Persecution of activists continue while abuses against Uighurs remain in the spotlight

Persecution of activists continue while abuses against Uighurs remain in the spotlight
Tianjin Court where the first hearing of HRD Wang Quanzhang was held (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Over the last few months, China has continued to arrest, prosecute and jail activists and lawyers. In one case, dozens of workers and students are being held for labour rights protests linked to the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen. Human rights groups have continued to raise concerns about abuses in Xinjiang against the ethic Muslim Uighurs while a new report on human rights defenders in China highlights how they continue to work under hostile conditions and face reprisals. In Hong Kong, students protested against the prosecution of the “Umbrella movement’ activists. Reports have also surfaced that Google is still working on a censored search engine for China.

Ahead of the adoption of China’s Universal Periodic Review report at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2019, it has reportedly not accepted 62 of the 346 recommendations made by states including restrictions on individual freedoms and the repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.


Activist and human rights website founder Liu Feiyue sentenced to five years jail

On 29th January 2019, a court in Hubei province sentenced Liu Feiyue to five years in prison after convicting him on charges of “inciting subversion of state power".

Liu, aged 48, is a veteran activist and founder of Minsheng Guancha (Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch) website. The website was setup in 2016 and reported on a wide range of human rights issues in China, including "prosecutions of activists and lawyers, protests, police abuses, and government corruption, subjects that China’s state-controlled media are prohibited from covering". Liu also compiled annual reports on human rights abuses in China from 2014 until his detention. He had also written many essays advocating nonviolent civil disobedience and organised petitions calling for political reform in China.

Yaqiu Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) said:

Prosecuting the editor of a human rights website shows just how frightened the Chinese government is about independent reporting on abuses from inside China. Sending Liu Feiyue to prison for five years is a travesty of justice meant to scare off others who might follow in his footsteps.”

Liu was detained on 17th November 2016 by police in Suizhou and was formerly arrested on 23rd December 2016. According to HRW, the prosecution against Liu was marred by denial of his right to legal counsel and other due process violations.

Human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang sentenced to 4.5 years in prison

On 28th January 2019, prominent human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, was found guilty of “subverting state power” and sentenced to four and a half years prison sentence by a Chinese court. Wang Quanzhang was the last lawyer awaiting a verdict in connection with the Chinese government’s mass crackdown in 2015, which targeted more than 200 human rights lawyers and activists.

Wang was sentenced at Tianjin Municipal No.2 Intermediate People’s Court. His trial on 26th December 2018 followed more than three years in pre-trial detention. His wife, Li Wenzu, was blocked by the authorities from leaving her apartment complex to attend the trial.

Doriane Lau, China Researcher at Amnesty International said:

“Today’s verdict is a gross injustice. It’s outrageous that Wang Quanzhang is being punished for peacefully standing up for human rights in China. In the three years leading up to his sham of a trial, the authorities disappeared Wang Quanzhang into a black hole, where he was likely tortured. Wang’s family, who continue to be harassed by the authorities, didn’t even know if he was alive until recently. His continued imprisonment only prolongs their suffering.”

Before his detention, Wang Quanzhang worked on defending religious freedom and representing members of the New Citizens’ Movement, a network of grassroots activists who promote government transparency and expose corruption. Due to his role in representing such cases, Wang often faced intimidation.

Activist Zhu Chengzhi formally arrested for visiting grave of Mao-era dissident

In November 2018, it was reported that the authorities had formally arrested Zhu Chengzhi, a prominent civil rights activist in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu on charges of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”. Zhu Chengzhi has been incommunicado since 29th April 2018 when he was taken away from the Lingyan Shan hillside cemetery on the outskirts of Suzhou, alongside fellow activists who laid wreaths to mark the anniversary of the execution of Lin Zhao a Mao-era dissident.

Zhu became one of China's most prominent rights activists after he spoke out about the death in police custody of labor rights activist Li Wangyang in 2013 and had previously been held on suspicion of subversion after he questioned the official verdict of suicide in Li's death.

Human rights defender Huang Qi secretly tried

According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), Chinese authorities secretly tried Huang Qi a human rights defender, and head of the rights group “6.4 Tianwang,” on 14th January 2019. Police initially detained Huang on 28th November 2016 and arrested him the following month.

