Human Rights and Democracy Report 2014: China - in-year update December 2015

Published 21 April 2016

The period from 1 July to 31 December saw further restrictions on civil and political rights. There was some progress on social and economic rights. A new National Security Law tightened control of the internet. A Counter Terrorism Law expanded controls over media reporting of terrorist incidents. China announced the abolition of the One-Child policy and a new residency permit for migrants. A new law on Anti-Domestic Violence and amendments to the Criminal Code strengthened protection for women and children. President Xi Jinping paid a State Visit to the UK in October. Both he and the Prime Minister agreed to continue exchanges on human rights and rule of law.

In respect of freedom of expression and assembly, the space for civil society tightened. On 9 July, the authorities began a coordinated crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists. By the end of December, up to 300 individuals had been questioned. Around 30 were held under “Residential Surveillance” at unknown locations without access to legal counsel or family members. Chinese state media claimed that one firm, Fengrui, acted “like a criminal gang”. It also accused them of colluding with contacts nationwide to disrupt court procedures and incite public order disturbances. China’s Criminal Code was amended in August to broaden the definition of contempt of court and tighten penalties. The UK statement to the UN Human Rights Council in September noted concern over restrictions on freedom of expression in China. This was in relation to the detention of human rights lawyers, including Fengrui’s Wang Yu. It further urged the authorities to release those individuals and to uphold the right to the peaceful expression of views.

On 3 December, more than a dozen labour rights activists in Guangdong were targeted in police raids. Four were placed under criminal detention, including Zeng Feiyang, director of one of Guangdong’s foremost labour groups. Later in the month, Chinese state media printed allegations about Zeng’s personal life that were unconnected to the case.

Restrictions on freedom of expression in the media continued. New legislation further reduced the space for peaceful expression online. On 1 July, the National People’s Congress approved a new National Security Law. It defined national security broadly; for example, to protect China’s culture from malign external influences. The law also required citizens to provide “necessary support and assistance” to the authorities or face punishment. The law’s ambiguity and broad scope has raised concern among the business and NGO communities. In August, new crimes were announced relating to cyber security and spreading false information online. The same month, 200 people, including journalists, were arrested for spreading false information about the Tianjin explosions and stock market collapse. Human rights defenders (HRDs) continued to face harassment, restrictions on their activities and routine denial of due process. Some HRDs continued to spend long periods in detention awaiting trial. There were also reports of irregularities in trial procedures, torture, and inadequate access to medical attention in detention.

In December, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was convicted of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” on the basis of seven social media posts in which he criticised the policy of the Central People’s Government in Xinjiang. He had been held in pre-trial detention for 18 months. FCO Minister for Asia, Hugo Swire, raised concerns with Chinese Vice-Minister Chen Fengxiang, including the treatment of media and diplomats attempting to attend Pu’s trial. An FCO statement raised further concern about Pu’s conviction, despite the suspended three-year sentence. Journalist Gao Yu’s conviction in April 2015 for “leaking state secrets” was upheld in November. She received a reduced prison sentence of five years. Chinese state media subsequently announced that she was to be released from prison on medical grounds in November. Also in November, Guo Feixiong (also known as Yang Maodong) was convicted of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by a court in Guangzhou. He was given a six-year prison sentence. Two other activists were given three years and two-and-a-half years. The three men had taken part in a protest against media censorship in January 2013 and were tried in 2014. In addition to waiting a year for the verdict, Guo alleged torture in detention.

There were developments related to access to justice and the rule of law. During President Xi’s State Visit, the Prime Minister reaffirmed the importance the UK attached to the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue. The UK-China Joint Statement further committed both sides to continue exchanges on human rights and the rule of law.

Between October and December, five individuals associated with a Hong Kong bookstore and publishing house disappeared. They included a British citizen who was involuntarily removed from Hong Kong to mainland China (related developments are covered in the Foreign Secretary’s six-monthly report on Hong Kong of 11 February 2016).

On 29 August, the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed revisions to the Criminal Law. The number of crimes punishable by death was cut from 55 to 46. The NPC last dropped the death penalty for 13 non-violent economic crimes in 2011. In December, the UN Committee against Torture released its concluding observations on China. They called for China to repeal the police’s power to hold people in de facto incommunicado detention at a designated location. They also recommended that China abolish all forms of administrative detention. This form of detention confines individuals without due process and makes them vulnerable to abuse.

There were continuing reports of detentions and restrictions connected with freedom of religion or belief. These included the closure and demolition of churches, and the removal of crosses from buildings. Prominent human rights lawyer Zhang Kai was detained on 25 August. This was after he had offered legal support to some churches subject to a demolition campaign in eastern China. Zhang was reportedly denied access to a lawyer on the grounds that the case was related to national security. On 22 October, Mr Swire, and FCO Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Anelay, responded to urgent Parliamentary questions in Parliament. Both made specific reference to Zhang Kai. Shanghai Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin continued to be held under house arrest in Sheshan Seminary.

In August, revisions to the Criminal Law saw extra protection for women and children vulnerable to rape and sexual assault. The crime of sex with sex workers under the age of 14 (the legal age of consent) was reclassified as rape. In September, President Xi reiterated China’s commitment to gender equality prior to the UN General Assembly in New York. This was in a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. On 29 October, China announced that every Chinese family should be allowed to have a second child. In December, the NPC passed China’s first comprehensive national law against domestic violence, effective from 1 March 2016. The law strengthens the legal status of domestic violence as a crime under Chinese law. Former spouses and same-sex couples were, however, not directly included. And the definition of domestic violence did not make specific reference to economic abuse or sexual violence, including spousal rape.

LGB&T NGOs continued to operate despite greater scrutiny of foreign funding and restrictions on organising public events. High-profile litigation challenged discrimination against members of the LGB&T community. This could result in the Ministry of Education revising language in textbooks which characterises homosexuality as a disease, as well as less censorship. A court accepted a case by a homosexual couple seeking the right to get married.

The security situation in Xinjiang remained tense. State media reported that dozens were killed in terrorist attacks (and subsequent operations) in Shache County and Aksu. Restrictions on reporting and access made it difficult to confirm many reported violent incidents. In December, French journalist Ursula Gauthier was expelled for refusing to apologise for an article criticising Chinese policy in Xinjiang. During a visit to China in September, the Chancellor of the Exchequer raised the case of imprisoned Ugyhur academic Dr Ilham Tohti, and called for his release.

In Tibet, there were ongoing reports, mainly from Tibetan regions outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, of arbitrary detentions and imprisonment of Tibetan lay people and monks. In September, Lobsang Jamyang was one of several monks reported detained between July and December 2015 for mounting individual protests in Ngaba County, Sichuan. Tibetan religious leader Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, serving a life-term for “conspiring to cause explosions”, died in detention in July. Reports allege that he was mistreated in detention and denied access to a lawyer of his choosing. The UK had called for him to be released on medical grounds on several occasions, most recently in June. Unofficial sources estimate that two Tibetans self-immolated in China during the reporting period. Requests for UK officials to visit Tibet were refused