Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Section IX: Human Rights in Countries of Concern - China


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Sustained rapid economic growth over the last three decades means that China has made great progress in improving the economic and social freedoms of its citizens. Personal freedoms, such as the freedom of individuals to choose where they work and live, have grown, and despite pervasive censorship, technology has rapidly expanded the space for public debate. But in recent years China’s progress on civil and political rights has stalled. In 2011, following the events of the Arab Spring early in the year, the Chinese government responded harshly to online calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. Public order and security bodies detained and harassed lawyers, bloggers, human rights campaigners and other activists, without allowing them recourse to their legal rights. These events have highlighted that there remain inadequate protections in place in China to guarantee access to justice, or to ensure the transparent and consistent application of the rule of law. China made some incremental improvements to areas of its criminal justice system in 2011, as well as to regulations governing labour disputes and its management of civil society organisations. These positive steps could be taken to indicate that, within parts of the Chinese system, there is a genuine interest in the benefits of reform.

The FCO’s approach to human rights in China is one of constructive long-term engagement, with the aim of supporting the process of modernisation and internal reform. Our objective is to improve the human rights situation by encouraging China to lift the barriers that still remain to its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which it signed in 1998), focusing particularly on the abolition of the death penalty, criminal justice reform, freedom of expression, and the development of civil society.

In 2011, our approach remained unchanged and was delivered through three main pillars: high-level lobbying and engagement, the bilateral human rights dialogue, and financial support to projects in-country. We consistently raised human rights concerns directly with the Chinese leadership, both publicly and in private.

In January, the 19th round of the UK–China human rights dialogue was held in London and Cardiff. The UK took a constructive but robust approach and a wide range of sensitive issues were discussed, including the rights of detainees, migrant rights, capital punishment, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, China’s plans for ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, and a number of individual cases. There were detailed discussions on the role of police in criminal trials and the use of minority languages in education, with respected experts facilitating full and frank exchanges. The dialogue remains our main bilateral channel for raising the full range of our concerns at senior levels, and is a vital part of our long-term strategy for encouraging incremental progress on key human rights reforms. It supports the other pillars of our engagement, providing opportunities for follow-up project work, informing our high-level lobbying and helping to strengthen our working relationships with relevant ministries. Throughout the year we continued to run a portfolio of projects, worth around £2 million in the period 2008–12, which enabled us to work directly with Chinese officials, academics and civil society to address issues including death-penalty sentencing, torture prevention, prison reform and media freedom. We have used traditional and social media platforms in China to highlight the issues on which we work, ensuring that we reach the widest possible audience.

In 2012, we will continue to engage constructively and to speak out when we disagree, both in private and in public. We will continue to fund project work on the ground.

According to its constitution, China is a multi-party socialist state under the guidance of the Communist Party of China (CPC). China’s top leaders have consistently rejected the prospect of a separation of powers, and China operates essentially as a single party state. The party controls the entire political system, including the army. Direct elections, launched in 1988, take place only for village councils and local People’s Congresses. Electoral lists are dominated by party members.

The latest round of direct elections throughout the country took place in the course of 2011, the beginning of a process which will lead to the appointment of a new National People’s Congress in 2013. For elections in Beijing, held on 8 November, 9 million city residents were eligible to vote and the Chinese government reported an average turnout of around 95%. No independent monitoring of the elections occurred, and we have received reports which indicate that significant numbers of independent candidates were prevented from standing.

Freedom of expression and assembly
The spread of technology accelerated in 2011, enabling unprecedented public discussion of political issues and much greater scope for public expression of grievances. However, the party has imposed limits through coercion and censorship, so that, despite being guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, freedom of expression continues to be severely restricted in practice. Journalists, bloggers, intellectuals and others have been harassed, threatened or imprisoned for exercising their right to free speech. This harassment was heightened in the period immediately following the Arab Spring. Online calls for “Jasmine” protests in China were censored by the Chinese government and a number of bloggers and journalists were detained. Many high-profile activists, including Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, continue to serve prison sentences for speaking out on issues of political freedom and human rights. International social networking websites, including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, continued to be blocked. Foreign news and human rights NGO websites are regularly blocked. In February, there were accounts of foreign journalists being detained without explanation, and being physically intimidated or assaulted in Beijing.

