Human Rights Watch Says 2020 Worst Year For Chinese Rights Movement Since 1989

In its 31st annual global report, Human Rights Watch wrote of China, “This has been the darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.” The Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s 2020 annual report drew a similar conclusion, noting “unprecedented steps” by Chinese authorities to restrict human rights. The reports covered developments in fields from disability rights to freedom of religion in Tibet. In the interest of brevity, CDT has chosen four themes to focus on: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, freedom of expression, and women’s rights.

2020 was bookended by the release of the Karakax List in February and the Aksu List in December. The lists were leaked databases of the names and purported crimes of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic minorities swept into the vast system of labor and re-education camps across Xinjiang. The Karakax and Aksu Lists documented how innocuous actions, such as calling a sister abroad or having four children when the family planning bureau only allows three, are used as pretexts to drag Uyghur families into indefinite detention. Reports from the region further detailed how private technology companies, both American and Chinese, worked in concert with the Chinese state to build a breathtakingly penetrative surveillance regime in the region. Further reports exposed how some of those not imprisoned in the camps were, at times, drafted into forced labor in cotton fields or collective factories as part of Xi Jinping’s anti-poverty drive.

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) annual report detailed how the Uyghur diaspora has difficulty connecting to family still inside the country:

While the Chinese government appears to have shut down some political education camps and “released” detainees following global outrage, an untold number of Turkic Muslims remain in detention and imprisoned solely on the basis of their identities. A significant number of Uyghur diaspora continue to have no information concerning the whereabouts of their family members, more than five years after the launch of the government’s “Strike Hard” campaign.

Some “released” Uyghur detainees are forced to work in factories and fields inside and outside Xinjiang under what the authorities describe as “poverty alleviation” efforts. In February, an Australian think tank revealed a list of 82 global brands that sourced from factories in China that used workers from Xinjiang under conditions that “strongly suggest” forced labor. [Source]

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s (CECC) annual report focused on evidence of forcible sterilization—which may constitute genocide—in Xinjiang:

Disturbing new evidence has also emerged of a systematic and widespread policy of forced sterilization and birth suppression of the Uyghur and other minority populations. Further, an official XUAR policy document from 2017 stated that nearly half a million middle and elementary school-age children in the XUAR were attending boarding schools, many of whom were involuntarily separated from their families. These trends suggest that the Chinese government is intentionally working to destroy Uyghur and other minority families, culture, and religious adherence, all of which should be considered when determining whether the Chinese government is responsible for perpetrating atrocity crimes—including genocide—against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic and predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China. [Source]

In Hong Kong, repression took on a different nature. In early January, Beijing appointed Luo Huining as the head of Hong Kong’s China liaison office, an early warning sign that the central government was going to crack down on the city. The PRC’s crackdown came in the form of a national security law, passed in June by the National People’s Congress in Beijing before Hong Kong lawmakers had the chance to read the bill (Chief Executive Carrie Lam herself admitted she had not read the law’s full text before its passage). Just days later, police arrested 400 people, charging 10 with violating the new law. In August, pro-democracy Apple Daily was raided by police and Jimmy Lai, its billionaire owner, was arrested as members of the media, civil society, academia, and other groups expressed fears about their future. By September, the situation became so dire that 12 activists attempted to flee Hong Kong by boat but were captured at sea by the Chinese coast guard and held in a mainland detention facility. In December, CDT Editor John Chan described the daily arrest announcements of pro-democracy figures under the national security law as an “Advent calendar of repression.”

HRW’s report detailed the effects of the June 30 passage of the National Security Law:

On June 30, the Chinese government bypassed LegCo and imposed a new National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong. The law creates specialized secret security agencies, denies people fair trial rights, provides sweeping new powers to the police, increases restraints on civil society and the media, and weakens judicial oversight. Shortly before the law’s enactment, a number of pro-democracy groups, including Demosisto, disbanded.

