Chinese human rights defenders work across a wide spectrum of issues, engaging with rights violators on numerous levels. Many of China’s most prominent and most stringently prosecuted defenders have worked to protect the health and well-being of victims of physically harmful government and corporate practice, including forced abortion, food health scandals, environmental pollution, and corrupt or negligent government action leading to preventable loss of life. Other Chinese HRDs work to protect the economic rights of Chinese citizens, advocating for victims of property appropriation, forced demolition, and violation of labour contracts. Still others take on cases of freedom of expression for China’s ethnic and religious minorities.
In addition to the issues above, all Chinese HRDs find themselves victims of curtailment of free speech and assembly. Rather than directly attacking the work of human rights defenders, Chinese authorities frequently use defenders’ public remarks calling for political reform as criminal evidence, accusing defenders of “subverting state power” or advocating “separatism.” Those accused—in particular, those advocating for democratic reform and autonomy for ethnic minorities—are given extensive prison sentences. Other defenders are incarcerated for “picking quarrels” and “disturbing social order” in response to peaceful, public demonstrations. New legislation passed in 2016 and 2017 on NGOs, cyber-security, and terrorism grant further powers to authorities to constrict the space for defence of human rights.
In the course of taking judicial action against defenders, the “gongjianfa” tripartite system of police, prosecution, and judiciary have a history of committing and condoning gross violations of procedural rights for HRDs, including intimidation and harassment of family members, unlicensed search of homes and offices, shuttering of organizations, stripping of professional position and certifications, forced “travel” with police for purposes of detention and relocation, house arrest and internment in unofficial “black jails”, and torture during detention.