Huang who is seriously ill has been charged for “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities” and “intentionally leaking state secrets.” Member of the public were not allowed to attend the trial and no information about the trial has been made public. One of Huang’s lawyers was never told about the trial. Huang’s 85-year-old mother has been allegedly disappeared for her efforts to gain his release.

Huang has been deprived of appropriate medical care for kidney disease, accumulation of fluid in the brain, heart disease, and dangerously high blood pressure while held at Mianyang City Detention Center.

According to CHRD, Huang Qi established China’s first-known human rights monitoring website in 1998, disseminating reports about Chinese individuals who had been trafficked and disappeared. In April 2018, the independent experts on the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion, "judging that Huang’s detention is arbitrary and the government must release him and provide him state compensation for the harm done to him".

Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong goes missing for two days after release

Jiang Tianyong, a high-profile Chinese human rights lawyer reappeared two days after going missing following the completion of his two year prison sentence for "state subversion". Jiang, who took on prominent cases including those of Falun Gong practitioners and Tibetan protesters – was one of more than 200 lawyers and activists detained in a 2015 crackdown on critics of the authorities. He was jailed in November 2017.

Supporters of Jiang, who travelled to the No.2 Henan prison where Jiang was held, told the media that police outside the jail said the 47-year-old lawyer was “taken away” but did not specify by whom. According to his wife, he appeared two days later in his hometown of Xinyang, Henan province. She said that even though Jiang has been released from jail and is staying with his parents, “he is still not free”. Police are reportedly stationed outside his house and follow his movements.

Workers and ‘Marxist’ student activists still detained

Civil society groups are concerned about the arbitrary detention and disappearances of former workers of the Jasic Technology factory and members of the Jasic Workers' Solidarity Group (JWSG) – mainly students - who were supporting them.

In July 2018, police in Shenzhen in Guangdong province detained several workers at Jasic Technology, a welding-equipment manufacturer, after they attempted to form an autonomous union under the auspices of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the sole legal vehicle for workers’ rights in China. The workers had long complained about low wages, poor working conditions, and management abuses.

After learning about the arrests on social media, dozens of concerned college students and recent graduates from across the country went to Shenzhen to protest. Wearing T-shirts with portraits of workers and singing socialist anthems, the students said that they were “Marxist” and they “stood with workers”.

Since then scores of student activists and workers have been detained in waves of arrests in August, September, November 2018, and January 2019. Around 42 workers, activists and members of the Jasic JWSG are reportedly still in detention. Some families of the student activists received police notices informing them that the activists had been put under “residential surveillance at a designated location,” a form of secret incommunicado detention that enables the police to hold individuals outside of the formal detention system for up to six months without access to legal counsel or family members.

According to Human Rights Watch, university officials across China have also harassed student Marxists, preventing them from holding meetings or participating in protests. Students have also had difficulties registering Marxist student groups with university authorities

Four of them reappeared in videos that were forcibly shown in January 2019 to students who are affiliated with the JWSG, who saw these actions as an intimidation campaign. Student labour activists say have been summoned for “meetings” at police stations in Beijing and were threatened with expulsion and jail.

Human rights groups call on UN to take action on Xinjiang abuses

As documented previously, there has been mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment, and increasingly pervasive controls on the daily life of Uighurs in Xinjiang. The population of 13 million are being subjected to forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions, and mass surveillance in violation of international human rights law.

In February 2019, human rights groups called on the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution establishing an international fact-finding mission to Xinjiang. The proposed resolution should "urge the High Commissioner for Human Rights to dispatch a fact-finding mission to assess the situation and report to the Human Rights Council at its next session. The resolution should also welcome China’s expression of willingness to allow access by international experts, and stresses that such access must be independent, unrestricted, and unsupervised".

Numerous UN experts, treaty bodies, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have expressed grave concern about the situation in Xinjiang and called for unrestricted access to the region. However, China has not responded positively to these requests.

CHRD releases report on the situation of human rights defenders 

On 21st February 2019, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) released its latest annual report on human rights defenders (HRDs) entitled “Defending Rights in a ‘No Rights Zone". The report stated that HRDs have "made remarkable strides in promoting and protecting human rights under hostile conditions in drastically shrunken civic space".

According to the report, in 2018, the "Chinese government under Xi Jinping escalated its brutal suppression of rights activists, lawyers, critics of authoritarian rule, repressed religious communities, and ethnic minorities, especially in the Tibetan and Uighur regions. It also "continued to hold all the power in his own hands and tightened [the Communist Party’s] control over the government, the legislation, the judiciary, the press, religious practices, academia, and other sectors of society".

