Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2009)

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Executive Summary


During 2009, the environment in China grew increasingly hostile towards human rights defenders. Highlighted by the harassment of a number of well-known, relatively independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on human rights, and the closure of one-the Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng)-the already limited space for civil society was restricted even further in 2009. Human rights lawyers, an important force in the rights defense (weiquan) movement, were put under unprecedented pressure by the authorities, and CHRD documented eight lawyers who were unable to renew their licenses to practice law. While the government paid lip service to human rights abroad and at home, by taking part in the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review and issuing its first National Human Rights Action Plan, it continued to detain, harass, and intimidate human rights defenders across the country. This report uses the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders as a framework for assessing the Chinese government’s actions during the past year, and finds that the government has fallen woefully short of its obligations as outlined by that document.

The government was particularly active in its efforts to disrupt the work of human rights defenders in the past year. Activists affiliated with CHRD believe that more human rights defenders were summoned by police for questioning in 2009 than in any year since 1989. Likewise, the number of human rights defenders subjected to “soft detention” and “forced travel” during 2009 was higher than in any single year in recent history. This was largely due to the number of “sensitive” events that took place during the year, including the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, visits from President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, and other similar events.

Key rights essential to the ability of citizens to defend human rights were not adequately protected by the government in 2009, and in some cases were abused more seriously than in years past. For example, the right to freedom of assembly was routinely violated as human rights defenders continued to be beaten, detained, and imprisoned for organizing and taking part in demonstrations. Human rights defenders and other citizens were harassed or punished for exercising their right to participate in public affairs: though officials took some visible steps to appear open to public input, such as seeking commentary on draft legislation, they largely ignored or reacted harshly to any criticisms or proposals deemed unacceptable to the Communist Party.

The right to freedom of association was a focal point throughout the year as the government moved to stifle relatively independent organizations. Though forced to register as commercial firms due to restrictive regulations, groups like Gongmeng (which focuses on the rule of law and constitutional reform), Aizhixing (which focuses on HIV/AIDS issues), and Yirenping (which focuses on public health) had been able to work openly on issues of justice and human rights in recent years. However, officials began to restrict their ability to operate in 2009, forcing Gongmeng to close and harassing Aizhixing, Yirenping, and other similar organizations. New regulations introduced at the end of the year to limit access to foreign funding for NGOs underscored the government’s continuing efforts to target these and other rights-focused organizations.

The government’s hostility towards dissent and free expression throughout the year was epitomized by its far-reaching response to Charter 08, a manifesto issued at the end of 2008 outlining a vision of a free, democratic China. Over the course of 2009, the government censored discussion of the document online and harassed, threatened, and questioned individuals associated with it, including all 303 of the original signatories. While the continued spread of Charter 08-which had been signed by over 10,000 supporters by the end of 2009-demonstrated the ability of some Chinese netizens to outmaneuver the authorities and evade oppressive online censorship, the 11-year prison sentence handed down to prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), one of Charter 08‘s organizers, left no doubt that the government continued to regard nonviolent expression as a serious crime. Liu’s sentence was one of the harshest for “inciting subversion of state power” (a charge frequently used to criminalize political speech) of this decade.

China’s “rule of law” reforms took a step backwards in 2009. As the government continued to block citizens’ attempts to use the law to address their grievances, CHRD documented citizens’ growing disillusionment with the law and a legal system that is becoming increasingly marginalized by both the government and the people. This sentiment played a role in the increase in “mass incidents” and protests observed in 2009. At the same time, however, the law remained a powerful tool in the Chinese government’s fight to silence human rights defenders.

Looking back on 2009 as a whole, there were few bright spots for human rights defenders. However, the internet remained a platform for vibrant discussions about social and political issues as well as a powerful organizing tool. While the government’s crackdowns on petitioning, demonstrations, and organized dissent, which have increased since the buildup to the Beijing Olympics, may have driven human rights’ defenders actions largely online, human rights defenders have found ways to successfully disseminate information on human rights via the internet despite the government’s sophisticated cyber-censorship and surveillance. In the past year, online campaigns have mobilized significant support for political and legal reforms and inspired crowds to gather for protests against abuses or in solidarity outside of the trials of activists. What hope there is for the continued development of the rights defense movement in coming years, therefore, is intimately linked to human rights defenders’ ability to continue to stay ahead of government censors and find new and innovative ways to bridge the gap between their work online and on the ground.


Table of Contents

About this Report

Scope and structure


Part I: An Assessment of Rights Essential for Defending Human Rights

A. The rights to freedom of assembly and association

1. Freedom of assembly

2. Freedom of association

B. The rights to freedom of expression and access to information

1. Print media and publications

2. The internet

3. Other forms of expression

4. The danger of accessing and disseminating human rights information

C. The rights to participate in the government and in the conduct of public affairs

1. Open letters and legislative proposals

2. Village elections

D. The right to a benefit from an effective remedy when a right is violated

1. The right to offer and provide professionally qualified legal assistance

2. The provision of legal assistance to detained human rights defenders

3. The right to complain: petitioning and administrative litigation

Part II. The Chinese Government’s Failure to Promote Human Rights Education and Protect Human Rights Defenders

A. Failure to promote human rights education

B. Failure to protect human rights defenders

1. Harassment and threats from police and officials

2. Restriction of movement: “soft detention” and “forced travel”

3. Violence against human rights defenders: disappearances, attacks, and torture

4. Arbitrary detention


Appendix I: Human Rights Defenders Arbitrarily Detained in 2009

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