The United Nations waited for more than a decade for Beijing to accept an invitation for its special envoy on extreme poverty and human rights to visit China. But when Beijing finally approved the request and allowed U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston to visit this month, he was tailed by authorities and barred from meeting with academics.
Rights advocates said authorities' treatment of Alston during his visit shows a lack of sincerity on the part of authorities. China denies it restricted Alston’s activities and has accused him of lying.
Interviewees 'On vacation'
At a briefing following his nine-day visit, Alston told reporters that he submitted a list of academics he wanted to visit during his trip. When he arrived he was told that many of those people were advised that they should be on vacation.
"The Chinese government's understanding, however, is that a special rapporteur is much more like a diplomatic guest and the guest should be given comprehensive security by being followed around everywhere he goes by a security detail, that the guest should be made secure by not being permitted to meet with any private individuals without first notifying the government," Alston said.
Alston praised China’s efforts to alleviate poverty in recent years, calling them “extraordinary.” He highlighted the unique and tremendous political will that China has at its access to address the problem.
At the same time, however, he also expressed concerns about what he called “very high levels of inequality” in China between urban and rural areas. He warned that if China does not take action, it risks unrest and mass protests.
China has been cracking down hard on rights advocates and civil society groups since President Xi Jinping came to power, a move that authorities argue is aimed at stomping out supposed foreign influences.
Alston said that although the government officially has expressed support for such organizations and public participation, the reality is the opposite.
“The unfortunate trend that I have seen is that there are now a number of initiatives that have been taken which are coming together in what I term a pincer movement,” Alston said. "What we see is a dramatically shrinking space for civil society actions which would want to facilitate a discussion of government policies with a view to trying to adjust or adapt them rather than simply accepting what has been determined from the top."
Alston’s visit gave him a small taste of what some of those initiatives are like and what civil society organizations and rights advocates are feeling now in China. The fact that he was tailed and kept from visiting individuals he wanted to meet has tainted his visit, said Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International.
“If the Chinese government is genuine and sincere in arranging the visit, then they actually shouldn’t have kept him from meeting with the people that he wanted to meet,” Poon said.
China’s Communist Party membership accounts for less than 10 percent of the country’s population and yet increasingly it is expanding its control over all forms of public discussion from academics to social media.
China is in process of rolling out a new law for foreign non-governmental organizations that will put them under the authority of the public security bureau and apply a long list of strict controls to their operations.
Over the weekend, and during Alston’s visit, authorities announced another wave of controls over social organizations that will require non-governmental organizations, social groups and trade unions to have party branch offices or liaison cadres.
Poon said that such a requirement only adds to the daunting challenges civil society groups face.
“For civil society groups as a whole [the new rules] send a very clear message that only the party will have control over these organizations in the future."
At a regular briefing on Wednesday, China flatly denied that Aliston had been barred from meeting with academics and said his comments about the trip "do not accord with the facts."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that in addition to his official schedule and consultations he met privately with U.N. officials to China, diplomats, NGOs and some individuals.
“If these people are truly concerned about human rights and the social and economic development and progress of developing countries, then we hope they can objectively view the facts and carefully do some serious thinking,” Lu said. “Actually some development models they are trying to promote do not bring progress and real human rights to the majority of people in many developing countries."
The decision to allow Alston to visit was a rare step for China, but was years in the making. The original request to visit was first made in 2005, according to the United Nations Office of the Human Rights Commissioner. China has about a dozen other outstanding requests for visits by U.N. experts.