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6 January 2020

China’s year-end crackdown on human rights defenders betrays its international commitments

In December 2019, at least 23 human rights defenders and their families across the country were detained, arrested, summonsed for questioning, subjected to travel ban or sentenced. These cases are the latest examples of a persistent pattern of government attacks on civic space in China, despite its international commitments to ensure a safe environment for human rights defenders, journalists and minorities. Front Line Defenders urges the international community to take robust actions to hold Chinese officials accountable for failing to heed the repeated recommendations issued by concerned governments and UN human rights mechanisms in the past year to immediately release all detained or imprisoned human rights defenders, ensure adequate reparations for their arbitrary detention, and guarantee accountability for abuses perpetrated against them and their families.

On 3 December 2019, the Public Security Bureau of Nanning in Guangxi province formally arrested human rights lawyer Tan Yongpei (覃永沛) on the charge of “inciting subversion of State power”. Nanning police raided Tan’s legal consultancy company office and detained him on 31 October 2019. The authorities revoked his lawyer’s license in May 2018.

On 16 December 2019, Beijing-based public interest lawyer Li Chunfu (李春富), while en route to Laos, was stopped by immigration authorities at a border crossing in Yunnan province. He was told the Beijing Public Security Bureau had imposed a travel ban on him.

On 17 December 2019, police in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, took labour rights defender Chen Weixiang (陈伟祥) from his home and put him under a 15-day administrative detention, the grounds for which is not known. Chen Weixiang is the co-founder of the WeChat channel “Xin Huan Wei”, an online platform that advocates for the rights of sanitation workers. He was released on 2 January 2019.

On 26 December 2019, police from the eastern coastal province of Shandong detained four human rights defenders in Beijing and in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian. These defenders are human rights lawyer and former political prisoner Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) (based in Beijing), activist Dai Zhenya (戴振亚) (based in Xiamen, Fujian), professor and former political prisoner Zhang Zhongshun (张忠顺) (based in Yantai, Shandong), and factory worker and activist Li Yingjun (李英俊) (based in Zhangzhou, Fujian). Fellow human rights defenders reported that Dai Zhenya and Zhang Zhongshun have been placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL) on suspicion of “inciting subversion of State power” and “subversion of State power”, respectively. The legal basis for which Ding Jiaxi and Li Yingjun have been detained is not yet known.

On 29 December 2019, police in Jinhua, Zhejiang province took human rights lawyer Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强) and formally detained him in the Jinhua Municipal Detention Center on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. He was subsequently released over the weekend of 3-5 January 2019. Police in Jinhua also took activists Mao Lijun (毛立军), Tang Xiaoyun (唐晓云), Xin Zhongcheng (辛忠诚), Wu Zexi (吴泽西), and Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫) into custody for questioning and released them the next day.

In other parts of the country, police have also approached and questioned the families and friends about the whereabouts of at least four other human rights defenders, who wish to remain anonymous due to security concerns.

On 30 December 2019, the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Early Rain Covenant Church founder and pastor Wang Yi (王怡) to nine years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of State power” and “illegal business operations”. Wang Yi is a defender of the right to religious freedom and has been detained since December 2018.

Also on 30 December 2019, Sichuan-based human rights lawyer Lu Siwei (卢思位) was stopped by immigration authorities while en route to Hong Kong to attend a legal seminar. The immigration authorities told him that “judicial authorities” had imposed an exit ban on him but failed to provide him with further details. On 31 December, border authorities also stopped Zhejiang-based human rights lawyer Zhuang Daohe (庄道鹤) while he was en route to South Korea. The Hangzhou police subsequently took him in for questioning on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and released him in the late afternoon on 2 January 2020. On the same day, police in Huzhou, Zhejiang province placed human rights defender Wei Xiaobing (卫小兵) under a 15-day administrative detention for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, allegedly after he discussed the year-end crackdown in a WeChat group.

On 31 December, police took human rights lawyers Liu Shuqing (刘书庆) and Lu Tingge (卢廷阁) into custody for questioning in Jinan, Shandong province, and in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, respectively. Both lawyers were allowed to go home on 1 January 2020.