In 2018, human rights defenders faced reprisals for their work by the authorities including the use of torture, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention. The government also "threatened and blocked defenders from attending human rights trainings and persecuted them for having cooperated or seeking to cooperate with UN human rights experts".

Peaceful assembly

Students hold protests against trial of Umbrella movement activists

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, there are nine Hong Kong “Umbrella Movement” activists facing trial for their involvement in the 2014 pro-democracy movement. In response to the trial on 22 November 2018 a protest was held during the graduation ceremony at Lingnan University in Hong Kong against the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong. The protesters were mainly graduating students, protesting the on-going cases of the nine activists.

According to reports, around ten students staged the demonstration and began shouting slogans during the graduation ceremony as the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam appeared on stage. The students also opposed Lam’s proposal to build 1,700-hectare artificial islands near Lantau Island. Students shouted “The nine [Umbrella Movement] activists are innocent. Oppose reclamation". Multiple students held printouts emblazoned with Lam’s face and anti-reclamation slogans, which they then placed in front of her. Another group of students stood up in the back rows of the hall, holding banners that opposed reclamation and protested Lam’s role as the university’s chancellor.


Rights activist Huang Wenxun detained for online comments 

In November 2018, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that a civil rights activist in China was detained again several months after his release from a three-year prison term. Huang Wenxun, a 29 year old activist was previously imprisoned in Hubei province on charges of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” for his involvement in press freedom protests. Such charges are commonly used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. When he was released he suffered profound memory loss, which was possibly attributed to torture he faced in prison.

On 11th October 2018, Guangdong police arrested Huang after he uploaded a video of himself urging others to go out for a “run” to mark the founding of the 1911 Republic of China by Sun Yat-sen on 10 October. Huang’s wife, Zhang Yiqiong, told RFA she had received a call from state security police in Huizhou’s Boluo county notifying her of his formal arrest on 16th November 2018 on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

Police detain Muslim poet Cui Haoxin for tweet on religious freedom

In November 2018, it was reported that Cui Haoxin, a Muslim poet - better known by his pen name An Ran - was detained in Shandong province after tweeting about how the Chinese Communist Party has "oppressed religious freedom in the country". After he was arrested, the state authority questioned him about his tweets and ordered him to delete his twitter account which he refused to do.

Cui is known for being outspoken about the treatment of Muslim Uighurs and other minorities. This is not his first time being detained over his tweets; He has revealed multiple times that his house was raided, police officers interrogated him for tweeting, and was forced into attending "re-education" courses for writing about his political views on forced detention.

Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America said:

“This is a clear-cut example of the Chinese government seeking to silence a critical voice through intimidation…An Ran, a poet, is speaking out on one of the most important human rights issues of our day. Instead of attempting to shut him down, authorities should be listening.”
Award winning photographer Lu Guang detained

On 27th November 2018, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that award-winning photographer Lu Guang was detained in the eastern part of Xinjiang province. Lu Guang won the World Press Photo award three times and his work has largely focused on sensitive environmental and social issues in China, including industrial pollution, drug addiction and people living with AIDS.

His wife, Xu Xiaoli, stated that he went missing on 3rd November 2018 and the person who invited Lu to the region said that he was forcibly taken away by the state security officers. On 6th December 2018, family members in China were verbally notified of Lu’s arrest by police in the troubled Xinjiang region. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Google may still be working on a censored search engine for China

According to reports on 5th March 2019, Google may be secretly developing a controversial search engine for China despite publicly stating that the project had been halted in December 2018. The new search engine, dubbed Dragonfly, was originally meant to launch between January and April 2019 but the project was shelved following an outcry from Google workers.

China's strict censorship laws mean Google's search engine is blocked by the so-called Great Firewall of China. A new platform would conform to the country's laws by blacklisting words and phrases like "human rights", "Nobel Prize" and "student protest".

Hundreds of Google employees had previously protested against the search engine claiming that it would stifle free speech and enable state surveillance. A group of Google employees reportedly conducted their own investigation after growing concerns that the company planned to continue developing the censored search engine behind their backs They discovered ongoing work on a batch of code related to the Dragonfly project, prompting further concerns that Google plans to launch the search engine.