Cao Shunli (曹顺利) & Her Legacy

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Cao Shunli (曹顺利) & Her Legacy

Cao Shunli (曹顺利) & Her Legacy

March 28, 1961 – March 14, 2014

Our impact may be large, may be small, and may be nothing. But we must try. It is our duty to the dispossessed and it is the right of civil society.”

“Our impact may be large, may be small, and may be nothing. But we must try. It is our duty to the dispossessed and it is the right of civil society.”

Cao Shunli

Activist Cao Shunli’s tragic death on March 14, 2014, was a measure of the lengths that the Chinese leaders are willing to go to suppress independent voices of civil society. Cao Shunli unwaveringly pursued the goal to make use of international human rights mechanisms to improve rights conditions in China. She attached great importance to telling the world the truth about the conditions on the ground:

“In China, those who are involved in drafting the government’s reports [to the UN] are the government and agencies servile to the government, the scope [of participation] is very narrow, there is no participation by genuine civil society forces…If there were only 50 or 100 words in that report that had objectively described our human rights conditions, many of our problems could start to get addressed.”

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government saw her pursuits as a threat to the interest of the state. And the state did not hesitate to use its repressive apparatus – police, detention facilities, and torturous and other inhumane treatment – to punish her and break her will.

Cao was abducted at Beijing Capital International Airport as she was to board a flight to Geneva on September 14, 2013, to participate in a UN human rights training course and attend a session of the Human Rights Council (HRC). She disappeared for the first five weeks; her family had no information about her whereabouts. Authorities waited until the Universal Periodic Review of China in October was almost over in Geneva to finally acknowledge having criminally detained her on a charge of “creating a disturbance.” During the next five months, Cao was consistently denied proper medical treatment by authorities, as she told her lawyer. Authorities repeatedly rejected her family and lawyer’s requests to release her on bail on medical grounds. It wasn’t until authorities realized that she was in critical condition and might die in Chaoyang District Detention Center that they finally sent her to an emergency center, and later transferred her to a hospital, where she ultimately died. After she was hospitalized, authorities forced her family to sign documentation to release her on “bail for medical treatment.”

“The Road to Rights Defense”

Born in 1961, Cao was educated at China University of Political Science and Law from 1980 to 1984, and was then accepted to Peking University, where she earned a Masters in Law two years later. Upon graduating, she became a civil servant at the Ministry of Human Resources, working as a researcher in the cadre personnel department. After working for several years, Cao was entitled to housing provided by the government but was denied this benefit. This prompted Cao to begin speaking up in 1994 to expose corruption in the distribution of housing in the personnel office, a cause she worked to expose in ensuing years. She was administratively detained in 1999 and 2001, for 15 days each time, for “disrupting the order of a public place,” and she ultimately lost her job in 2001 for her whistleblowing efforts. This resulted not only in the loss of her income, but also in the loss of social security benefits. In Cao’s own words, her efforts beginning from 1994 to expose corruption launched her “walk down the road of rights defense.”

After Cao Shunli was fired from the ministry, she became a “petitioner,” someone who approaches the government to lodge personal grievances and seek remedies. Initially, she petitioned over her own grievances and then quickly became involved with other petitioners, who often help each other as they discover the obstacles and risks they face as marginalized citizens. Assisting many people with her background in law, she subsisted on freelance translation projects, and by preparing case files for petitioning. Cao realized the magnitude of human rights violations in China. She and others sought to raise a collective voice for petitioners by gathering petitions and trying to engage with government bodies to address systematic rights abuses. But they quickly realized that their efforts were in vain, as the government rarely granted them a hearing. Instead, they found themselves stonewalled, shut out, silenced, or worse, such as being locked up in “black jails,” illegal and makeshift detention facilities. Handed back to local government officials, whom the petitioners had grievances against in the first place, many petitioners faced reprisals, including torture, from these authorities.

In 2008, Cao came upon information on the Internet regarding the UN’s new rights-monitoring mechanism called the “Universal Periodic Review,” under which all UN member countries’ rights conditions are reviewed every four-and-a-half years. China was coming under review for the first time in February 2009. Cao also learned that during the review, a country is looked upon favorably if it has produced a “national human rights action plan,” and if the government has consulted civil society when it drafts the “action plan” and its “state human rights report” to be submitted for the review. When the government announced plans to draft a human rights action plan in November 2008, it pledged to consult with non-governmental organizations. Cao Shunli saw some hope in the UPR: perhaps the government would be pressured to grant petitioners a hearing about human rights abuses they have suffered. Cao, working with other petitioners-turned-activists like Peng Lanlan (彭兰岚), Chen Jianfang (陈建芳), and Liu Xiaofang (刘晓芳), began documenting the abuses, particularly cases of detention in extrajudicial Re-education through Labor (RTL) camps.

By September 2012, they had distributed and collected more than 10,000 questionnaires about RTL abuses. They tried to hand their documentation to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which represents the government at UPR, and later to the State Council Information Office, which was responsible for drafting the first National Human Rights Action Plan. Cao and the others had intended that their findings be considered in the first action plan, which was published in April 2009, and the government’s report about rights conditions in China for the UPR in February 2009. However, authorities refused to accept the cases they collected. Even worse, constant government reprisals had just begun against Cao Shunli and other activists who were demanding authorities act on their promises to the UN on allowing civil society participation.

