Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2008)

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First posted on June 26, 2009

Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2008)


The year 2008 was marked by a number of events in China of national and international significance, including the March protests in Tibetan areas, the Beijing Olympics, the Sichuan earthquake and the tainted milk scandal. Woven into the narrative of these events were the efforts of human rights defenders to promote human rights. While the perseverance and creativity displayed by human rights defenders was a cause for hope, the fact remains that ten years after the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1998, the Chinese government continued to fail to safeguard nearly every right that the Declaration urges governments to protect.

Freedom of expression was one of the rights most regularly violated as the authorities tried to control discussion of major events and prevent any expression which might reflect poorly on the government.In the days leading up to and during the Olympic Games in August, petitioners and potential protestors were rounded up, forcibly returned home and sent to illegal and secret detention facilities known as “black jails”. After the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan and the tainted milk scandal, which broke on July 16, citizen journalists and aggrieved parents who questioned the role of the government in the deaths and injuries of thousands of children had their postings and blogs deleted and their protests broken up by the police.

The March demonstrations in Tibetan areas met massive oppression and led to a number of rights violations, while subsequent arrests and trials brought to the fore the lack of independence of China’s judiciary.Defendants were reportedly tortured, their trials were unfair and failed to meet international legal standards, and lawyers who offered legal aid to defendants were reprimanded and threatened. Officials later resorted to similar tactics to dissuade lawyers from accepting cases related to the tainted milk scandal as well.

Throughout 2008, individuals were persecuted for promoting human rights.Some were arbitrarily detained, tortured, or “disappeared” by officials, while many human rights defenders and their families were harassed and monitored.A number of prominent human rights defenders were detained or imprisoned for extended periods, including Huang Qi (黄琦), detained for assisting parents of those killed in the Sichuan earthquake, Hu Jia (胡佳), imprisoned for criticizing rights violations related to the Olympic Games, and Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), formally arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” for organizing Charter 08 and commemorative activities for the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.

Despite the risk of persecution, many ordinary Chinese were inspired to participate in activities defending human rights. Of particular note, 2008 saw the continued growth of the nascent rights defense movement (weiquan yundong).Increasing numbers of citizens took part in the struggle to defend their legal, constitutional and human rights through non-violent means, using the constitution and international laws and norms as their tools. Many joined this movement in 2008 after experiencing injustice and mistreatment at the hands of the state, such as having their homes forcibly demolished or suffering the effects of pollution. Particularly striking was the diversity of backgrounds of those who took action to defend their own and others’ rights.They included lawyers, public intellectuals, farmers, migrant workers, teachers, soldiers and small property owners.Indeed, to a large extent, people with no formal training in law or access to formal education about their rights were the movement’s driving force.

While their actions were largely peaceful, several protests around the country turned violent. Violence on the part of protestors was in most cases a reaction to heavy-handed actions taken by police and officials to disperse crowds or otherwise deal with mass “unrest”.

Against this background, it is encouraging that, since its publication on December 9, more than 8,000 mainland Chinesefrom all walks of life have signed Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democracy and human rights in China. Though officials have harassed, intimidated and persecuted the Charter’s drafters and supporters— searching the homes and confiscating the property of some signatories and summoning and warning over a hundred others— the vast majority have not retracted their endorsement.The widespread and passionate support for Charter08 was a cause for optimism at the end of a turbulent year.

Click here for the full report in PDF

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