Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Human Rights Watch

  Thank you for inviting Human Rights Watch to comment on key human rights issues in the People's Republic of China as they affect UK and EU policy, and to offer recommendations for policy initiatives.

  We would be pleased to report that progress in human rights in China has tracked the country's economic growth. Sadly, this is not the case. Since President Hu Jintao came to power, the human rights situation has deteriorated, particularly in the past year. There have been sharp restrictions on freedom of expression, crackdowns on activists, and an explosion in land grabs, to name but a few key problems. In spite of this, many brave Chinese continue to struggle against a one-party system that seems to have no larger purpose than to remain in power. For example, in November 2005, China's foremost human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, was ordered to close his law firm and stop practicing law for one year. The measure was widely seen as retaliation for his refusal to withdraw an open letter sent to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao calling attention to the "barbaric persecution" of Falungong members. Gao has since been subjected to intense surveillance by security personnel and effectively put under house arrest. Several activists who followed a call by Gao to participate in a hunger strike movement to protest police violence and other abuses against rights activities have recently "disappeared" or been detained. They include Yan Zhengxue, taken away by the police from his home on 12 February; Hu Jia, an HIV/Aids activist who vanished while he was being closely followed by security personnel; Chen Xiaoming, a housing rights activist; and Zhao Xin, taken in by police for questioning on 22 February.

  While seeing China increasingly as an important economic, political and security partner, it is important to remember that China continues to systematically violate its people's human rights. Too often governments now mute their voices on the many critical human rights challenges in China. In this respect, we have a few overarching messages to the UK and other governments:

    —    Make human rights, once again, the highest priority in your relationship with China. While there have been positive social, economic, and political developments in recent years, the human rights situation remains critical and, in the past year, has been on a downward trend. The Chinese people need and rely on the clear and consistent support of the international community. Offer them your unconditional support.

    —    Do not be enthralled by China's increasing economic power or enhanced international role. China remains more dependent on its trading partners than its trading partners are on it. You continue to have leverage. Use it.

    —    Speak publicly in a clear and principled voice about human rights problems in China. Private diplomacy is important, but is not sufficient. China's leaders respond to public diplomacy and take note when it is absent. Find your voice again.

  Below we discuss some of the most important human rights issues facing the UK, EU, and other governments. Given the vast problems in China, please note that this list is far from exhaustive.


  Human Rights Watch calls for a reform of the UK-China dialogue on human rights. Though we are impressed with the seriousness of the FCO staff who pursue the dialogues, the semi-annual meetings have now largely become an end in themselves, without relevance to on-the-ground changes in the human rights climate. From the Chinese government's perspective, they have been an effective tool to marginalize human rights, stonewall, delay, and keep individual dialogue partners busy following separate agendas and issues.

Human Rights Watch strongly urges the UK to:

    —    through the Berne process, join with China's other dialogue partners in choosing a group of core issues on which to advocate and press for action;

    —    recommend that all dialogue partners work together on these issues and reinforce each other's messages and actions;

    —    on each issue, present not only expected results, but a timetable for achieving them, and clear benchmarks that will signal progress;

    —    insist that Chinese government personnel with expertise be involved in discussions on particular issues and, insofar as is reasonable, that the same set of people stay involved;

    —    insist that once a proposal is finalised, personnel with political responsibility for the issue become involved in the process and make a commitment to implementation;

    —    consult with NGOs on issues to be raised and strategies for implementation; and

    —    make it clear to China that failure to engage in good faith efforts to improve the human rights situation through dialogues will leave the UK with no option but to withdraw in due course.

  It is equally critical that China gets the message that human rights dialogues are not a zero-sum game and that these discussions are in addition to, and not instead of, sustained diplomatic pressure from the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and the UK embassy in Beijing, among others.


