The U.S. State Department has documented human rights conditions in countries around the world with annual reports since 1976 (the year that the U.N.’s two major covenants on universal human rights were ratified by enough members to become international law). The 2016 country reports were released last Friday, March 3. In the 153-page 2016 China report, the State Department took Beijing to task for many of the same points included in last year’s report on 2015, including the increased state “repression and coercion” of civil, legal, and political rights advocates; crackdowns on ethnic minority advocacy; the government’s denial of the incarceration of political prisoners; illegal detentions/black jails; Beijing’s extrajudicial detainment of Hong Kong residents; and the systematic use of torture to draw confessions. One major difference from last year (and nearly every year since the first report was released) is in the way that the State Department unveiled the report last week.
While then Secretary of State John Kerry last April personally unveiled the reports in Washington and offered statements on general global rights trends, newly installed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to be present at the release this year. At Reuters, Yeganeh Torbati reports on the unprecedented nature of Tillerson’s absence, and how criticism of that absence has widely distracted from coverage of the reports’ content:
Tillerson declined to unveil the report in person, breaking with precedent established during both Democratic and Republican administrations. A senior U.S. official answered reporters’ questions by phone on condition of anonymity rather than appearing on camera, also a break with precedent.
“The report speaks for itself,” the official said in response to a question about why Tillerson did not unveil it. “We’re very, very proud of it. The facts should really be the story here.”
[…] Traditionally, the secretary of state unveils the report with public comments emphasizing the centrality of human rights in U.S. foreign policy and highlighting specific findings.
Tillerson’s Democratic predecessors John Kerry and Hillary Clinton gave public comments on the report in 2013 and 2009, their first years in the post, respectively, and continued to present it throughout their tenures. […] [Source]
The Washington Post’s Carol Morello has more on the unprecedented nature of the report rollout, noting that the work that went into the compilation of the new reports was done mostly by the previous U.S. administration, which has caused concern that the Trump administration is likely to place a low priority on the advancement of global human rights:
In a break with long-standing tradition only rarely breached, Tillerson’s remarks were limited to a short written introduction to the lengthy report. Nor did any senior State Department official make on-camera comments that are typically watched around the world, including by officials in authoritarian countries where abuses are singled out in the report.
[…] Tillerson drew fire from some members of Congress and advocates who said his decision not to personally unveil the report suggested the Trump administration places a low priority on advancing human rights.
[…] The report itself — a year’s work by embassy employees around the world and distilled by almost 100 editors — differs little from last year’s. Given that the Trump administration has been in office for only six weeks, it largely reflects work produced during the Obama administration. […] [Source]
Following Donald Trump’s electoral victory last November, many experts commented on the potential that Trump’s election could have on chilling rights progress in China. Following the unveiling of the report, Human Rights Watch’s Washington Director Sarah Morgan commented:
Secretary Tillerson’s absence from the State Department’s annual human rights report release reinforces the message to governments, rights activists and at-risk minorities that the State Department might also be silent on repression, abuse, and exploitation. [Source]
Tillerson and his absence has indeed attracted the vast majority of coverage of the State Department reports, and direct coverage of the China report is minimal. The South China Morning Post’s Stuart Lau did cover the China report’s criticism of Beijing’s “encroaching” on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Hong Kong and Macau are included in the China report.
“The most important human rights problem reported was the central government’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the State Department report said. “The National People’s Congress Standing Committee on November 7 issued an unnecessary and unsolicited interpretation of the Basic Law that pre-empted the ability of Hong Kong’s independent judiciary to rule on the matter.
“It marked the first time it had issued such an interpretation while a Hong Kong judge was deliberating the case in question and the second time it had done so in the absence of a request from Hong Kong authorities,” it stated.
[…] The report added that Hongkongers remained “concerned by the breach of Hong Kong’s autonomy” when five publishers of books critical of the Communist Party leadership disappeared in late 2015, with their cases still lacking transparency.
Other human rights problems, it said, included trafficking in persons, and societal prejudice against certain ethnic minorities and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community. […] [Source]
As can be expected following the release of State Department global human rights reports, China’s Foreign Ministry quickly rejected the China report. From the ministry’s March 6 press conference, where questions on the entire report and it’s focus on Hong Kong were asked to spokesperson Geng Shuang:
Q: The US State Department released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 on March 3, criticizing once again China’s human rights condition in the China-related part. What is your comment on that?
A: The China-related part in the US report is unfounded and full of bias. We are firmly opposed to that and have lodged solemn representations with the US side.
The Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting and promoting human rights, and has scored tremendous achievements in this since the founding of new China. That is a fact that cannot be denied by anyone without political prejudice.
We always maintain that countries should conduct dialogue and exchanges on human rights on the basis of equality and mutual respect for the purpose of mutual learning and joint progress. We urge the US to be objective and unbiased about China’s human rights condition and stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs using human rights as an excuse.
Follow-up: The human rights report also singled Hong Kong and Macao out for criticism. We have noted the response by the SAR governments of Hong Kong and Macao which expressed opposition to foreign government’s interference in their internal affairs. What is your comment on that?
A: Since the return of Hong Kong and Macao, the principle of “one country, two systems” and the basic laws have been implemented, giving the residents of Hong Kong and Macao full access to rights and freedoms in accordance with the law. This is the undeniable fact that is well-recognized by people without prejudice. It is totally wrong for the US report to make groundless accusation against SAR affairs. The Chinese side is strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to that. I want to stress once again that both Hong Kong and Macao are China’s SARs whose affairs belong to China’s domestic affairs, and that the US has no right to interfere. [Source]
As has similarly become an expected follow-up to U.S. government rights reports on rights issues in China, Xinhua echoed Geng’s rejection of the U.S. criticism.
Stay tuned for China’s official defense, and Beijing’s inevitable criticism of the rights situation in the U.S. For years, China has responded to both State Department rights reports and annual reports from the Congressional-Executive Commission on China with a white paper outlining its progress on human rights protections, and another document criticizing the U.S. for its own abuses of human rights.