HRW Report: China an Increasing “Global Threat to Human Rights”

Human Rights Watch has released their 30th annual “World Report” review of human rights by country. In the introduction to this year’s report, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote on the global threat to human rights that China’s government poses, warning that if left unchallenged, “Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression.” (HRW examined China’s efforts toward that end in a 2017 report on its interference in U.N. rights mechanisms.) From Roth’s introductory essay:

China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat. Its reaction could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide.

[…] Yet even against this disturbing backdrop [of deteriorating rights situations worldwide], the Chinese government stands out for the reach and influence of its anti-rights efforts. The result for the human rights cause is a “perfect storm”—a powerful centralized state, a coterie of like-minded rulers, a void of leadership among countries that might have stood for human rights, and a disappointing collection of democracies willing to sell the rope that is strangling the system of rights that they purport to uphold.

[…] The motivation for Beijing’s attack on rights stems from the fragility of rule by repression rather than popular consent. Despite decades of impressive economic growth in China, driven by hundreds of millions of people finally emancipated to lift themselves out of poverty, the Chinese Communist Party is running scared of its own people.

Outwardly confident about its success in representing people across the country, the Chinese Communist Party is worried about the consequences of unfettered popular debate and political organization, and thus afraid to subject itself to popular scrutiny.

[…] Many autocrats look with envy at China’s seductive mix of successful economic development, rapid modernization, and a seemingly firm grip on political power. Far from being spurned as a global pariah, the Chinese government is courted the world over, its unelected president receiving red-carpet treatment wherever he goes, and the country hosting prestigious events, such as the 2022 Winter Olympics. The aim is to portray China as open, welcoming, and powerful, even as it descends into ever more ruthless autocratic rule. […] [Source]

Roth was this week barred from entering Hong Kong where he had planned a press conference to launch the annual report, an incident that he wrote “vividly illustrates the problem” that the China section of the report focuses on. Amid ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Beijing has blamed foreign “hostile forces” for fueling unrest, and last month announced undefined “sanctions” on several U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (including HRW) who it said played an “egregious role” in stoking the Hong Kong protests.

More from Human Rights Watch’s press release on the report:

Many people across China, like everywhere else, want the right to live freely and with dignity, Roth said. But President Xi Jinping’s government is overseeing the most brutal and pervasive oppression that China has seen for decades.

Authorities have shut down civic groups, silenced independent journalism, and severely curtailed online conversation. They are seriously encroaching on Hong Kong’s limited freedoms under “one country, two systems.” And in Xinjiang, authorities have built a nightmarish surveillance system to control millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, arbitrarily detaining 1 million people for forced political indoctrination.

Beijing has made technology central to its repression, Roth said, using mass intrusions on people’s privacy through such tools as forced collection of DNA samples, and then deploying big data analysis and artificial intelligence to refine its means of control. The goal is to engineer a society that is free of dissent.

To avoid global backlash for its crushing repression at home, the Chinese government has significantly increased efforts to undermine the international institutions designed to protect human rights. China intimidates other governments – for example, repeatedly threatening other member states at the United Nations to protect its image and deflect discussion of its abuses. [Source]

The China and Tibet chapter of the report includes a 2019 timeline of events marking rights violations, including the ongoing assault on the Uyghur ethnicity in Xinjiang, authorities restricting freedoms in Hong Kong amid the seven-month-running pro-democracy movement, continued restrictions in Tibetan regions, the furthering of a crackdown on civil society activism, and the rising government development and use of mass surveillance technology.

Reporting on the HRW annual global review, The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy outlines the tactics that Beijing is using to punish and dissuade international criticism:

China wields its international influence at the United Nations, the report said, and has sought to block human rights measures elsewhere out of fear that those tools could be used to examine its own record.

It has also used access to the Chinese market to punish businesses such as the National Basketball Association, the report noted. After the Houston Rockets general manager expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, the N.B.A.’s China business partners suspended ties with the league.

And Cathay Pacific Airways, the Hong Kong-based carrier, fired employees who supported the protests after the Chinese government threatened to restrict access to its airspace.

The report also warned of the risk to free expression at universities that take in a growing number of students from China. While some pro-Beijing students have tried to shut down discussion on issues such as Hong Kong, other students from China who are interested in such topics find themselves at risk of retaliation at home, it said. [Source]

Coverage of the report from CNN summarizes the China-focused portions of the report, noting Chinese denials of its allegations at the UN, and statements from HRW on the exacerbated threat of China at a time when some countries that have long signaled commitments to human rights are increasingly unwilling to do so. Amy Woodyatt reports:

During a presentation of the report at the United Nations on Tuesday, Chinese diplomat Xing Jisheng denied the allegations contained in it and accused HRW of fabrication.

“The report is full of prejudices and fabrications and ignores the factual information provided by my government. We totally reject the content of this report,” Xing said. “We have been making every effort to advance human rights in China.”

At the UN General Assembly in late October, 23 mostly Western countries came forward to make a strong, official statement criticizing Beijing’s Xinjiang detention centers. In response, Belarus issued a statement claiming 54 countries were in support of the Xinjiang system. Not all signatories were revealed, but a similar statement in July included several Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran.

“An inhospitable terrain for human rights is aiding the Chinese government’s attack,” the organization said in a statement. “A growing number of governments that previously could be relied on at least some of the time to promote human rights in their foreign policy now have leaders, such as United States President Donald Trump, who are unwilling to do so.” [Source]

Also this week, Freedom House released the report “Beijing’s Global Megaphone: The Expansion of Chinese Communist Party Media since 2017,” an examination of the time-tested and new efforts that Beijing is using to influence global news content in its favor. From Freedom House’s press release on the report:

Beijing’s Global Megaphone provides a comprehensive guide to the evolving ways in which CCP media influence extends beyond mainland China—in the form of censorship, propaganda, and control over content-delivery systems. The report presents evidence of the impact this influence is having around the globe, as well as an analysis of the growing pushback it is encountering from governments, media, technology firms, and civil society.

[…] “Chinese state media, government officials, and affiliated companies are achieving increased influence over key nodes in the global information flow, exploiting the more sophisticated technological environment, and showing a readiness to meddle in the internal political debates and electoral contests of other countries,” said [report author and senior China researcher Sarah] Cook. “Governments, journalists, technology companies, and civic activists are responding with initiatives to counter these efforts and protect the free flow of information, and they have scored some victories. Nevertheless, the fact remains that an economically powerful authoritarian state is rapidly expanding its influence over media production and dissemination channels around the world. This has serious implications for the survival of open, democratic societies.” [Source]

Last month the Committee to Protect Journalists named China the world’s leading jailor of journalists, with 48 in prison as of December 1 2019, and the organization released a special report on how China undermines free information in Hong Kong and China (via CDT).


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