UN China rights review: Stepped up efforts to silence critics

As Chinese diplomats defend their human rights record in Geneva, Chinese activists say officials have targeted social media users, academics, and others who want more public participation in politics.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
A protester wearing a giant head representing China's President Xi Jinping takes part in a demonstration calling Xi out for rights violations in Tibet in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva October 22, 2013.

As Chinese diplomats defended Beijing’s controversial human rights record at a United Nations hearing in Geneva today, lawyers and activists here accused the government of launching an unusually harsh crackdown against critics of the regime.

“There has been no improvement” in China’s human rights situation since the country was last subjected to a UN review four years ago, said Liang Xiaojun,  a lawyer who has defended political dissidents. “The government has regressed. Repression is tougher and more widespread.”

“People had high hopes of the new leadership” when President Xi Jinping took office last year, added Hu Jia, an HIV-Aids activist who has endured nearly a decade of official persecution. “But the authorities have hardened their ideology.” 

Human rights defenders are especially concerned by the arrest of nearly two dozen people in recent months associated with the “New Citizens Movement” which is demanding greater public participation in Chinese politics. 

“The UN review is taking place during one of China’s major crackdowns on activists and free speech,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch in a statement.

The Chinese government stepped up its efforts to silence critics last month with a Supreme Court ruling that threatened social media users with jail time if their tweets were deemed to spread “rumors” and were re-posted more than 500 times or were viewed more than 5,000 times.

“That has created an atmosphere of fear online,” said Mr. Hu, and the ruling has chilled comment on “weibos," the social media platforms that had become relatively free-wheeling forums for discussion.

The official campaign against civil society activists continued last weekend when police formally arrested Wang Gongquan, a wealthy businessman and prominent member of the “New Citizens Movement.”

The group has attracted the government’s ire by calling on officials to declare their wealth and demanding better treatment for migrant workers’ children. The man widely regarded as the intellectual force behind the group, Xu Zhiyong, a long-time activist on behalf of citizens’ rights, was arrested in August.

About 30 members of the organization are believed to have been arrested since February; most of them have been charged with “gathering to disturb public order” even when they had not participated in any demonstrations.

Nobody knows how many people have been arrested under the new rules punishing “rumor spreading,” but official reports suggest several hundred may have been detained. Almost all of them are thought to have been released within a few days.

There have been other signs this year of increasing official intolerance of citizens who question Communist party rule, especially in academia. Last week Xia Yeliang, a well known liberal economist, was relieved of his teaching post at Peking University; last August, lawyer Zhang Xuezong was banned from teaching any courses at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai.

Mr. Zhang’s Sina weibo account was closed last May after he posted the contents of a government order sent to his university advising teachers not to talk to students about topics such as universal values, press freedom, civil society, civil rights, the Communist party’s past mistakes, and judicial independence.

“The new leadership is using crueler methods against people who appeal for basic human rights,” said Hu, who made a name for himself advocating for the rights of Aids victims. He said he has been under permanent police surveillance or house arrest since 2011, when he completed a three and a half year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”

At Tuesday’s hearing in Geneva, the Czech Republic raised the issue of Cao Shunli, who had been pressing Beijing to allow citizens to help draft China’s report to the Universal Periodic Review, as the UN recommends.

She was forcibly disappeared last month after being detained at Beijing airport en route to Geneva and has not been heard of since.

UN human rights experts issued a statement last week calling the Chinese government’s treatment of Ms. Cao “completely unacceptable,” but activists here doubt whether that will sway Beijing.

“The government has not been responding to international pressure, but rather stepping up repression,” said Mr. Liang, the rights lawyer. “I do not see any evidence that the Universal Periodic Review or international pressure is having much influence.” 

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