Front Line Defenders believes these human rights defenders are targeted solely on account of the legitimate exercise of their fundamental freedoms or defense of human rights. The government’s actions are clearly inconsistent with China’s legal obligations to respect and protect human rights under the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law. They also contravene China’s commitment to uphold the “highest standards of human rights” as a UN Human Rights Council member for the past six years and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations it accepted last year to ensure an enabling environment for human rights defenders and NGOs, including the following made by European and Latin American governments:

  • Guarantee freedom of opinion and expression, enhancing efforts to create an environment in which journalists, human rights defenders and NGOs can freely operate in accordance with international standards (Italy);
  • Apply public policies to protect human rights defenders in line with international standards (Spain);
  • Take the necessary measures to guarantee that human rights defenders can exercise their freedom of expression and peaceful association (Belgium);
  • Guarantee the full exercise of the freedoms of association and expression of human rights defenders and minorities, in accordance with international human rights law (Costa Rica);
  • Enable all members of civil society to freely engage with international human rights
  • mechanisms without fear of intimidation and reprisals (Estonia);
  • Take immediate action to allow human rights defenders and lawyers to exercise their right to freedom of expression and opinion without threats, harassment or repercussions (Ireland);
  • Adopt the necessary measures to provide a safe environment for those who work on the protection and promotion of human rights, including human rights defenders and journalists, and investigate and punish all acts of violence against them (Argentina);
  • Ensure that human rights defenders can conduct their work without being subjected to harassment, intimidation or any kind of reprisals (Liechtenstein).

Throughout 2019, UN human rights mechanisms and EU institutions continued to report and raise concerns about consistent patterns of non-implementation of these UPR recommendations.

During 2019, 24 Special Procedures mandate holders - independent human rights experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council - sent 19 appeals and letters to the Chinese authorities, including the Hong Kong government, raising wide-ranging concerns about restrictive laws and regulations, use of force against peaceful protesters, and repression of at least 27 human rights defenders, including those in other countries who are advocating for accountability for abuses connected to development projects invested and/or implemented by Chinese companies. 13 of the 19 communications sent to the government were co-signed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

UN experts also issued four public statements on China last year, raising concerns about the lack of investigation into the death in 2014 of woman human rights defender Cao Shunli (曹顺利), the on-going harassment of human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) after his release from prison, the treatment of human rights defenders and peaceful protesters in Hong Kong, and the fate and whereabouts of Uyghur scholar Tashpolat Tiyip. The Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders highlighted the disbarment of human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生) and Sui Muqing (隋牧青) in his latest report on impunity for abuses committed against human rights defenders.

In its first two sessions in 2019, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) issued four official opinions, finding the detention of six Chinese human rights defenders - Cao Sanqiang (曹三强), Jiang Rong (蒋蓉), Qin Yongmin (秦永敏), Wang Yi (王怡), Yu Wensheng, and Zhen Jianghua (甄江华) - to be in violation of international law. In all six cases, the WGAD called on China to release the defenders immediately, accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, ensure a full and independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding their arbitrary detention and take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of their rights. Of the six, five are still in prison or detention, and only Zhen Jianghua was released after having completed his sentence.

In its annual report presented in September 2019, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) reported that, between May 2018 and May 2019, 24 cases of disappearances were raised with the Chinese government, who failed to clarify any of them. According to the WGEID’s latest available figures, at the end of May 2019, 68 cases were outstanding. On the International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances on 30 August 2019, Front Line Defenders joined a social media campaign highlighting the stories of human rights defenders and their families who have been subjected to enforced disappearances.

In his annual report on reprisals against human rights defenders who cooperate with the UN, Secretary-General António Guterres cited detention and prison sentences, ill-treatment while in detention, seizure of property and surveillance as some of the retaliatory measures used against human rights defenders. The report listed new reprisals against Li Xiaoling (李小玲), Li Yuhan (李昱函), Liu Zhengqing (刘正清), Xu Yan (徐艳), and Zhen Jianghua, as well as developments in ten previous cases.

