A series of new laws with a national security focus were drafted or enacted that presented grave dangers to human rights. The government launched a massive nationwide crackdown against human rights lawyers. Other activists and human rights defenders continued to be systematically subjected to harassment and intimidation. Five women’s rights activists were detained for planning to mark International Women’s Day with a campaign against sexual harassment. Authorities stepped up their controls over the internet, mass media and academia. Televised “confessions” of critics detained for investigation multiplied. Freedom of religion continued to be systematically stifled. The government continued its campaign to demolish churches and take down Christian crosses in Zhejiang province. In the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the regional government enacted new regulations to more tightly control religious affairs and ban all unauthorized religious practice. The government maintained extensive controls over Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The UN Committee against Torture regretted that previous recommendations had not been implemented.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and activists faced increased intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest, and violence.
The detention of lawyer Wang Yu and her family on 9 July marked the beginning of an unprecedented government crackdown on human rights lawyers and other activists. Over the following weeks, at least 248 lawyers and activists were questioned or detained by state security agents, and many of their offices and homes were raided. At the end of the year, 25 people remained missing or in custody, and at least 12 of them, including prominent human rights lawyers Zhou Shifeng, Sui Muqing, Li Heping and Wang Quanzhang, were held in “residential surveillance in a designated location” on suspicion of involvement in state security crimes.1 This form of detention allows the police to hold individuals suspected of such crimes for up to six months outside the formal detention system, with suspects denied access to legal counsel and families. Family members were also subject to police surveillance, harassment and restriction of their freedom of movement.
Human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was given a three-year suspended sentence on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and “inciting ethnic hatred”, primarily on the basis of comments he had made on social media. He was barred from practising law as a result of the conviction.
In April journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment by a court in the capital, Beijing, on the charge of “disclosing state secrets” for sharing an internal Communist Party document in which freedom of the press and “universal values” such as freedom, democracy and human rights came under severe attack. In November, her sentence was reduced to five years and she was released from prison on medical parole. Her release came after her family and friends claimed she did not have access to necessary medical care in detention.2
Of the more than 100 people in mainland China detained for supporting Hong Kong protests in 2014, eight had been formally arrested and remained in detention as of December. At least two had reported being tortured in detention.3
In March, five women’s rights activists – Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting and Zheng Churan – were arrested and detained on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” for planning to mark International Women’s Day by launching a campaign against sexual harassment. They were released on “bail pending trial” on 13 April after unprecedented international pressure, although they continued to suffer police interrogations, evictions and confiscation of personal items while on bail.
Many former employees and volunteers of Yirenping, a well-known anti-discrimination advocacy organization, were detained and suffered harassment and intimidation. Two former employees – Guo Bin and Yang Zhangqing – were detained on 12 June on suspicion of “illegal business activity”; they were released on bail on 11 July.4
In December, at least 33 workers and labour rights activists were targeted by police; seven were detained in Guangdong province, where labour unrest and strikes were on the rise. The detention centres did not allow access to lawyers on the grounds that the cases involved “endangering national security”.5
Legal, constitutional or institutional developments
The government enacted or drafted a series of sweeping laws and regulations under the pretext of enhancing national security. There were fears that they could be used to silence dissent and crack down on human rights defenders through expansive charges such as “inciting subversion”, “separatism” and “leaking state secrets”. There were concerns that the National Security Law, enacted on 1 July, includes a broad and vague definition of “national security” that comprises areas such as politics, culture, finance and the internet.
The draft Foreign NGO Management Law, if enacted in the form presented for public consultation in May, would severely restrict the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression.6 While the law was ostensibly designed to regulate and even protect the rights of foreign NGOs, it would give the Ministry of Public Security the responsibility to oversee the registration of foreign NGOs, as well as supervising their operations and pre-approving their activities. The wide discretion given to authorities to oversee and manage the work of NGOs raised the risk that the law could be misused to intimidate and prosecute human rights defenders and NGO workers.
The draft Cyber Security Law,7 which purports to protect internet users’ personal data from hacking and theft, would also force companies operating in China to censor content, store users’ data in China, and enforce a real-name registration system in a way that runs counter to national and international obligations to safeguard the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy. The draft law would prohibit individuals or groups from using the internet to “harm national security”, “upset social order”, or “harm national interests” – vague and imprecise terms that could be used to further restrict freedom of expression.
In December, parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism Law, which had virtually no safeguards to prevent those who peacefully practised their religion or simply criticized government policies from being persecuted on broad charges related to “terrorism” or “extremism”.
Freedom of expression – internet and journalists
In January the government announced that the internet would be the main “battlefield” in 2015 in its campaign to “fight pornography, and unlawful [information]”. The same month, the government announced it had shut down 50 websites and WeChat accounts – many related to discussion of current events, military affairs or anti-corruption platforms, and 133 accounts that were disseminating information that was “distorting history of the Communist Party and national history”. Also in January, the Minister of Education stated that foreign textbooks would be banned in order to stop the spread of “wrong Western values”, and he warned against universities being infiltrated by “hostile forces”.