The UK Government raised its concerns on freedom of expression regularly in 2011. At the UK–China summit in June, in his joint press conference with Premier Wen, the British Prime Minister made clear his belief that freedom of expression is an essential underpinning of prosperity and stability. We raised the treatment of foreign media in conjunction with EU partners and bilaterally through senior officials in London and Beijing.

Restrictions remain on freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to strike, both in law and in practice. Political protests are quickly suppressed. On 30 November, the Chinese government unveiled the new Regulations on Consultation and Mediation for Labour Disputes in Enterprises, which entered into force on 1 January 2012. The regulations are a positive step, which should go some way to improving the resolution of labour disputes.

Human rights defenders
The Chinese authorities increased their use of unlawful and arbitrary measures to target activists during the first six months of 2011. These measures included the use of detention at locations away from police stations and suspects’ homes, increased instances of mistreatment while in detention, and an extension of harassment to the families of suspects. Human rights organisations reported that over 200 individuals were subjected to such measures. While precise statistics remain a secret, human rights research groups have indicated that convictions under the poorly defined “endangering state security” legislation remain at historic highs.

On 3 April, artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei was arrested and held for 81 days at an unknown location. On 4 April, the Foreign Secretary released a public statement calling on the Chinese government to clarify Ai Weiwei’s situation and well-being, and expressing the hope that he would be released immediately. Ai was released on 22 June, and has subsequently been charged with “tax avoidance”.
Lawyers have been particularly targeted. On 10 January, the Associated Press published an account by lawyer Gao Zhisheng, detailing his claims of torture suffered while in detention. On 22 December, China announced that Gao, who has not been seen since April 2010, was having his probation withdrawn and that he would have to serve three years in prison. Minister of State Jeremy Browne released a public statement on 21 December expressing concern at Gao’s mistreatment and the nature of his detention, and urged the Chinese authorities to provide information regarding his well-being and location as a matter of urgency.

Human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng remains under de facto house arrest more than a year after his release from prison. Visitors, including diplomats and foreign journalists, have been forcibly prevented from entering his village. Lawyers Teng Biao, Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong were all subjected to periods of enforced disappearance. Lawyer Ni Yulan, arrested on 7 April along with her husband, was tried in Beijing on 29 December despite serious health concerns. UK diplomats were denied permission to attend her trial. No verdict has been announced and Ni remains in detention.

Many other activists have been detained without charge during this reporting period. Sakharov Prize Winner Hu Jia, and activist Mao Hengfeng, were both placed under house arrest after finishing their respective prison sentences, and remain subject to surveillance and harassment. The wife of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, is under house arrest, even though no charges have been brought against her. The ethnic Mongolian activist Hada was scheduled to finish his prison sentence on 10 December 2010, but has reportedly been transferred to another detention facility instead of being released.

Ministers, including the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, have all raised their concerns regarding specific individuals during discussions with their Chinese counterparts.

Access to justice and the rule of law
On 30 August, the National People’s Congress published a draft amendment to China’s Criminal Procedure Law, the first substantial revision for 15 years. The draft contains a number of welcome steps in areas such as the exclusion of illegal evidence, access for defence lawyers – including at the final review stage of death sentences by the Supreme People’s Court – and an expansion of provisions for legal aid. The draft encourages the participation of witnesses, currently rarely present in Chinese trials, by setting up a witness-protection scheme, a witness economic compensation scheme and a punishment scheme for those who refuse to present.

However, the draft amendment contains some significant retrograde steps, particularly in cases pertaining to charges of “endangering state security”, terrorism and major corruption cases. In these cases lawyers will need permission to meet their clients, with no appeal if permission is refused. The draft amendment to rules on residential surveillance would allow police to hold suspects in a designated location outside their home for up to six months without, in certain situations, their family being informed of their location or the charges against them. This increases the risk of torture and mistreatment. There are concerns that these measures would legitimise enforced disappearances.

