New legislation gives Chinese authorities more control over civil society

Association

As previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Law on the Management of Overseas NGO Activities came into effect on 1st January 2017. The legislation allows the government to control CSOs' funding sources, staffing and activities. Civil society has spoken out against the tightening restrictions on freedom of association at international fora and through inter-governmental organisations.

On 16th February 2017, 19 NGOs released a joint statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on China’s human rights violations. In the statement, international and Chinese human rights groups noted recent cases of arbitrary arrests and ongoing detentions, as well as enforced disappearances, denial of legal representation and violations of the right to a fair trial. They also urged China to amend or repeal the Management of Overseas NGO Activities Law, asserting that the legislation contravenes international best practices and standards on freedom of association. The statement also affirmed that international organisations and fora could play a key role in improving the human rights situation in China: 

"In the past, the Chinese Government has openly expressed its displeasure with critical scrutiny of its human rights record. Such reactions demonstrate that China is sensitive to international attention. Public recognition at the Human Rights Council that China should be bound by its international human rights obligations will again give hope to thousands of defenders, lawyers, petitioners and others who seek to promote human rights in the country".

In addition, Human Rights in China (HRIC) and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) delivered a statement at the UNHRC on 15th March 2017, urging the Council to stand firm in support of international human rights standards and in opposition to the Chinese authorities' efforts to suppress freedom of association and the emergence of an independent civil society. 

With a new legal framework governing foreign CSOs, civil society groups are already beginning to feel the impact of the new restrictions. For example, on 29th December 2016, more than fifty members of the Chinese security forces entered the premises of the CSO - Migrant Workers' Home - cutting off access to utilities and destroying the central heating system. Many believe the CSO was attacked due to its promotion of migrant workers' rights; international civil society groups estimate that there are 150 million migrant workers in China who often work in poor conditions and cannot access fundamental labour rights. Under the new law, Chinese authorities can cancel any organisation's activities, revoke registration and impose administrative detention on staff. CSOs must also complete an annual assessment and be approved to obtain an operating permit. 

Peaceful Assembly

Organisers of peaceful assemblies are often denied permission by Chinese authorities. As people around the world participated in protests on International Women's Day, activists in China also mobilised. In a secret protest on 6th March 2017, a group of feminists gathered in the People’s Park in Guangzhou. The activist wore traditional gowns to honour the first-ever feminist protest in China held 93 years ago. The protest was held in secret to avoid the risk of detention.

Expression

As reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, freedom of expression in China remains tightly controlled. Recently, civil society groups have used international fora to draw attention to the persecution of dissidents for simply expressing opinions or speaking out about politically-sensitive topics. In a joint statement, 19 CSOs described the scale of persecution in China: 

"Non-governmental organisations estimate that in 2016, police arrested over 100 individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression. This included figures well-known for documenting and disseminating information on human rights violations, such as veteran activists Huang Qi and Liu Feiyue. Their websites, and others including one aimed at facilitating peaceful dialogue within China’s diverse Muslim community, have been effectively shut down. Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti continues to serve a life sentence, and Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk has been detained for over a year for requesting Tibetan language classes in local schools".

In addition, numerous rights groups have called for the repeal of restrictive legislation, including the Counter-Terrorism Law. The use of national security legislation to harass and imprison political dissidents is a concerning trend in China that shows no signs of abating.