In August, according to state media, 197 people were “punished” in a special campaign led by the Ministry of Public Security for allegedly spreading rumours about the stock market, the chemical explosion in the coastal city of Tianjin earlier that month, or other issues.
Later that month, Wang Xiaolu, a reporter with the financial magazine Caixin, was detained after the government claimed that an article he wrote about the stock market was “fabricated”. He was forced to make a “confession”, which was broadcast on national TV and was subsequently placed in “residential surveillance in a designated location”. Chinese media observers believed he was used as a scapegoat and as a caution to keep the press from reporting negative news about the downturn in the stock market.
In October, investigative reporter Liu Wei was detained after he exposed a corruption scandal involving government officials. Famed historian Yang Jisheng was forced to resign as editor at the liberal journal Yanhuang Chunqiu after the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television criticized the magazine for publishing dozens of articles that were “against the regulations”.
Freedom of religion and belief
The campaign to demolish churches and take down crosses in Zhejiang province that was launched in 2013 intensified throughout 2015. According to international media reports, more than 1,200 crosses had been torn down during the campaign, prompting a series of protests. In July, the Zhejiang provincial government passed a regulation restricting the size of an object attached at the top of a building to not exceed one tenth of the total size of the building, which many believed was aimed at legitimizing the removal of crosses.
Zhang Kai, a lawyer who was offering legal assistance to the affected churches, was detained on 25 August on suspicion of state security crimes and “disturbing public order” and was later placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location”.8 Numerous other pastors and “house church” leaders were also subsequently put under the same form of incommunicado detention.
Falun Gong practitioners continued to be subjected to persecution, arbitrary detention, unfair trials and torture and other ill-treatment.
Amendments to the Criminal Law, which came into effect in November, reduced the number of crimes punishable by death from 55 to 46.9 State media indicated that although the nine crimes were rarely used and would have little impact in reducing the number of executions, their deletion was in line with the government’s policy of “kill fewer, kill more cautiously”. However, the revised provisions still failed to bring the Criminal Law in line with requirements under international law and standards on the use of the death penalty. Statistics continued to be classified as state secrets.
On 24 April, Li Yan, a victim of domestic violence who had killed her husband in 2010, was given a “suspended” death sentence with a two-year reprieve which is normally converted into a life sentence at the end of that period. The Supreme People’s Court, in an unprecedented move in 2014, had overturned her initial death sentence and ordered a retrial. Evidence of the sustained domestic violence had been ignored by judges at the original trial, just as her previous calls for police protection had gone unheeded. In March, the Supreme People’s Court and government had issued new guidelines on domestic violence cases, including recommendations on sentencing for victims of domestic violence who commit crimes against their abuser. In December the parliament passed the Domestic Violence Law which for the first time required police to investigate all reports of domestic violence and set up a restraining order system to protect victims.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread in detention and during interrogation, largely because of shortcomings in domestic law, systemic problems in the criminal justice system, and difficulties with implementing rules and procedures in the face of entrenched practices. Lawyer Yu Wensheng was tortured during his detention from October 2014 to January 2015 at Daxing Detention Centre in Beijing. He was questioned for 15 to 16 hours every day while seated on a rigid restraint chair, handcuffed for long hours and deprived of sleep.10
Detainees with deteriorating health were either denied or were unable to access adequate medical treatment. These included Gao Yu and Su Changlan, the latter a prominent women’s rights activist who remained in detention throughout the year after being detained in October 2014 for supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Zhou Jinjuan, an 84-year-old victim of forced eviction who had sought redress in Beijing by visiting government offices, was detained in August and placed in an unofficial detention facility for more than a week without necessary medical treatment, which contributed to her losing sight in one eye.
On 18 June, when Wang Quanzhang, defence lawyer for several Falun Gong practitioners, was speaking in Dongchangfu District Court in Liaocheng City, Shandong Province, he was interrupted by the judge and expelled from the courtroom for “disrupting court order”. Wang Quanzhang said that court police dragged him to another room and beat him.
In December the UN Committee against Torture repeated recommendations on legal safeguards to prevent torture; and reported harassment of lawyers, human rights defenders and petitioners as well as lack of statistical information on torture. It also urged the authorities to stop sanctioning lawyers for taking action in accordance with recognized professional duties, and to repeal legal provisions that allowed de facto incommunicado detention through “residential surveillance in a designated location”.
Sexual and reproductive rights
In October, the government announced changes to the family planning policy. After many years of incremental changes, the authorities promoted this change as an end to the “one-child policy”, and as allowing one couple to have two children. Policies allowing rural households and ethnic minorities under certain circumstances to have additional children would continue. The government also announced that it would take steps to regularize the status of China’s 13 million undocumented children born in contravention of the old policy.11
Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan populated areas in other provinces
To mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in September, the Chinese government issued a white paper denouncing the “middle way” approach advocated by the Dalai Lama and the “Dalai Lama group’s separatist activities”. In a ceremony marking the anniversary, political leader Yu Zhengsheng vowed to fight against separatism and urged the army, police and judicial staff in Tibet to be ready to fight a protracted battle against the “14th Dalai clique”.