  Human Rights Watch remains greatly concerned by the apparent willingness of some EU countries to consider prematurely lifting the embargo on arms sales to China. At the time of its imposition, EU ministers acted in response to the "brutal repression taking place in China" and requested "Chinese authorities to stop the executions and to put an end to the repressive actions against those who legitimately claim their democratic rights."

  Human Rights Watch strongly urges the UK to make clear to fellow EU members that it will not vote to lift the 1989 EU arms embargo until the Chinese leadership seriously addresses the bloody crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square 15 years ago by:

    —    undertaking transparent, credible investigations into the Tiananmen killings;

    —    establishing who ordered the army to fire on unarmed and peaceful demonstrators, and initiating transparent prosecutions of those people;

    —    establishing how many individuals were killed;

    —    establishing how many individuals were sentenced for their peaceful participation in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations throughout China and ensuring their unconditional release;

    —    providing appropriate compensation to victims;

    —    allowing relatives and friends of the victims to publicly mourn their dead; and

    —    unfreezing funds donated to help victims' families.

  It is vital that the UK and EU make these demands publicly and at the highest level. In light of some of the weaknesses in UK and EU human rights advocacy with China in recent years, it is not clear that China still takes UK and EU concerns over human rights very seriously. Lifting the embargo without meeting these basic conditions would further erode the UK's and the EU's credibility as serious advocates for human rights in China.


  Given the continuing critical human rights situation in China, we urge the UK to address a number of these issues, described in some detail below.

  Although there are many other areas of concern, Human Rights Watch has chosen a group of issues we believe merit the UK's special attention. Some are subjects the EU has consistently brought to the attention of Chinese officials; others are longstanding human rights violations that have acquired a new urgency. These are:

(a)  Torture

  It is urgent that the Chinese government act to quickly address the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture's conclusion that while torture is "widespread, but declining", more must to be done to hasten its elimination. His observation that there was "a palpable level of fear and self-censorship" on the part of detainees interviewed is also cause for alarm.

  Human Rights Watch urges the UK to call on China to:

    —    ensure that the reform of the criminal procedure law conforms to ICCPR fair trial provisions, including the right to remain silent and the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to cross-examine witnesses and the effective exclusion of evidence extracted through torture, and timely access to counsel;

    —    establish an independent complaints mechanism for detainees subject to torture and ill-treatment;

    —    change the Chinese definition of torture to fully correspond to the international standard contained in the Convention Against Torture; and

    —    insist that Section 306 of the Criminal Law be repealed and retribution against criminal defense lawyers cease.

(b)  Death Penalty

  The recent government's decision to have all death sentences reviewed by the Supreme Court is a welcome move—but the fundamental problems of transparency and due process remain. As long as China refuses to disclose death penalty statistics, reform efforts cannot be substantiated.

  We urge the UK to:

    —    continue insisting on the abolition of the death penalty; and

    —    in the meantime, press China to announce a moratorium on its use while the criminal law is amended to allow use of the death penalty only for the most serious crimes, the judiciary is allowed to act independently of Chinese Communist Party dictates, and observance of fair trial standards becomes the norm. The UK could offer technical assistance to China once China agrees to implementation.

(c)  Reeducation-through-labour

  We appreciate UK efforts to end the reeducation-through-labour system in China, which has been used to detain millions of Chinese citizens without a trial or recourse to the judiciary. The law on "Correcting Illegal Behaviour" that the legislature plans to adopt at the upcoming National People's Congress Session in early March 2006 will shorten the maximum detention length to eighteen months and introduce limited judicial review mechanisms, but it ultimately solidifies and prolongs the life of the reeducation-through-labor system.

  We urge the UK to:

    —    intensify its efforts to convince the Chinese government that it must completely abandon this retrograde legal practice and similar forms of administrative detention and sentencing; and

    —    continue to work with reformers within China's legal community to eliminate not just reeducation-through-labor, but all forms of administrative detention and sentencing.

