The People’s Republic of China’s Crackdown on Human Rights

Chinese President Xi Jinping | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Changes in society are due chiefly to the development of the internal contradictions in society, that is, the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the contradiction between classes and the contradiction between the old and the new; it is the development of these contradictions that pushes society forward and gives the impetus for the suppression of the old society by the new. –Mao Zedong

Mainland China has experienced countless revolutions even before Mao Zedong formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.  Although China has a long history of social protest, and the country would look far different had these past revolutions failed, the PRC under the leadership of Xi Jinping is increasingly cracking down on public outcry to stifle a greater human rights movement.  While it is apparent when the PRC attempts to silence internal protests by its citizens, Beijing’s systematic steps to prevent greater transparency and accountability by UN human rights mechanisms have gone unnoticed by the international community.

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ramped up its repression of human rights activists.  More specifically, the CCP has decided to target Chinese human rights lawyers.  On 9 July 2015, around 250 human rights lawyers were arrested, the largest crackdown on Chinese lawyers in decades.  Known as the “709”, many of the lawyers who were caught up in the sweep faced possible sentences of life imprisonment.  Denounced by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the CCP secretly detained the attorneys for six months under a provision of the Chinese Criminal Code that allows the police to hold suspects “incommunicado for ‘residential surveillance in a designated location.”  Six of the lawyers have been convicted of “subverting state power” or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” while three still await trials or verdicts.  Following the crackdown, the remaining members of the legal community went underground in fear of further harassment by the government, crippling the already limited human rights movement in China.

Not only has the CCP attempted to stifle civil disobedience domestically, but it has also hindered the UN as well as NGOs from intervening or working to increase transparency in China.  In September 2017, Human Rights Watch published “The Costs of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms,” denouncing the actions of the PRC in obstructing human rights movements in China.  While China’s harassment of human rights activists in the UN is conspicuous, including the detainment of activist Cao Shunli in 2013, China engages in a wider obstructionist policy towards human rights mechanisms that is harder to detect.  Within the Human Rights Council, China positions itself with a block of countries known as the “Like-Minded Group” (LMG). Within this faction, China is able to maintain a low profile since they do not “take the leadership. They have others to play this game . . . . Other actors are in charge of the dirty work.

Nevertheless, there is still evidence of the PRC’s attempts to block the international community from increasing transparency. Along with not ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights documents, the PRC has refused to cooperate with the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).  Human Rights Watch stated:

Over the last 15 years, although the Chinese government accepted visits by the special procedures for food, debt, discrimination against women, and extreme poverty, it has rejected 12 other visits, especially visits by rapporteurs charged with reporting on civil and political rights, and for over a decade has been unwilling to accept a visit by the UN high commissioner for human rights.

Even at international human rights forums outside of China, the PRC protests the participation of specific NGOs.  Relying on arguments for security, China prevents prominent Uighur and Tibetan rights NGOs from participating in Human Rights Council sessions by “submitting to the UN a list of individuals it portrays as security threats, requesting that the United Nations inform the Chinese mission in Geneva if any of these individuals are accredited as NGO participants for the upcoming council session.” The overwhelming majority, approximately ninety-five percent, of requests for lists on NGOs comes from China.

Additionally, the Chinese government obstructs foreign activists from coordinating with domestic activists.  According to a Chinese human rights activist, “Chinese officials do their best to cut off the human rights defender to connect with the outside world, no matter if it’s UN activity or just an international NGO, or just anything . . . . The Chinese government’s master plan appears to be to try to cut off connections between Chinese civil society with international community.” By blocking activists at human rights forums, obstructing NGOs from domestic access, and challenging the authority of international treaties, the PRC systematically represses any potential for external human rights pressure.

Chinese communist political thought has drastically changed since Mao Zedong took control of mainland China.  No longer emphasizing revolution or societal progress, the CCP is instead attempting to promote internal order at all costs by internationally and domestically thwarting attempts at promoting human rights.  While the world does take notice of China’s internal suppression, such as the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, it is problematic that the international community is seemingly unconcerned with the PRC’s obstruction of international human rights mechanisms.

Trent Fujii is currently a 2L at Columbia Law School and a staff member of the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. He attended the University of Southern California and graduated in 2016 with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Psychology