Tashi Wangchuk and other activists imprisoned as President Xi tightens grip on power

On 11th March 2018, the National People's Congress (China's parliament) passed constitutional changes to remove the two-term limit on the presidency, effectively allowing President Xi Jinping to remain in power for life. Before this change, China had had a two-term limit on its president since the 1990s.

Expression

Detention and conviction of human rights activists and government critics

In recent months, several human rights activists and government critics were tried or convicted in China:

Tibetan language education activist Tashi Wangchuk has been in pre-trial detention for almost two years with no access to his family. On 4th January 2018, the Yushu Intermediate Court upheld the charges of “incitement to separatism” levied against Wangchuk under Article 103, Section 2 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China. The charges stem from comments in an article and video documentary in the New York Times in 2015 that detailed his Tibetan language advocacy efforts. He now awaits the Court’s verdict. Six UN human rights experts have expressed serious concerns over the ruling and have called for his release. In addition, Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, declared that:

“This is an attack on Tibetan language and cultural rights, which authorities have dressed up as an issue of national security. The idea that peaceful advocacy for Tibetan language rights somehow constitutes “separatism” is absurd and offensive…we call on the arresting authorities to drop all charges against Tashi Wangchuk, who has not committed any crime, immediately, and to release him from custody”.

On 10th January 2018, Tibetan Tsegon Gyal was sentenced to three years imprisonment on a charge of "inciting separatism" after an eight-month, closed-door trial during which he had no access to legal representation. He was detained in December 2016 and had been kept incommunicado in the custody of the prefecture State Security Bureau officials at the Kangtsa County detention centre. According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Gyal was most likely sentenced for publishing a blogpost on WeChat in which he criticised the Chinese government for failing to genuinely promote its policy of ethnic unity. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in April 2017 ruled that the deprivation of liberty was arbitrary and that there is no legal basis for Gyal's detention.

Human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng is currently being held under “residential surveillance in a designated location” on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. He was arrested and held for questioning on 19th January 2018. According to Amnesty International, he is being held incommunicado at the Shijingshan District Detention Centre in Beijing and denied access to lawyers and his family.

On 26th December 2017, human rights activist Wu Gan was jailed for eight years for alleged "subversion". He was accused of attempting to overthrow the ruling communist party. An administrator at a Beijing law firm, Wu Gan (better known by his pen name Tufu - ‘The Butcher’) had campaigned for victims in criminal cases considered sensitive by the authorities. In a statement after his sentencing, Gan named 13 officials who had allegedly tortured him during detention. Prior to his closed court trial held on 14th August 2017, Gan had been detained for over 28 months without access to his family.

Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che was sentenced to five years imprisonment on 28th November 2017 after a Chinese court found him guilty of "subversion of state power", a vaguely-defined charge often used by authorities to muzzle dissent and imprison critics. Ming-che had conducted online lectures on Taiwan's democratization and managed a fund for families of political prisoners in China. Ming-che's trial marked China's first criminal prosecution of a foreign nonprofit worker since Beijing passed a law tightening controls over foreign non-governmental organisations. His co-defendant, Peng Yuhua, who is from mainland China, was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.

Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish nationality, was detained on 20th January 2018. He was travelling by train to Beijing in the company of two Swedish diplomats to seek a diagnosis for what is feared to be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He had been previously detained by the Chinese for more than two years after he went missing in Thailand in 2015. It is believed Minhai was targeted for publishing books critical of the ruling Chinese elite in Hong Kong. In a strongly-worded letter to President Xi Jinping, 37 members of the European Parliament demanded Minhai's immediate and unconditional release. 

Press freedom

The close relatives of four U.S.-based reporters for Radio Free Asia’s Uighur Service have been detained by Chinese authorities in apparent retaliation for their coverage of the Xinjiang region. At least nine relatives were taken into custody between May 2017 and February 2018. The journalists have covered the authorities' harsh policies in Xinjiang, northwestern China, home to ten million ethnic Uighurs. Expressions of Uighur identity, including language, culture and religion, and calls for independence are treated as acts of terrorism and extremism by the authorities.

On 9th January 2018, ahead of the French President’s visit to China, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted that China is one of the world’s worst countries in regards to media freedom. It ranks 176th out of 180 countries on the RSF World Press Freedom Index and at least 15 professional journalists and 39 citizen-journalists are currently detained in China.

Use of big data to support crackdown in Xinjiang

In February 2018, Human Rights Watch reported that China is building and deploying a predictive policing program based on big data analysis. The programme aggregates data about individuals - often without their knowledge – and flags those it deems potentially threatening. Some of those targeted are then detained and sent to “political education centres” where they are held indefinitely without charge or trial, and can be subjected to ill treatment and abuse. 

Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, stated that:

“For the first time, we are able to demonstrate that the Chinese government’s use of big data and predictive policing not only blatantly violates privacy rights, but also enables officials to arbitrarily detain people…People in Xinjiang can’t resist or challenge the increasingly intrusive scrutiny of their daily lives because most don’t even know about this ‘black box’ program or how it works”.
Court challenge against banning of homosexual content online

In January 2018, a Beijing court agreed to hear a legal challenge against the government regulator - China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) - for failing to clarify the legal basis on which it approved the decision to ban homosexual content from online media platforms. In June 2017, the China Netcasting Services Association, which is supervised by SAPPRFT, published guidelines for censoring online media programmes, including "abnormal sexual behaviours" which includes homosexuality. Members of the LGBTQI community in China often suffer from "stigma, discrimination, bullying and in some cases even forced medical treatment".

Peaceful assembly

Hundreds of people took to the streets of Feijia village, northeast of Tiananmen Square, on 10th December 2017, in a rare protest to condemn evictions and demolitions of homes belonging to migrant communities. Protesters shouted, “forced eviction violates human rights”, while others held up homemade banners with the same message. The protest was not reported in China’s government-controlled press, but videos and photographs of the event spread online showing human rights campaigners participating in the protest amidst a heavy security presence in the area.

Association

Despite, the crackdown on civil society in China, LGBTQI communities have become more active by organising through Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging service which is similar to Twitter. PFLAG China (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), a Guangzhou-based organisation, has now been around for more than a decade with 52 chapters across the country, while Beijing's LGBT Centre raises its profile and awareness by holding monthly fundraisers at restaurants and bars.

Hong Tao, a University of Paris doctoral candidate who has been studying the movement in China, asserted that:

“It is less about winning but more about increasing visibility and building identity for the movement…Visibility is very important for LGBT in China because this is the only way we can beat the censorship regime”.

During the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on 18th October 2017, President Xi mentioned "social organisations" several times’ (the most common Chinese term for non-profits) in connection with other topics such as consultative democracy, community governance, environmental governance and party building at the grassroots level, with philanthropy and volunteering also highlighted. While some expressed hope in these words, others raised concerns over the lack of a specific mechanism for such activities and consultations to take place.