China 2008: Human Rights

This next installment in the CDT series on important issues facing China in 2008 concerns the state of human rights in China.  See also these previous China 2008 articles: China and the Developing World, Nationalism, Internet Culture, and Identity, Environmental Crisis, and The Global Financial Crisis and the Revaluation of the Yuan.

The issue of human rights may be the oldest sore point between the People’s Republic of China and the developed democracies of the world – particularly the United States – as the former aspires to a place of prestige in the international system.  The Chinese government first garnered international outrage for its human rights record with the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.  Since then, scrutiny has been focused on, among other issues, China’s treatment of its ethnic and religious minorities.  However, human rights as a category casts a broad net which also includes freedom of expression, due process, reproductive freedom, and labor rights.

The hosting of the Olympic Games in Beijing made 2008 a very special year for human rights in China.  One of the hottest questions buzzing around the run-up to the Games was whether Chinese leaders would improve human rights, as per their promise when bidding to host the Olympics in 2001.  Since the closing ceremony, however, several events have surfaced in the media to indicate that old human rights violations are still plaguing the People’s Republic of China.  Below are several cases which have appeared on CDT, from the crackdown in Tibet to lesser-known episodes of religious and political oppression.


In 2008, the Chinese government set for China ambitious goals of social progress, such as democracy by 2020 and battling discrimination against sufferers of AIDS.  Activists continue to be excluded from efforts to meet those goals, as evidenced by the spate of confinements, arrests, and disappearances of democracy, AIDS, and other activists.  An activist campaigning for people with HIV and AIDS was detained and sent out of Beijing as the capital observed World AIDS Day.  The trial and sentencing of democracy activist Hu Jia and the house arrest of his activist wife Zeng Jinyan were perhaps the biggest stories in this vein in 2008.

The Olympics

To showcase China’s commitment to free speech, the Chinese government created special ‘protest zones‘ in parks around Beijing where people could apply to protest.  However, of the 77 protest applications filed – most involving property, health care, and labor disputes  74 were voluntarily withdrawn after being “properly addressed by the relevant authorities”, and none were approved.  Petitioners were often followed to Beijing by police from their hometown and forced to go back, or arrested and sentenced to hard labor.

Black Jails

Some Chinese citizens who traveled to Beijing for redress of grievances were not so lucky to be escorted back home.  Many petitioners were imprisoned in ‘black jails’ instead, illegal but state-run detention centers for petitioners scattered throughout the capital city.  Human rights groups have suspected the existence of these underground prisoners for some time, but hard evidence came to light in September when Beijing activists mounted rescue operations for petitioners being held in a black jail.  Charged with no crime and held indefinitely in poor conditions, those held in black jails have also been badly beaten.


The global credit crisis has exacerbated the plight of China’s laborers.  The recent wave of labor unrest stems from the chronic injustices of unpaid wages and unemployment benefits, and stolen pensions.  Many Chinese laborers are migrant workers whose legal inability to obtain a hukou, or local registration, consigns them to substandard living conditions and denies them social services such as education for their children.

Legal Rights

The right to sue continues to be denied to parents who lost children to melamine-tainted infant formula and to unsafe schools which collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake.  Chinese courts have thus far declined to hear all such cases, lawyers offering legal advice to bereaved families have been intimidated by the state, and parents are both threatened and bribed into silence.

Police Brutality

In November, police suppressed a violent riot in the city of Longnan, Gansu province over plans to demolish and move the city center.  Soon after, Chinese netizens reported that the violence had been triggered when police began to beat protesters.  They estimated that over a hundred had been arrested in connection with the riots, many injured and some fatally so.   One netizen also claimed that tens of protesters had been beaten to death.  These posts were soon censored.


Thousands in Tibet were arrested in a security crackdown after violent riots against government policies broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on March 14.  Among them was Jigme, a Tibetan monk who while in hiding spoke to foreign media about his two months of abuse in government custody.  Jigme was re-arrested in November at his monastery in Labrang, where he had returned after police assured his family that he would be safe.


Accusations of torture in Chinese prisons have been leveled for years against the PRC.  In early November, Chinese officials appeared before U.N. Committee Against Torture to answer questions about the country’s alleged record of prisoner abuse.  However, while flatly denying allegations of torture, members of the China delegation side-stepped the Committee’s questions about whether or not the government disappeared and abused political dissidents.  After the review, the U.N. Torture Committee released a report which recommended that China “take immediate steps to prevent acts of torture”.  The Chinese government called the committee’s findings ‘slanderous’ and ‘prejudiced’.


Religious oppression continues against the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority in China’s far northwest province of Xinjiang. After attackers killed over 20 police officers and security guards in Xinjiang during the Olympic Games, Chinese authorities implemented a security crackdown which included religious restrictions on the region’s Muslims, such as preventing mass prayers and the ciriculation of religious material.  During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in September, women were forced to unveil their faces in public, Uighur restaurants were forced to stay open during the day, and Muslims were discouraged from fasting.  Ethnic Uighur government officials were tested with offers of free lunches at work.

Later in November, in a more draconian instance of China’s population control policy (also known as the one-child policy), a Uighur woman was held at a hospital in Xinjiang to undergo an abortion against her will, six months into her third pregnancy.  After an unsuccessful escape attempt, she was later released without the abortion due to international pressure on Chinese authorities.


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