An Open Letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

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The Honorable Louise Arbour
The High Commissioner for Human Rights
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Dear Ms. Arbour:

We the undersigned, citizens of the People’s Republic of China, are delighted and honored at the prospect of your visit to our country from late August to early September of this year. We deeply admire your courage, your wisdom, and your dedication to the exalted ideal of protection of universal human rights. We place great hope in your visit, and wish you every success.

Writing to you on the occasion of your visit to China to discuss human rights issues with our government, we express our full confidence in the United Nations’ commitments to protecting universal human rights. We also recognize the improvements China has made in its international and domestic affairs.

The achievements of our country’s economy over the last two decades are dazzling. When the Chinese government signed and ratified international human rights conventions, it made commitments to protect many basic human rights. These rights have now been added to the PRC Constitution as amendments. Rights protection has become a highly visible issue in recent years. But, we must be frank, China’s record in protecting human rights remains a sad story. We wish to draw your attention to the glaring discrepancies between actual human rights conditions in our country on the one hand, and, on the other, the international standards, the relevant articles in the PRC Constitution and Chinese laws, and our government’s public pledges. In some respects rights conditions have actually gotten worse, not better, in the last few years.

We welcome our government’s recent willingness to permit a certain independence of the courts, to hold qualifying examinations for judges, and to consider amending laws to protect detained suspects. The PRC Procuratoriate has taken steps to resolve cases of illegally extended detentions and to punish law enforcement officers who use torture to extract confession. The role in policymaking of local People’s Congresses has also gained some ground in recent years. Efforts to establish election of officials have failed at the levels of the township government and higher, but experiments with elections of village committees have made certain progress.

These positive trends have had little actual effect, however, chiefly because of the huge and persisting problems of corruption in the bureaucratic systems and the lack of accountability of officials who break the law and violate human rights. Law is used primarily by authorities as a tool of repression of dissidents or the disadvantaged. The rare use of law to protect ordinary people is hamstrung by many problems: judges and courts are still not sufficiently independent; the incompetence of courts and inadequacy of judicial process make it impossible for citizens to seek redress for rights abuses through legal procedures; the criminal system still relies on confessions, which are frequently obtained through torture; and lawyers who are outspoken in defense of defendants’ rights are themselves often threatened, disbarred, or imprisoned.

Parallel to its opening of the economy and trade, the government has also increasingly modernized its control mechanisms and tightened up its information control and censorship on speech and expression. With the Internet, text messaging, and other new technologies, we benefit from unprecedented access to information and online political speech. There is more room for the media due to growing marketization. But to our dismay, the government has invested heavily in deployment of ever more cyberpolice in order to build the world’s most comprehensive and sophisticated system of telecommunications surveillance, “firewalls,” and electronic monitoring, thereby perfecting its censorship and its control of speech. A long list of vocabulary and topics is prohibited in all public media and on the Internet. Tens of thousands of cyberpolice patrol cybercafés, wiretap phones, intercept cellular phone conversation, and interfere with text-messaging devices. They use the same high-tech methods to monitor and obstruct the speech and expression on the Internet of independent journalists, writers and rights activists, and to gather evidence surreptitiously to use against these people in court. The Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, which should not have any role in legislation, nevertheless wields tremendous arbitrary power in operating, controlling, and penalizing the mass media, threatening journalists and those in the media profession, And coercing them into practicing self-censorship. All these practices violate Chinese citizens’ rights to information, free speech, and free press.

The state continues to make and enforce its social and economic policies without a system of checks and balances on its power through public participation and political representation. Authorities are largely at liberty to write off the interests and rights of the powerless and vulnerable social groups in our society. They silence there voices when they demand their rights and suppress their lawful efforts to organize to defend their rights. When our government ratified the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, it chose not to adopt Article 8 stipulating “the right of everyone to form trade unions.” Precisely because workers and migrant laborers are deprived of the right to organize independent unions, they are especially handicapped in their efforts to seek labor rights protection. Labor protection in China is now among the worst in the world, while economic disparity between the rich and the poor has grown to be among the largest in the world.