(d)  Freedom of Expression

  To stop its citizens from learning about the reality of life in China or communicating with the outside world, or indeed among themselves, China has regularly added layers of regulations censoring news reports and commentary, and has created the most ambitious and sophisticated Internet firewall in the world. In recent months, the crackdown against newspapers and magazines which challenge official views has mushroomed, and challenges to a free-wheeling worldwide web have multiplied. [4]

  We urge the UK to press the Chinese government to:

    —    amend its criminal law and national security laws to conform to international standards so as to ensure that the peaceful expression of political and other views is protected;

    —    amend the State Secrets Law to narrow its scope, such as by eliminating the practice of declaring public material a "secret" only after someone has been arrested for its dissemination or ending the practice of classifying information in the public domain as a state secret when it is disseminated abroad;

    —    stop jailing journalists, editors, and Internet users for the peaceful expression of their political views;

    —    stop closures of newspapers, magazines, journals, and websites engaged in peaceful political expression;

    —    remove restrictions on Internet message boards and blogs, and cease censoring and filtering email and websites; and

    —    stop requiring Internet companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! who operate in China to serve as censors or identify users in political cases.

  The stakes here are much greater than the future of a Chinese free press. China is already exporting technology for monitoring the Internet to other repressive governments, Zimbabwe, for example. Such governments are watching to see if China can bend Internet providers to its will. Should China succeed, other countries will insist on the same degree of compliance, and the companies will be hard-pressed to refuse. There will be two Internets, one for open societies and one for closed societies. A worldwide web, one which opens doors and empowers people, will disappear. In its place, we will find a virtual Iron Curtain.

  Media censorship is all the more invidious owing to its usefulness to the government for prosecuting cases of alleged state security and state secrets crimes. The vaguely defined crimes of "subversion," "endangering state security," and "leaking state secrets" make it remarkably easy to detain, indict, and sentence intellectuals, academics, journalists, and dissidents who criticise the government or CCP or raise issues that China's leaders prefer to keep out of the public domain.

(e)  Religious Repression

  China's new "Regulations on Religious Affairs" became effective 1 March 2005, but it is already clear that the changes are little more than a continuation of long-established policies that limit religious freedom.

  Independent, unregistered religious groups, still viewed as threats to the state, are illegal and their clergy and adherents subject to monitoring, harassment, arrest, and severe ill treatment. In addition, China has reserved for itself the right to distinguish between a "religion" and a "cult" and to severely limit the activity of the latter. Since March, several large-scale raids on unregistered churches have targeted leadership training sessions, bible classes, and missionary activity. Although government-recognised and controlled religious organizations do not suffer the same harassment, they must agree to "adapt" to socialist society, turn over their membership lists, have their leaders vetted for "patriotism," their finances inspected, and their literature censored. For Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Tibetan communities in Chinese provinces, the state-sanctioned crackdown on religious activities is stricter than in other parts of China. Throughout China, there appear to be unspecified limits on religious education for minors.

  We ask that the UK press the Chinese government to:

    —    release immediately and unconditionally, from any form of detention, all those held for peaceful practice of activities associated with religious beliefs (Please note that Chinese authorities insist that no one is incarcerated for their religious beliefs but for breaking the law.);

    —    remove all references to "sects" and "evil religious organisations" from China's criminal code and rescind all applicable explanations, interpretations, and decisions;

    —    adopt an explicit provision guaranteeing freedom of belief and religious practice for those under eighteen and the right of parents to educate their children in the belief system of their choice;

    —    clarify the ambiguities ("normal religious activities" and "religious extremism") present in the 2005 "Regulations on Religious Affairs"; and

    —    allow access for members of the Committee on the Rights of the Child to the Panchen Lama designated by the Dalai Lama.

(f)  Forced Evictions and Land Takings

  In the rush to modernize and develop Chinese cities, Chinese local authorities and developers are forcibly evicting hundreds of thousands of homeowners and tenants without due process or proper compensation. Evicted residents and housing rights activists have increasingly taken to the streets to protest, only to meet harsh police repression. In rural areas, there has been violent repression against farmers objecting to local officials selling communally-held property to developers. Farmers complain that they are improperly compensated and are left with no reasonable way to earn a living.

