He was also sentenced to the deprivation of his political rights for two years and the confiscation of property worth 20,000 renminbi (US$2,904).
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the verdict was made public on 21st March, after Ruan’s wife Bei Zhenying disclosed it to his lawyer Shang Baojun and asked him and another lawyer, Mo Shaoping, to represent Ruan during his appeal. The prosecutors alleged Ruan had made up rumours and published false stories to defame the country in hundreds of articles, but did not cite any specific examples of his writing that committed those offences.
Ruan ran a pseudonymous blog under the name Program-Think since 2009, where he wrote about China’s internet restrictions and posted translations of foreign news articles.
Activists arrested for supporting protest
"Authorities in #China have formally arrested a veteran activist [#ZhangHai] who campaigned for the rights of COVID-19 victims after he publicly expressed support for recent protests by older people over cuts to medical insurance payouts."https://t.co/ih8ElVZam7 @RadioFreeAsia— CHRD人权捍卫者 (@CHRDnet) April 4, 2023
Authorities have formally arrested an activist who campaigned for the rights of COVID-19 victims after he publicly expressed support for protests by older people over cuts to medical insurance payouts. According to RFA, on 3rd April 2023, Zhang Hai was detained by authorities in the southern city of Shenzhen after he reposted video clips of the "silver" protests in Wuhan, along with media reports and comments to his Twitter account.
Zhang, who lives in Shenzhen, became an outspoken critic of the ruling Chinese Communist Party since the pandemic prompted a city-wide lockdown in Wuhan and killed his father. The authorities placed restrictions on his bank cards and on routine banking transactions in June 2022. He has now been formally arrested on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a catch-all public order charge applied to activists and critics of the government.
Wuhan-based rights activist A Meng was also detained in Shanghai and brought back to Wuhan after he supported the protests, while fellow activist Bai Yun was also detained.
Foreign journalists face obstruction, expulsions and visa delays
Foreign journalists working in China continue to face government interference when trying to do their jobs, according to a new report. According to RFA in March 2023, an annual survey of journalists' working conditions from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China included journalists working for news organisations from 30 different countries and regions, although one in ten were based outside China at the time of the survey due to problems with accreditation.
It said Chinese leader Xi Jinping's zero-COVID restrictions, which lasted through most of 2022, had "strangled" coverage plans, at a time when foreign journalists in China were "already battered in morale and greatly diminished in numbers" due to expulsions of colleagues and problems getting their professional accreditation renewed, which relies on the journalists' J-visa.
During the year, 46 percent of respondents reported having been told to leave a place or denied access for "health and safety reasons" when they presented no health risk by China’s own standards. A similar proportion, or 47 percent, reported that they had faced barriers to their reporting due to the COVID-19 surveillance and tracker app mandated by the ruling Communist Party.
Journalists working in China also face concerns over the impact their reporting will have on their sources, with 38 percent of respondents saying that at least one of their sources had been harassed, detained, called in for questioning by the authorities or otherwise suffered negative consequences for interacting with foreign journalists.
Chinese nationals working for foreign media organisations were also frequently targeted by the authorities, with 45 percent of respondents saying their Chinese colleagues had been harassed or intimidated, compared with 40 percent in the previous year.
More than half of foreign news organisations are still waiting for their visas to be renewed, while officials told applicants that the delays had been caused by "geopolitical tensions."
Online censorship around criticism and references to government
The Chinese Communist Party continues to censor all forms of references to or criticism of the government and Xi Jinping.
In January 2023, Chinese entertainment platform Bilibili imposed restrictions on livestream anchors playing “Goose Goose Duck” after users in China assumed politically sensitive handles referencing Chinese leaders, disgraced former officials and exiled dissidents. China's internet censors typically block any mention of the country's leaders, as well as sound-alike expressions referring to party leader Xi Jinping and former Chinese leaders.
In the same month, RFA reported that China shut down the social media accounts of hundreds of people recently released from prison. The move targets "illegal content" produced by people who "fail to correct their political stances" after completing a prison term. It will likely have a profound impact on political prisoners, who are often prevented from working and placed under ongoing surveillance even after serving their time. Online platforms Douyin, Kuaishou, Weibo, Bilibili, Xiaohongshu and Tencent had all cooperated in the "investigation and reform" of their content.
In February 2023, a YouTube channel that once posted satirical spoof videos featuring ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping was deleted from the platform. The RutersXiaoFanQi channel amalgamates the Chinese word "to humiliate" with that of the news agency Reuters. Its deletion suggests Chinese censors are using YouTube's copyright infringement reporting system to shut down content they find politically unacceptable.
Four women detained over 'white paper' protests
Cao Zhixin, Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, and Zhai Dengrui face possible 5-10 year prison sentences for attending a "blank paper" protest in China and using an encrypted messaging app. A disproportionate number of arrested protesters are women. #WomensDay2023 (2/4) pic.twitter.com/WduQtajVSl— PEN America (@PENamerica) March 8, 2023
As previously documented, unprecedented protests erupted across China due to widespread public frustration with the “zero-COVID” policy, lockdowns and other restrictions. The protest often featured demonstrators holding pieces of blank white paper - a metaphor for the critical social media posts, news articles and outspoken online accounts that have been wiped from the internet - as thousands of people took to the streets.
In November 2022, four women - Li Siqi, Li Yuanjing, Zhai Dengrui and Cao Zhixin - were among Beijing residents who attended a memorial on the banks of the Liangma River to commemorate the victims of a fire in Urumqi in the Uyghur region on 27th November. The vigil then morphed into a protest against the Chinese government. Police summoned the four women and other attendees for questioning and confiscated their phones and other devices. They were then released.
In December 2022, the four women were criminally detained and on 19th January 2023, they were formally arrested on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. All four are being held at Chaoyang District Detention Center in Beijing. They face up to five years in prison, or ten years if their offence is deemed serious.
On International Women’s Day on 8th March, human rights groups including CIVICUS called on the Chinese government to release and drop all charges against them as well as against all other individuals in China detained for freely expressing themselves during the “Blank Paper” protests of November-December.
Thousands of retirees protest slashed medical benefits
Thousands of people turned out in protest in February 2023 outside municipal government offices in Wuhan over major cuts to their medical benefits. According to RFA, video clips uploaded to social media showed a large crowd of older people in raincoats and holding umbrellas gathered in rainy weather in a public space outside the gates of the city government compound, with police in high-visibility jackets linking arms to prevent them from approaching the gates.
Retirees are demanding an explanation from the government as to why their medical benefits have been cut from 260 yuan (USD 38) a month to less than 100 yuan (USD 15). The majority of protesters were retired workers at the Wuhan Iron and Steel plant, with some from other state-owned enterprises.
The protest came after warnings from the central government in Beijing that it won’t be bailing out cash-strapped local governments, whose coffers have been drained by three years of President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy, which ended in December 2022.