Meanwhile, although some of the political prisoners from the 1989 events have been released, many others remain jailed or have been recently incarcerated for their ideas or beliefs. The government has intensified its repression of ethnic minorities and religious groups that have sought to exercise their religious freedom and cultural rights. Tens of thousands of believers in forbidden faiths and ideas have been subjected to imprisonment. Many have been tortured and subjected to inhumane treatment. Authorities restrict worship in Christian family churches, criminalize church leaders for printing copies of the Bible, for seeking converts, or for criticizing the government in their preaching. For many ordinary Chinese who practice the Falun Gong, the violations of human rights are even worse.

We are pained and indignant that our country, owner of a great ancient civilization, has now held the world record for number of recorded executions every year since 1993. Many executions were for non-violent crimes and lacked fair trials and judicial review. Many innocent people continue to be detained in “re-education through labor” camps and other extrajudicial detention facilities, without trials or judicial review, for up to three or four years. Torture to extract confession is routine in these facilities and camps. There is no protection for the rights of criminal defendants and the convicted.

Today, when victims of social or economic rights abuses petition authorities and seek legal recourse, they meet official retaliation, police brutality, and incarceration. In recent years, and in increasing numbers, human rights activists have been assisting victims of labor rights violations, forced evictions, land and housing confiscations, environmental disasters, and corruption, or seeking care for poor villagers infected with HIV/AIDS. But these activists themselves face great dangers. These activists — public intellectuals, journalists, doctors, and defense lawyers — are sometimes harassed, put on trial, or imprisoned for defending their fellow citizens’ rights.

In short, the lack of independent media and rule of law in China means the absence of effective constraints on political power, which makes it very difficult to systematically guarantee Chinese citizens’ human rights and to provide public opinion and legal aid as well as administrative assistance to victims.

We wish to draw your attention to these facts, and especially to the difficulties and risks that Chinese human rights defenders face. We trust that you will raise these issues with Chinese leaders during your meetings with them. We ask you as well to raise some recent cases of our fellow citizens who have, in our view, been victims of arbitrary detention or unfair trials (please see our Appendix for brief summaries of the cases):

Labor activist Yao Fuxin; journalists Shi Tao, Zhao Yan, Yu Huafeng and Li Minying; defense lawyers Zhu Jiuhu and Zheng Enchong; writers (active on the Internet and in other media) Zhang Lin, Li Jianping, Zheng Yichun, Huang Jinqiu, Ma Xiaoming, Xu Wanping, Zhang Zhengyao, Zhang Ruquan, Yang Zili, Zhang Honghai, Xu Wei, Jin Haike, and Luo Yongzhong, and Cai Lujun; all the defendants in the case of Christian priest Cai Zhuohua, and all the defendants in the case of priest Gong Shengliang; farmer Lin Zhangwang; the four residents of Pingle Country, Jiangxi Province, Fang Chunping, Huang Zhiqiang, Cheng Lihe, and Cheng Fagen, who were sentenced to death after being tortured until they confessed crimes they did not commit; and the four residents of Chengde, Hebei Province, Chen Guoqing, Yang Shiliang, He Guoqiang, and Zhu Yanqiang, who were sentenced to death after tortured confession but then commuted to long jail sentences; rights defenders Feng Xiaoyuan, Ye Guozhu, and Ma Yalian, as well as many others.

We invite you to join us in defending the basic human rights of Chinese citizens, in calling on the responsible officials in the Chinese government to release these and other illegal detainees and prisoners of conscience, and in demanding that the government allow preliminary political reforms and guarantee judicial independence and a free press. These reforms are necessary for improving the basic conditions of human rights in our country.

If possible, well-known activists and coordinators of this letter campaign, Li Jian and Wang Yi, are willing to meet with Ms. Arbour, on behalf of Chinese rights defenders and concerned Chinese citizens, to communicate and advance common cause.

In closing, we wish to express our gratitude for your and your colleagues’ good work. We would also like to thank the UN Human Rights Committee and the international community for persistently raising concerns about China’s human rights conditions. The Chinese struggle for freedom calls for collaboration by all who believe in “freedom as a universal value.”

Respectfully yours,

The Undersigned Citizens of the People’s Republic of China: (Names omitted)

August 22, 2005

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