China increases pressure on dissidents ahead of Communist Party Congress

Association

Ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress on 18th October 2017, fears have continued to rise over a concerted clampdown on civic freedoms. On 1st September 2017, activist Zhen Jianghua was arrested at his home in Zhuhai and detained under allegations of “inciting subversion of state power”. As the executive director of the Human Rights Campaign in China, Jianghua has gained recognition as a prominent campaigner for human rights defenders in detention, while also publicising human rights abuses perpetrated by Chinese authorities. It is believed that Jianghou's detention is in reprisal for his activism. Since his arrest, there has been no confirmation of Jianghou's whereabouts, leading to concerns over his welfare and prompting calls from domestic and international groups to secure his unconditional release. 

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the arrest and disappearance of several prominent Chinese human rights defenders has spurred calls for intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations (UN) to condemn the Chinese authorities' disregard for fundamental freedoms. In this context, on 5th September 2017 a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlighted the seemingly unending clampdown on civil society actors. HRW documented multiple cases wherein independent activists had been harassed and prevented from giving impartial accounts of the human rights situation in China, as well as civic groups that had been barred from participating in UN-related events by the Chinese authorities. 

The HRW report drew attention to the Chinese authorities' role in rendering human rights mechanisms at the UN ineffective by hindering efforts to improve human rights in China and around the world. In a statement, HRW said: 

“China engages with the UN on human rights but often with the goal of aggressively silencing criticism and eroding access for activists who work on China...China is not the only country that acts terribly at the UN, but its Security Council membership, global influence, and fierce crackdown on civil society at home make it a model of bad faith that challenges the integrity of the UN rights system”.

At the end of the report, HRW urged Chinese authorities to uphold commitments to protect human rights activists and to enable the free operation of independent civil society groups. 

Expression

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, new laws governing freedom of expression on the internet have been a key concern for civil society groups in China. Through the use of the "Great Firewall", the government selectively blocks critical outlets and social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter, and Instagram. On 25th September 2017, it was revealed that the Chinese authorities had also blocked the encrypted messaging app, WhatsApp. While the service had been experiencing intermittent obstructions since July 2017, a recent analysis of the service's blockage concluded that Chinese authorities have developed sensors to prevent the transmission of text messages within the application. Considering WhatsApp is an encrypted chat service, and in the context of the upcoming Communist Party's gathering in October, many claim that the Chinese authorities are attempting to increase surveillance of dissidents and close down online spaces for citizens and groups to organise. 

On 18th September 2017, authorities in China also shut down a human rights chat group on the popular social media platform, "QQ", after users discussed the recent subversion trial in China of a Taiwanese political activist. The activist in question, Lee Ming-cheh, was a volunteer with a number of human rights groups and was known for sharing his experiences of Taiwan's democratic transition with those on mainland China. After being disappeared on 14th March 2017 in the Chinese city of Zhuhai, the authorities later confirmed they were holding Lee on charges of "endangering state security". In a further example of China's intent to stamp out all dissent, a number of Chinese civil society activists who simply expressed sympathy with Lee's treatment on "QQ" reported being interrogated and placed under surveillance by Chinese security forces. With growing concerns for his welfare, Lee is reported to have "confessed" under duress to plotting against the Chinese regime. 

Peaceful Assembly

While protests in China are rare, a recent clampdown on migrant workers has mobilised disaffected migrant shop owners. On 15th September 2017, a video of a migrant workers’ protest in Beijing appeared online apparently showing clashes between protesters and Chinese security forces. While Chinese authorities refused to comment on the authenticity of the video, many believe it is the result of a recent crackdown on migrant workers in China's fabric industry. The video below documents the scenes.  

In another example of a protest, on 17th September 2017 a group of local residents and activists in Harbin, Heilongjian province took to the streets to protest North Korea’s latest nuclear test. Their protest focused on the environmental impact of North Korea's recent testing of nuclear weapons as the area is close to the border and could face contamination. There were no reports of the protest being unlawfully disrupted.