News / Asia

China Human Rights Reviewed Amid Crackdown

Wu Hailong, special envoy of China's Foreign Ministry (L), addresses the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review session at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Oct. 22, 2013.
Wu Hailong, special envoy of China's Foreign Ministry (L), addresses the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review session at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Oct. 22, 2013.
William Ide
— A top United Nations body is reviewing China’s human rights record Tuesday for the first time since Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped into office. When Xi became president earlier this year, there were expectations that he would bring more openness and reform, but a crackdown on activists and lawyers in China is dashing those hopes.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying says China is looking forward to a candid discussion of the country’s human rights record, as long as the criticism is constructive.

Hua says that in Geneva, China will tell the truth about its efforts and progress in human rights and that Beijing looks forward to constructive criticism. She says China will kindly accept constructive criticism and work to improve human rights, but it will not accept prejudicial or maligned criticisms.

"In Geneva, China will give the truth of our efforts and progress in human rights, and we look forward to constructive criticism. We will kindly accept the constructive criticisms and work towards a better state for Chinese human rights. But we do not welcome the prejudicial or 'maligned criticisms,” she said.

This periodic review is the second for China and this one comes just months after the country completed a once-in-decade leadership reshuffle.

When Xi Jinping stepped into office in March there was hope he would be more moderate and open-minded, like his father, a former party leader. However, the government has been sending the public conflicting signals, says rights lawyer Mo Shaoping.

Mo says that while the Chinese president previously pledged to faithfully implement China’s Constitution and the rule of law, there have been worrying trends.

For example, Mo says universities established seven topics that were off limits for teaching, such as civil rights, independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, errors of the party and others. He adds that Chinese mainstream media also criticized constitutionalism, saying it was a product of capitalist societies.

“For example, the fact that universities established the seven subject off limits to teaching, you cannot teach civil rights, independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, errors of the party, etc. And also you have mainstream media criticizing constitutionalism, saying that it is a product of capitalist societies,” he said.

Jiang Tianyong, a rights lawyer says that now, the government is using even more repressive measures to handle civil society.

Jiang says that as a lawyer, what is going on is very clear. He says it is not like in the past, where you got harassed or followed. Now, it is more frequent to be beaten or put in jail.

“As a lawyer I can see this clearly. It is not like in the past, where you got harassed or followed. Now it is more frequent to be beaten or put in jail, this is very evident,” he said.

It is not just rights lawyers who are feeling pressured.

The government has also launched an aggressive campaign online. Individuals can now be thrown in jail for libelous comments that have been viewed more than 5,000 times re-posted more than 500 times.

The government says the movement is to stamp out rumors and the destabilizing impact they can have on society, but critics see it as an effort to silence dissent. Individuals calling for more public participation in China’s rights review process have also found themselves caught in the government’s cross-hairs.

Late last month, prominent activist Cao Shunli went missing as she was on her way to Geneva to attend a human rights training course. Cao and others have been pressing the government to allow more public involvement in the U.N. review.

And contrary to Chinese law, Cao’s friends say authorities have yet to notify her family of her charges or where she is being held.

Jiang says that ultimately the crackdown and silencing of dissent is about power.

Jiang says this all is related to the fact that the Communist Party is not ready to share power with the people. It still wants to monopolize power. He says the party is very scared that once people become awakened, they will start to demand that they enjoy the rights that people around the world enjoy.

“I think this has to do with the fact that the Communist Party is not ready to share power with the people, it still wants to monopolize power. Therefore it is very scared by the awareness of citizens, because after people are awakened they start to demand to be able to enjoy the rights that people around the world enjoy,” he said.

In addition to Cao, individuals such as Xu Zhiyong and others who are part of an advocacy campaign called the New Citizens Movement have been held and criminally charged in recent months.

Authorities have accused members of the group of gathering crowds and trying to disrupt public order. Rights advocates, however, say they are being targeted because of their efforts to rally public support behind a policy demanding that officials disclose their assets to the public.

Before  Xi officially took power in March, the assets disclosure policy was one that was winning growing support in China, even among Communist Party officials. In the southern city of Guangzhou, officials had pledged to participate in the disclosure of their assets.

Now, a little more than half a year later, some scholars do not even want to talk about the subject for fear of reprisal.

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