Human rights lawyers bare the brunt of clampdown


On 25th October 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was granted a second term as leader of the country's ruling communist party. Given China's poor human rights record, many fear that the crackdown on human rights activists, including arrests, mass surveillance and censorship, will continue unopposed. Human rights watchdogs claim that since Xi's ascension to power in 2012, the Chinese authorities have increasingly stifled civil society by targeting activists, human rights lawyers and bloggers. The situation was recently described by a Human Rights Watch researcher who stated that: 

“The outlook for human rights is grim and we see no sign of improvement...We feel we haven't hit the bottom yet”. 

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, in the run up to the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, there was a reported increase in the number of civil society activists targeted by the Chinese authorities. According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), between 28th September 2017 and 17th October 2017 fourteen activists were detained, two disappeared and countless other human rights defenders placed under house arrest or surveillance. 

More recently, on 21st November 2017 prominent human rights lawyer Jian Tianyong was jailed in a trial condemned as a "political theatre" by critics. Tianyong gained prominence for his unwavering support of victims of the 709 crackdowns, which saw over 300 individuals and human rights lawyers detained by Chinese authorities in 2015. Despite being disappeared, denied legal counsel and allegedly confessing under duress, a court in Changsha found Tiangyong guilty of "inciting subversion of state power” and sentenced him to two years imprisonment. Tiangyong's treatment and sentence have been widely viewed as illustrative of the Chinese authorities' politically motivated persecution of lawyers attempting to uphold human rights. CHRD found that since 2013, at least 42 lawyers have been subjected to violent attacks and countless others harassed and intimidated. 


On 4th November 2017, the Chinese legislature passed an amendment to the country's criminal law to punish anyone who "disrespects" the national anthem. Under the new provisions, anyone deemed to have desecrated the national flag, emblem or national anthem could face deprivation of political rights, criminal detention or imprisonment for up to three years. Pro-democracy activists, especially in the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau, claim that the new laws could be used to stifle dissent and target activists in these areas. While both regions are not automatically subject to Chinese law, a charge of fifteen days detention was written into their constitutions for the above-mentioned violations, illustrating Beijing's influence over the two semi-autonomous areas.  

Peaceful Assembly

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, mainland China has recently witnessed several protests related to labour rights. On 18th October 2017, approximately 600 workers gathered in front of an Apple supplier factory, Wuxi Green Point in eastern China, to protest unpaid bonuses and a wave of employee reassignments. The mobilisation came a week after a workers' strike on 11th October 2017. Despite Apple denying that the protest had anything to do with underpayment, China Labor Watch, an NGO based in New York, called on the multinational company to conduct a thorough investigation into the working conditions at the factory. There were no reports of the protest being disrupted or prevented from taking place. 

Outside the mainland in early October 2017, there were mass rallies staged in Hong Kong. An estimated 40,000 people marched on China's National Day, calling for an end to authoritarian rule and in protest over the recent jailing of prominent democracy activists. Dressed in black, participants held banners reading: 

"anti-authority, against suppression" and “no fear” 

The march reportedly drew support from a broad coalition of around 50 civil society and political groups in Hong Kong. The protest was in large part driven by the persecution of pro-democracy activists, especially those involved in the country's 2014's "Umbrella Revolution", during which a wave of protests erupted across Hong Kong and approximately one hundred activists are currently facing possible jail terms for their pro-democracy efforts and alleged involvement in the Umbrella Revolution.