Ethnic Tibetans continued to face discrimination and restrictions on their rights to freedoms of religious belief, expression, association and peaceful assembly. Several Tibetan monks, writers, protesters and activists were detained, including Tibetan monk Choephel Dawa and Tibetan writer and blogger Druklo.12 At the end of the year the charges against them and their place of detention were not known.
Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, a Tibetan religious and community leader who was imprisoned for “inciting separatism” in 2002, died in July while serving a life sentence. Police harassed and detained family members and others who had gathered to demand the return of his body so that customary Buddhist religious rites could be performed.13 The authorities cremated his body against the family’s wishes. There were also reports that the police countered these large-scale protests with excessive and arbitrary use of force, including tear gas and gunshots.
At least seven people set themselves on fire in Tibetan-populated areas during the year in protest against repressive policies by the authorities; at least five died as a result. The number of known self-immolations since February 2009 rose to 143.
Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region
A “Strike Hard” campaign targeting “violent terrorism and religious extremism”, which had originally been a limited one-year-long campaign launched in May 2014, was extended throughout 2015. At the campaign’s one-year mark in May, the authorities claimed to have broken up 181 “terror groups”. An increasing number of violent incidents and counter-terrorism operations were reported, resulting in many casualties.
On 1 January new “Enforcement of Religious Affairs Regulations” came into effect in the region, with the professed goal of more tightly controlling online communications, and clamping down on the role of religion in “marriage, funerals, culture, the arts, and sports”. In effect, this further tightened restrictions on Uighurs, a mainly Muslim Turkic ethnic group, living in the region who have been subjected to extensive discriminatory practices for many years. The same month, the region’s capital city, Urumqi, banned the wearing of burqas.
As in previous years numerous counties posted notices on their websites stating that primary and secondary school students and Communist Party members should not be permitted to observe Ramadan.
Forced repatriations from neighbouring countries
After Chinese diplomatic pressure, in July, Thailand deported 109 Uighurs to China, where they were at risk of torture, enforced disappearance and execution.14 In November, two pro-democracy activists who had been granted refugee status by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and had confirmed resettlement destinations, were also repatriated to China. China continued to ignore non-refoulement obligations in international law by repatriating North Koreans to North Korea, where they risked detention, imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment and forced labour.
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
Police in Hong Kong formally arrested 955 people during the year who had taken part in the 79-day pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong between September and December 2014, also known as the “Umbrella Movement”. A further 48 were summoned. Among those arrested were opposition lawmakers, the three co-founders of the “Occupy Central” civil disobedience campaign, and leaders of two student groups – Alex Chow of the Federation of Students and Joshua Wong of “Scholarism”, a youth-led pro-democracy organization. A pattern of long intervals between initial arrests and the decision to prosecute meant that only a small proportion of the protesters who had been arrested were convicted by the end of 2015.
In October, Ken Tsang Kin-Chiu, a pro-democracy activist whose beating by police during the protest in 2014 was caught on camera by a local TV channel, was charged with one count of “assaulting police officers in the due execution of their duties” and four counts of “resisting a police officer in the due execution of his duty”. The seven police officers who allegedly carried out the beating were charged with “causing grievous bodily harm with intent” on the same day. In December the officers and Ken Tsang pleaded not guilty.
The Hong Kong University administration was criticized for decisions which raised concerns about academic freedom in Hong Kong. These included university sanctions, in August against law professor Benny Tai for his handling of anonymous donations related to the protests, which the administration claimed violated university procedures, and in September, the university’s governing council rejection of a nomination committee’s choice to appoint Johannes Chan Man-mun, professor of law and former Dean of the Faculty of Law, as a pro-vice-chancellor. Media, academics and students claimed these decisions were retaliation for the two academics’ support for the 2014 “Umbrella” protests.
In a landmark judgment in February, Law Wan-Tung was found guilty of intimidating, assaulting and causing bodily harm to her employees, Indonesian migrant domestic workers Erwiana Sulistyaningsih and Tutik Lestari Ningsih. She was sentenced to six years in prison.
- China: Latest information on crackdown against lawyers and activists (Press release, 28 August)
- China: Authorities show callous disregard for imprisoned journalist by denying appropriate medical care (Press release, 6 August)
- China: Release supporters of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests (Press release, 28 September)
- Further information – China: Two activists released in China (ASA 17/2097/2015)
- China: Activists held in crackdown on labour rights (ASA 17/3015/2015)
- China: Submission to the NPC Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission on the second draft Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law (ASA 17/1776/2015)
- China: Submission to the NPC Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission on the draft “Cyber Security Law” (ASA 17/2206/2015)
- China: Lawyer supporting churches in China detained (ASA 17/2370/2015)
- China: Submission to the NPC Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission on the Criminal Law Amendment (9) (Second Draft) (ASA 17/2205/2015)
- China: Submission to the UN Committee against Torture (ASA 17/2725/2015)
- China: Reform of one-child policy not enough (News story, 29 October)
- China: Fears for Tibetan monk detained in China – Choephel Dawa (ASA 17/1551/2015)
- China: Return the body of prominent Tibetan monk Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche who died in prison (ASA 17/2102/2015)
- Thailand must not send Uighurs to Chinese torture (News story, 9 July)