In each of her three keynote addresses to the Human Rights Council in February, June and September 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, addressed human rights issues in China, including calling for full and unfettered access “to carry out an independent assessment of the continuing reports pointing to wide patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region”. In July and October 2019 more than 20 governments, a great majority of which are EU Member States, addressed two joint statements to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, respectively, raising concerns about the “arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement” of Muslim and other minorities in Xinjiang, and called for meaningful access to the region by independent international observers.

In March, July and September, the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva called out China for its detention and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, raising individual cases by names. The defenders recognised by the EU included Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Yu Wensheng, Qin Yongmin, Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Ilham Tohti, Huang Qi (黄琦), Tashi Wangchuk, Tashpolat Tiyip, Li Yuhan, Wu Gan (吴淦), Cheng Yuan (程渊), Liu Dazhi (刘大志), and Wuge Jianxiong (吴葛健雄). Several European governments such as the Czech Republic, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Sweden, have also raised concerns about China at the Council.

In 2019, EU institutions and leaders made at least 16 public statements or speeches concerning human rights and democracy in China, including Hong Kong. In March, the European Commission labelled China “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” The EU spokesperson raised concerns about the trial of human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, the sentencing of human rights defender Huang Qi, and the fourth anniversary of the mass detention and interrogation of human rights defenders and lawyers, known as the “709 Crackdown”. Following the 37th round of EU-China Human Rights Dialogue in Brussels in early April 2019, the EU issued a public statement raising concerns about the “deteriorating situation of civil and political rights in China” and highlighted “the arrest and detention of a significant number of human rights defenders and lawyers.” The EU named and called for the release of over 30 Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur and women human rights defenders.

Soon after the dialogue, the EU High Representative and Vice President Federica Mogherini stated before the European Parliament that human rights defenders and lawyers continue to be arrested and detained in China and said it was very important for EU institutions and member states to be united, consistent and coherent in communicating human rights concerns to China. In June, Mogherini issued a statement commemorating the 30th anniversary of the violent suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy protests while also calling for the release of human rights defenders. After her visit to Beijing in October 2019, Mogherini said publicly that she made clear to the Chinese leadership that the “EU will continue to stand up for the universality, interdependence, and indivisibility of human rights”.

On 24 October 2019, Uyghur human rights defender Ilham Tohti was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought.

On 10 December 2019, as the year-end crackdown was underway, the EU Delegation in Beijing issued a statement expressing concerns “at the continuous arrests, detention and imprisonment of human rights defenders, lawyers and other citizens exercising fundamental human rights”, and called for an end to “the detention and harassment of these and other Chinese citizens and human rights defenders and their family members.” On the same day, French and German diplomats presented the 2019 Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law to woman human rights defender Li Wenzu (李文足), wife of jailed human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, commending her for raising international attention on the plight of human rights lawyers in China.

Front Line Defenders welcomes these public statements supporting the work of human rights defenders in China. We urge concerned governments to take additional concrete and robust actions to reinforce these principled rhetorics, including by:

  1. Mainstreaming thematic human rights concerns and individual cases into all areas of interactions - political, economic, technological, and cultural - between concerned governments and the Chinese government, including frequent communications of these concerns at the highest-level;
  2. Increasing and ensuring access to flexible, sustainable financial and other capacity- building and protection support for human rights defenders, organisations and networks in China;
  3. Introducing and adopting robust, transparent legislation or regulations enabling timely, targeted sanctions, in consultation with relevant civil society and human rights defenders, against individual Chinese officials responsible for gross human rights violations and corporations, Chinese or otherwise, that are found to be complicit in aiding or abetting human rights abuses in China;
  4. Taking meaningful and visible actions at the UN, EU and other intergovernmental organisations to engage and hold China accountable for its non-compliance with its international obligations and commitments, including by supporting the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Treaty Bodies, and the Special Procedures.