Hong Kong’s education chief banned the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” from schools. Public libraries pulled books by pro-democracy figures. Authorities deemed illegal the 2019 protest slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.” [Source]

The CECC’s report highlighted how the Hong Kong government harshly punished violent behavior by protestors but turned a blind eye to police abuses:

The Hong Kong government exhibited a pattern of selective enforcement when it prosecuted protesters and democracy advocates with diligence but did not match the same level of commitment when addressing misconduct by police and people hostile to protesters. For example, during the July 21, 2019, incident in which a mob carried out an indiscriminate attack at a subway station in Yuen Long, police arrived at the scene 45 minutes later despite numerous emergency calls and made no arrests that day. In contrast, police arrested many prominent democracy advocates for unauthorized assembly although they had not engaged in any violent acts. [Source]

China’s already narrow space for free speech tightened further in 2020. The year began with a round-up of lawyers and activists and dissidents. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic further tightened restrictions. In March, Ren Zhiqiang, a party member and real estate tycoon-turned-internet commentator nicknamed “Big Cannon” for his freewheeling takes, was arrested after writing an essay in which he criticized Xi Jinping’s handling of the virus, calling him “a clown who stripped naked.” Citizen journalists who reported from the ground in Wuhan during its outbreak were slowly rounded up and placed in jail. Even those who were not activists but rather offered activists succor found themselves targeted by the new crackdown; Geng Xiaonan, who described herself as a “a stable hand taking care of the horses of the heroic figures who fight for justice,” and her husband were arrested for supporting outspoken lawyer Xu Zhangrun. People of backgrounds as disparate as Du Bin, a journalist, and Sun Dawu, a billionaire entrepreneur, were arrested for “picking quarrels” after publicly airing criticism of the regime.

HRW’s report detailed how restricted online speech mirrored that of restrictions in daily life:

Authorities detained and prosecuted numerous netizens for online posts and private chat messages critical of the government, charging them with crimes such as “spreading rumors,” “picking quarrels,” and “insulting the country’s leaders.” The government continued to crack down on Chinese users of Twitter, which is already blocked in China. It was revealed in January that a mainland student at the University of Minnesota was sentenced to six months in prison in November 2019 for tweets critical of President Xi he posted when he was in the US. [Source]

The CECC’s report drew attention to the mass expulsion of foreign news media that greatly depleted Beijing’s foreign press corps:

The Chinese government expelled or failed to renew the work visas for nearly 19 foreign journalists this past year. The expulsions from China of U.S. journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal reportedly were in retaliation for the U.S. Government requirement that five state- and Party-run media outlets working in the United States register as foreign missions. As part of the same retaliatory action, Chinese authorities also forced many Chinese nationals working at the China offices of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Voice of America to resign. [Source]

In early January, #MeToo activist Huang Xueqin was released from detention in Guangzhou after her 2019 arrest for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Her release was a rare bright spot as much of the rest of the year was dominated by reports of shocking gender violence. The systematic rape of a young teenager over a four year period by a powerful executive and the grisly murder of Tibetan live-streamer Lhamo at the hands of her husband were two infamous incidents. Pop star Tan Weiwei wrote an album about the year of violence. CDT translated her single, “Xiao Juan (Pseudonym)” that memorialized the nameless victims of gender-based violence, while drawing attention to the use of the woman radical (女) in many derogatory terms. Activist Xianzi stood up to sexual harassment by taking her harasser to court. Her case, widely documented on both Chinese social media and in the foreign press, became representative of China’s #MeToo movement as a whole. Her case is currently still in court.

The CECC’s report documented the resilience of China’s grassroots feminist movement:

A grassroots feminist movement has persisted in Chinese political and cultural life in recent years despite government restrictions and censorship. Feminist activists continued working on issues including employment discrimination, gender-based violence, and the rights of single women to access services and benefits related to pregnancy and birth—as well as to acquire legal documentation for their children—for which current policies require proof of marriage. Young Chinese people outside China have also played an increasingly important role in feminist activism in China as the government intensifies restrictions within China’s borders. The inclusion of anti-sexual harassment provisions in the Civil Code in May 2020 was a sign that women’s rights advocacy is having an impact even as it has been severely suppressed. During the COVID–19 outbreak, grassroots volunteers and civil society organizations brought attention to gaps in support for women during the epidemic and marshaled donations, services, and volunteers to address needs overlooked in the official response. [Source]

A stipulation in the new civil code mandates a “cooling off” period in divorce proceedings, which many fear disproportionately endangers women, especially those in abusive relationships. HRW’s report addressed related issues:

According to women’s rights activists, domestic violence cases surged in cities and towns under coronavirus lockdowns.

In June, the National People’s Congress, China’s rubberstamp parliament, introduced a civil code that, for the first time, defines sexual harassment and states that perpetrators can be held liable, though it is vague on what recourse is avail- able to victims. The law also makes it harder to divorce by establishing a mandatory “cooling-off period” of 30 days for couples who apply for divorce- through-agreement. This provision will disproportionately harm women, as three-quarters of divorces are initiated by women, including potentially endangering women experiencing domestic violence. [Source]



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