In 2011, China continued to make widespread use of the form of arbitrary detention known as “re-education through labour” (RTL), which lacks adequate legal safeguards. Public security organs can order the administrative detention of an individual without trial under an RTL order for up to three years, with the possibility of up to a year’s extension. Although RTL is meant to be used to punish minor offences, it continues to be used to silence activists, petitioners, Falun Gong practitioners and human rights defenders such as Mao Hengfeng and Shi Enhao. There were reports of the use of torture and abuse against detainees in RTL facilities.

The UK welcomes the work undertaken by the Chinese government in 2011 to improve the systems for collection and use of evidence, with particular reference to improvements in the use of scientific evidence and technological methods for gathering evidence. Nationwide, 250 laboratories have been established for the analysis of DNA evidence, and 40,000 technical personnel have been trained. At the county level, police now have access to an online database of fingerprints, and a system has been established for finger printing suspects on arrest. Work took place to install audio-visual recording equipment in interrogation suites in most cities to improve supervision of evidence collection. By improving the ability of police forces to collect evidence scientifically, this should reduce dependence on confessions to secure a conviction, and reduce the risk of prisoners to mistreatment or torture at the hands of the police to obtain one.

A delegation of UK Supreme Court judges visited China and Hong Kong at the end of September, following invitations from the President of the Supreme People’s Court of China and the Chief Justice of Hong Kong. Their visits to courts and law schools included discussion on the rule of law in China, judicial independence, and the role of courts in enforcing the regulation of international business. We will continue to support exchanges of this nature with a view to sharing UK experience and best practice in the area of the rule of law.

Death penalty
While exact numbers are a state secret, in 2011 China almost certainly continued to execute the highest number of people in the world. Estimates for the number of people executed in the last year range from several hundred to over 5,000.

The UK welcomed the decision by the Chinese government, announced in February, to revise the Chinese criminal law to reduce the scope of the death penalty. These measures will end its use for 13 non-violent offences, leaving 55 capital crimes in place. This is a positive step and we hope that China will continue to limit the scope and application of the death penalty.

In 2011, we funded a number of projects on the death penalty in China. These sought to build partnerships with relevant Chinese judicial bodies and universities, and brought European experts to China to share views and undertake technical legal exchanges (see Section III). On 10 October, our Embassy in Beijing hosted a series of events in collaboration with the French Embassy to mark World Day Against the Death Penalty, including film screenings and a seminar with Chinese academics.

Some detainees in China continued to face a high risk of torture and other ill-treatment. In particular, there were regular reports that human rights lawyers, bloggers, journalists and activists were subjected to torture. The transfer to, and holding of prisoners at, unspecified locations outside official detention facilities remains a particular concern in this context as we have received reports that this is where instances of torture often occur.

The draft amendment to China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), described above, contains some provisions which, properly enforced, could help to prevent torture. It codifies the Rules on the Preclusion of Illegal Evidence introduced in 2010. It requests that police should transfer suspects to pre-trial detention centres within 24 hours and that follow-on police interviews should be carried out there. There is increased provision for the recording of interviews in the most serious cases. It reinforces the message that police officers should be called as witnesses in court when there is an allegation of torture of suspects or defendants.

Recognising the excessive use of pre-trial detention (over 90% of suspects are currently held in custody), the draft CPL revision proposes to limit the use of pre-trial detention and expand the use of bail and residential surveillance, although specific changes on residential surveillance for cases involving “endangering state security” and terrorism charges, as described above, risk having the opposite effect and increasing the possibility of torture for detainees.

In 2011, we supported a number of projects aiming to help prevent torture and mistreatment of detainees. These have assisted Chinese officials conducting pilot independent monitoring of pre-trial detention facilities, carrying out prison reform, improving the treatment of those with mental health conditions in the criminal justice system, and supporting the exclusion of illegally obtained evidence in criminal trials.

