Xinjiang Torture Trial Report, Migrant Worker Documentary Deleted

Ahead of the fourth United Nations Universal Periodic Review of China’s human rights record on January 23, the Chinese government is taking pains to muster influence and control narratives on its economic development, treatment of prisoners, status of migrant workers, and more. Recent deletions of online media content related to these issues suggest a heightened awareness of the sensitivity of such topics. 

This weekend, a detailed exposé about a torture trial in Xinjiang was deleted almost as soon as it was published. Written by acclaimed investigative journalist Wang Heyan, the long-form article delved into the trial of eight police officers who were convicted of the torture and death of Sun Renze, a 30-year-old Chinese man, while in police custody. The article’s censorship attracted a fair amount of attention due to its graphic descriptions of torture methods used by Chinese police, and the fact that it appeared in Caixin, a well-respected mainstream news outlet known for its business and investigative journalism. CDT has archived the full Chinese version of the original article, as well as another deleted post defending the public’s right to know about the trial and about the police brutality that led to Sun’s death.

Gu Ting and Yitong Wu, reporting for RFA, noted that while mistreatment of suspects by Chinese police is ubiquitous, it is unusual for such cases to result in any redress in the courts. “Cases like [Sun’s, in which perpetrators are brought to justice] only happen by accident, and the ratio is less than 1 in 10,000,” U.S.-based rights attorney Chen Jiangang told them. “It’s the tip of the iceberg.”

Also targeted for deletion was a 12-minute documentary about the lives of migrant workers, which received rave reviews from viewers before it was taken offline. (A hashtag of the documentary’s title, “Three Decades of Working Like This,” was also blocked on Weibo.) The deletion led to a backlash, with many internet users pointing out that the lot of migrant workers is a legitimate subject of public interest, one that deserves to be seen and debated openly.  One commenter lamented, “So if you go out and make a film about the real lives of the underclass, apparently it has to be banned in China because it deviates from the ‘main melody,’” a term for the authorities’ preferred narrative.

Nikkei Asia’s Marrian Zhou described scenes in the documentary depicting the arduous lives of the migrant workers who built China’s first-tier cities, a gritty reality that clashes with the official rosy narrative about China’s economic growth:

The camera follows four workers trying to get a job for the day against long odds as construction jobs become scarce in a troubled real estate market. Many claim to be younger than they are to clear the age limit of 55 for construction jobs. They appear mentally and physically exhausted. 

[…] Their struggle is a far cry from the rosy economic picture painted by the Beijing leadership. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping in early 2021 declared “complete victory” in eradicating extreme poverty in China, boasting of a “miracle” that will “go down in history.”

“The video demonstrates that the economic situation is not reviving for now,” said Aidan Chau, researcher at Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, a nonprofit organization advocating for blue-collar workers. “We have documented a lot of manufacturing protests in China last year, [on top of] construction worker protests.”

[…] “The documentary reflects migrant workers’ reality, the government is worried that it would resonate among migrant workers and people would become angry,” said Li Qiang, a labor activist and director of China Labor Watch. [Source]

William Nee, Research and Advocacy Coordinator for China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), mentioned government censorship of the migrant worker documentary as one of many examples illustrating the Chinese party-state’s poor record on labor rights and economic justice:

[T]he government’s record on labor rights and the lack of a substantial social safety net for hundreds of millions of people should cast doubt on the very heart of Beijing’s narrative of creating a “human rights development path” that benefits its people. The Chinese government’s willingness to censor negative information on workers’ rights should also cast doubt on Beijing’s attempt to make “development” a prerequisite for other rights, such as freedom of expression, which enables filmmakers to depict real world problems.

The international community must be prepared not to blindly give Beijing undue credit and buy into its narrative. States must strategically make the most out [of] this opportunity to push for an end to Beijing’s human rights violations. [Source]

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