  In Beijing, the number of cases of illegal forced evictions is likely to increase in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics as venues are built and the city intensifies its modernization efforts. Senior legal experts and even some government-controlled news media have openly criticised the government's failure to protect the rights of homeowners and tenants. In response, the Chinese government has enacted some legal reforms, including a constitutional amendment to protect property rights. However, provisions of the Chinese constitution are not directly enforceable and courts have not generally upheld the rights of evicted residents.

  The situation in rural communities is further complicated by the fact that land is held communally. At issue is who has the right to negotiate for the community. In addition, the suspicion of corruption on the part of local officials clouds the process of land transfers.

  We urge the UK to assist the Chinese government to:

    —    establish laws and regulations consistent with the provisions of the Chinese constitution protecting private or communally-held property from being taken arbitrarily or without appropriate compensation; and

    —    ensure that the courts and administrative tribunals uphold the rights of individuals and hold officials accountable for failure to enforce existing regulations that protect the rights of evicted residents.

(g)  Petitioners

  Due to the multiple weaknesses and failures of the Chinese legal system, particularly at the local level, impoverished rural Chinese often attempt to obtain redress for forced eviction, police brutality, or corrupt practices through the intervention of higher ranking officials. However, the system, although regularised, often leads to further abuse, detention, and administrative sentencing.

  Until such time as China has an independent an independent judiciary, appropriate protections for plaintiffs, and a fully-functioning legal aid system, we urge the UK to:

    —    assist the Chinese government in addressing the failures of local-level legal systems;

    —    insist to Chinese central authorities that they investigate the use of police and private enforcers to abuse petitioners; and

    —    urge that criminal and administrative measures are employed to hold accountable the individual police officers and provincial authorities who are responsible for such attacks.


  Two decades after the first case of HIV/AIDS was diagnosed in China, the country faces what could be the largest AIDS epidemic in the world. In recent years, senior Chinese officials have shown a growing awareness about the need to confront the epidemic. However, AIDS activists continue to be harassed and bureaucratic restrictions continue to be imposed on civil society groups fighting the epidemic.

  We urge the UK to press the Chinese government to:

    —    revise national regulations to remove burdensome restrictions that limit the registration and growth of non-governmental organizations, working against the spread of HIV/AIDS;

    —    invite grass-roots HIV/AIDS organizations to share their input on policy and legal reform and to monitor implementation of government aid programs;

    —    enact and enforce national legislation prohibiting discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS; and

    —    cease detaining AIDS activists for protesting or advocating for access to treatment and care.

  We are aware that this is a large and ambitious human rights agenda. However the failure of the Chinese authorities to address these and other human rights violations requires the international community to persist in drawing attention to these abuses at the highest levels of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. We hope the Foreign Affairs Committee will raise these issues with the government and press them for clear and consistent action.

Brad Adams

Executive Director

Asia Division

Human Rights Watch

2 March 2006

4   In December 2005, Chinese authorities replaced the top editors of one of the most daring newspapers, the Beijing News. In January 2006, the government shut down Freezing Point, a four-page weekly section of the state-run China Youth Daily, which often challenged the party line. On 6 February 2006, Wu Xianghu, deputy editor of the Taizhou Wanbao, a local newspaper in the eastern coastal city of Taizhou, Zhejiang province, died after sustaining serious injuries in October 2005, when a number of policemen attacked him in revenge for reports he had published exposing corruption in the police force. On February 24, 2006, the journalist Li Yuanlong was formally indicted on charges of "incitement to subvert state power." Li worked as a reporter for the Bijie Daily for eight years. He apparently ran afoul of the local authorities after publishing a series of reports on unemployment and rural poverty. Back

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