Freedom of religion or belief
The number of people practising religious beliefs is growing rapidly both within officially sanctioned religious organisations and in informal “house church” movements. There are five official religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism) governed by their own state-sanctioned bodies. Churches, mosques, monasteries and temples must be officially registered. These official religions do not have capacity to serve the demands of the religious population (for example, in Beijing there are only about twenty registered buildings serving 150,000 registered Christians). This has led to a large growth in unofficial “house churches”. Those who practise outside the official boundaries often face serious restrictions or harassment.

On 10 April, Chinese police and security forces detained around 170 members of the Shouwang Protestant Church as they arrived for worship, and detained another 50 on 17 April. Minister of State Jeremy Browne wrote to the Chinese Ambassador in London regarding the Shouwang arrests on 3 May. Officials raised our concerns with the Chinese Embassy in London and the Chinese authorities in Beijing. Meanwhile, in June Pastor Shi Enhao, deputy chairman of the Chinese House Church Alliance, was sentenced to two years re-education through labour for “holding illegal meetings and organising illegal venues for religious meetings”. Pastor Shi, who oversees several hundred house churches with thousands of members, disappeared on 12 June before police confirmed his detention on 21 June.

Women’s rights
There have been reports of the continued use of forced abortions and sterilisations in China. In his 2011 Work Report to the Nation, Premier Wen announced that China would progressively improve the basic state policy on family planning and promote balanced population growth. We believe this was the first time that senior Chinese leaders had publicly announced plans to improve family planning policy. Although sex-selective abortion is illegal in China, reports suggest that the practice of aborting female foetuses continues to be widespread, particularly in rural areas. In August, the Chinese government launched an eight-month nationwide campaign to curb non-medical foetal gender determination and sex-selective abortion. Department of Health Minister Anne Milton raised our concerns regarding these aspects of the One Child policy with Vice-Chairperson Cui Tuili of the Chinese National Population and Family Planning Commission, during her visit to China in November.

Refugees and asylum seekers
We are aware of a number of reports in 2011 of Uighurs and Tibetans being deported to China from neighbouring countries. We have sought assurances from the Chinese government that returnees from third countries have been afforded due process before China accepts them back, and asked that the relevant UN agencies be allowed access.

Civil society
At the end of 2010, there were around 440,000 registered NGOs in China, and a growing number of fundraising foundations. Despite this the sector remains under-developed, due in part to a number of stringent restrictions on establishment and fundraising. Groups involved in advocacy or working in sensitive areas are often shut down or subjected to pressure by the authorities.

The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs’ 12th Five-Year Plan, issued in July, has made some positive steps in continuing to expand the space for civil society. It recognises the need to do more to encourage charitable giving (including via tax incentives), raise awareness about charities, and improve the regulatory environment, which currently makes it difficult for NGOs to register or raise funds. The Five-Year Plan emphasises the need to develop policy on volunteering, to develop government partnerships with NGOs through the outsourcing of service delivery, to improve transparency and accountability, and to promote corporate social responsibility.

In addition, relaxations of regulations on NGOs were announced in Guangdong on 24 November, and came into effect on 1 January 2012. These are experimental and confined to one province for the time being, but should make it easier for NGOs and service delivery organisations to be set up.

The Chinese authorities continued to invest significant financial resources into Tibetan areas in 2011, in pursuit of their twin goals of development and social stability. But tensions in some regions have been high, with the grievances of local Tibetans aggravated by restrictive or exclusionary policies in the areas of religious practice, language and culture, and education. Development indicators for Tibetan areas remain the lowest in China, significantly below the national average. To address this, the Chinese authorities have stated that they will pursue “leapfrog development” in Tibetan areas, targeting an annual GDP growth of 13% (compared to a national target of 7.5%) under national and provincial five-year plans. The central government has approved investment in 255 infrastructure projects worth over RMB 600 billion over the next five years, and has promised to deliver growth by upgrading agriculture, developing indigenous products such as traditional medicine and promoting tourism. There is evidence that investment is reaching local communities. However, local Tibetans have reported that ethnic Han Chinese residents are often better placed to benefit from the resulting opportunities.

Restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism have remained a particular area of concern. On 16 March, a young monk at the Kirti Monastery, in a Tibetan area of Sichuan Province, immolated himself in a protest against policies enacted since 2009 to strengthen government control over normal religious practice. The resulting stand-off between police and monks was broken on 21 April, when police raided the monastery, reportedly removing 300 monks for “Patriotic Re-education” and beating to death two locals who tried to intervene. Since March there have been eleven subsequent self-immolations, six of them by monks connected to the Kirti Monastery. Two further monks and two nuns immolated themselves in Tibetan areas of Sichuan, and the eleventh immolation was by a monk from Chamdo County in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

On 29 November, the Foreign Secretary set out to Parliament his concerns regarding the self-immolations, and urged the Chinese government to work with local communities to resolve the grievances underlying these actions. On 15 November, Minister of State Jeremy Browne raised his concerns about the immolations with Chinese Vice-Minister Fu Ying. Lord Howell did the same during his meeting with the deputy party secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region, Hao Peng, on 7 December, and requested access for diplomats and foreign journalists to the affected areas. Officials from the FCO have raised their concerns regarding these immolations repeatedly with the Chinese Embassy in London and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing throughout the reporting period, and have kept in frequent contact with the Foreign Affairs Office in Sichuan and local Public Security Bureau offices regarding access to these areas. Diplomats from the Embassy in Beijing and Consulate in Chongqing have made regular visits to Tibetan areas. On 7 December, Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham made a full statement about the Government’s human rights concerns in Tibet, in response to a Westminster Hall debate. There was no progress reported in 2011 in negotiations between China and representatives of the Dalai Lama.

China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region saw serious outbreaks of violent unrest during 2011 – there were reports that at least some of these incidents had an ethnic dimension. Serious violence shortly before the beginning of Ramadan resulted in the deaths of a number of passers-by, police and the assailants themselves. On 18 July, a group of armed rioters attacked a police station in Hotan, leaving at least 18 people dead. The weekend of 30–31 July saw further violence in the city of Kashgar, in which over 20 people died. There were reports of smaller-scale unrest in other parts of Xinjiang during this period. Chinese state media have blamed these incidents on Uighur terrorists, and said that the incidents were “planned, premeditated and organised”. This account of events was disputed by Uighur groups outside China. The Xinjiang Public Security Department announced a “Strike Hard” campaign from 1 August to 15 October, to “crack down on violent terrorist crime”.

In 2011, China combined significant increases in security spending in Xinjiang with continued high levels of investment. Kashgar was the target of a government campaign to promote “leapfrog development” in the region by making it a Special Economic Zone twinned with Shenzhen, one of China’s richest cities. Infrastructure investment saw the launch of a passenger-train service from Hotan to Kashgar, running on nearly 500km of newly built track.

However, China’s Muslim Uighur population have frequently expressed discontent with Chinese policies in the region. Uighurs often face difficulties accessing the benefits of the region’s economic development, and there are reports of increasing restrictions on their cultural and religious freedoms. We have received reports that some imams have been prevented from taking on new students, and that fewer pilgrims are being allowed to participate in the Hajj. The demolition of traditional houses in Kashgar, the confiscation of farmland for redevelopment, and continuing resentment over the detention and execution of young men following previous unrest in 2009 have all contributed to tensions. UK diplomats visited the region in 2011, and have raised their concerns with Chinese officials.

Hong Kong
The UK Government continues to take seriously its commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The latest of the FCO’s six-monthly reports to Parliament on the implementation of the “One Country, Two Systems” model concludes that 14 years after the handover the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the joint declaration have, in general, been respected. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary continue to be upheld.

Hong Kong has made gradual progress towards democratisation since 1997. In 2011, a number of significant constitutional developments took place, including the passage through the Legislative Council of measures which will increase popular participation in the 2012 elections for Hong Kong’s next chief executive and Legislative Council. In his foreword to the latest Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong, the Foreign Secretary welcomed these developments and said that he looked forward to further substantive progress towards full universal and equal suffrage for elections in 2017 and 2020.