Later this month, China's human rights record comes under United Nations scrutiny as part of the U.N.’s regular review of members' rights policies. This week, Chinese authorities said they had arrested a prominent activist who has pressed the government to allow the public to contribute to the U.N. report.
Cao Shunli, a prominent human rights petitioner, has been missing since September 14, when police barred her from boarding a plane to Geneva. Cao was on her way to a human rights meeting in the Swiss city.
This week, authorities notified Cao’s fellow activists that she was formally arrested Saturday.
“She is now detained at Beijing’s Number One Detention Center, but we still don’t know what crime she is accused of,” said Zhou Li, who has been participating in sit-ins in front of China’s Foreign Ministry since mid-June together with Cao and dozens of other petitioners.
Zhou said Cao’s arrest is unwarranted because her actions always have been according to the law.
“I did not expect that this could happen to her,” said Zhou. “Cao Shunli is a very fair and moderate person, she is not drastic in her actions, and she exercises her rights in accordance with the Chinese law.”
Petitioning for human rights
Cao and other like-minded activists have been petitioning authorities to be more open about human rights abuses in China, and allow grassroots organizations to help draft the country’s policy documents on human rights.
Zhou said the group’s efforts started after the Olympic Games in 2008, when China announced it would detail the human rights situation in a document called the National Human Rights Action Plan.
“The idea was to create a group that could represent the socially vulnerable people in China, and common people could participate in the drafting of the National Human Rights Action Plan,” said Zhou.
But all attempts to submit their policy recommendations failed.
“The National Human Rights Action Plan was edited by the Foreign Ministry together with the State Council Information Office,” said Zhou. “We first went to the Foreign Ministry and they said we needed to go to the State Council Information Office. But at the State Council Information office they would say that this was a matter pertinent to the Foreign Ministry."
Since June of this year, the group has been asking the Foreign Ministry to have a say in the U.N. Universal Periodic Review, which China is presenting to fellow U.N. Members on October 22.
The U.N. expects every member to detail its human rights record every four years, and encourages the participation of civil society in drafting the review.
After Cao and her fellow activists filed for information disclosure about the review, a court in Beijing denied the request. It said that the document was related to China’s national defense and foreign affairs, and was off limits to citizens.
The ruling said that the Universal Periodic Review is a “diplomatic action” that cannot be subjected to a suit waged by citizens.
Tang Jitian, a human rights lawyer based in Beijing, said such reasoning is unacceptable. "The state’s power of diplomacy are entrusted from the people, it is the people who give the state the authority to engage in diplomacy,” said Tang.
Cracking down on dissent
Tang said monitoring of the government’s actions is especially important in China, where the government is not democratic and thus its authority stands on uncertain grounds.
In the past few months, Tang and other lawyers have been grouping themselves into a “human rights lawyer league,” to better coordinate their legal cases as well as protect themselves from the crackdown against activists that seems to have intensified in recent months.
Human Rights Watch estimated that since February, the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained at least 56 activists.
Authorities have also stepped up their efforts to control online speech by issuing harsh penalties against people who spread rumors online.
Tang said that although the government remains repressive against free speech, a lot has changed in recent years.
“Now the government is just one factor in China’s society, and I don’t think it’s even the most important factor anymore,” said Tang.
People are more aware of their rights, Tang added, and are willing to take action to protect them.