Determination to Use UN Human Rights Mechanisms Leads to Reprisals

Cao’s goal was modest. She simply wanted Chinese authorities drafting the human rights action plans and reports to do their job in an “honest and impartial manner,” and as a “very basic first step, describe the situation of China’s human rights truthfully,” as she told a citizen journalist in an interview in July 2013. It was with this in mind, after officials refused to accept the information they collected, that she and the group of petitioners first submitted an application regarding the preparation of the action plan to the MFA on December 10, 2008 – Human Rights Day as well as the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It was also on this very day that Charter 08, a manifesto for broad political and legal reforms to advance democracy and human rights in China, was released with the signatures of more than 300 dissidents, activists, and others. But Cao Shunli was not among them. She instead pursued something simple and seemingly non-political: have the government keep its promise to the HRC about consulting civil society in UPR preparations.

The application, prepared in accordance with China’s Government Information Disclosure Act, asked the MFA to disclose information about exactly which “civil society groups” or “independent experts” it had consulted in compliance with the UN Handbook on National Human Rights Action Plans and the HRC’s general guidelines for the preparation of information for UPR. These UN documents stipulate the need for a “truly national undertaking” and the “full involvement” of citizens in the country in preparations for UPR. Though an MFA official accepted the application, police outside the Ministry’s office in Beijing took 50 people into custody, including Cao Shunli.

Cao and the co-applicants each received a response, identical in content, from the MFA on December 18, 2008, which stated that the State Council Information Office was handling the preparations for the national report and the applicants should submit their application to that office. However, police blocked Cao and others outside the State Council Information Office when they tried to submit the application in January and February of 2009, and Cao was briefly taken into custody on both occasions. Just three days after Cao’s brief detention in February, the Chinese delegation in Geneva presented its state report on February 9 to the Human Rights Council, in which it claimed that “broad public consultations were conducted via the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” This was a baseless claim: searches on the MFA’s website at the time did not produce any results with UPR information involving public consultation. The Chinese population was also largely unaware that their country’s human rights record was being put under UN scrutiny for the first time in history.

Cao and fellow activists were undeterred. The government’s deception at the HRC in Geneva infuriated them, making them more determined to speak up for the reality on the ground. The Chinese government today tries to portray itself to the world as a “protector” of human rights, while it has shown no sign of ending its rights abuses at home. In the late 1990s, the government began shifting to this strategy of deception when dealing with international criticisms. In public statements, it now pays lip service to protecting human rights – rather than, as it did before, openly rejecting the idea altogether. This shift allows the government to project a gentler and more tolerant image, which it needs in order to garner the respect that it considers essential for a rising world power. Such an image is desired for attracting business and foreign investment, and for shedding the government’s sinking reputation after its bloody suppression of student protests in 1989. But in recent years, the government has perceptibly moved further at the HRC – from simply wanting to be accepted and play by established rules, to wanting to change the rules.

Taking the government’s words about human rights to task is thus a risky business. About two months after China underwent its first UPR, Cao Shunli was detained at a rally outside Peking University in support of petitioners on April 12, 2009, and eight days later was sent to a year of Re-education through Labor (RTL), to be served at the Daxing RTL camp in Beijing. Her lawyer, Li Heping (李和平), complained that the process of sending her to RTL was marred by violations of legal procedures. While in RTL, Cao refused to admit wrongdoing and criticized the RTL system. She later described being denied food and being tortured. After Cao was released on April 11, 2010, only a couple of weeks later she was sent back to RTL, this time for 15 months for “creating a disturbance,” as authorities were locking up activists to keep them from making trouble during the upcoming Shanghai World Expo. For both of these punishments, authorities cited “destruction of property” and engaging in disruptive fights as concocted evidence against her. Later, in a conversation with a friend about the so-called “destructive” incidents, she talked about the “anger and emotional impulse after being subjected to persecution,” but she reflected that she would protect herself from prosecution and avoid giving authorities any excuses for punishing her for “destructive” actions: “I only have to be clear to myself that this never means retreating and showing cowardice.” Lawyer Teng Biao (滕彪), who represented Cao in the second RTL detention, said that her “objective was to demand the government implement international norms to allow disadvantaged social groups to be heard in the drafting process of ‘National Human Rights Action Plans,’ and she collected thousands of individual cases. For those actions, she has attracted the government’s hatred.”

After Cao’s release from RTL detention for the second time, on July 28, 2011, she and fellow activists focused their efforts to have their collective voice heard in the government’s drafting of China’s second National Human Rights Action Plan. She was again detained briefly outside the State Council Information Office on December 9, 2011. Though the State Council agreed to receive their application three days later, the activists never received a response. After the release of the second action plan in June 2012, Cao and over 100 petitioners submitted a Government Information Disclosure request to the State Council and the Ministry of Public Security, asking them to publicize information about the drafting of the plan and demanding an explanation why they were left out of the process. As a result, Chen Jianfang was criminally detained, and many petitioners were forcibly returned to their hometowns after being seized in the middle of the night. Cao was picked up by police on July 1 after attempting to submit another request for information, an act she and Liu Xiaofang repeated throughout the month. Another activist involved, Peng Lanlan, was criminally detained in August and subsequently tortured and imprisoned for one year.

From December 2008 to August 2012, according to Cao Shunli’s calculations, at least 70 people who sought civil society participation in the drafting of the two National Human Rights Action Plans and China’s State Report for the UPR suffered reprisals, including eight who were sent to RTL, and four who were criminally prosecuted. Cao Shunli, Chen Jianfang, and Chen Fengqiang (陈风强) were subjected to RTL detention. Because of their refusal to admit wrongdoing, many of these activists were subjected to torture and mistreatment.

China’s Second Universal Periodic Review

Having gotten nowhere in obtaining information about civil society consultation in the drafting of the action plans, and despite retaliatory measures against them, Cao and fellow activists applied to the MFA for information disclosure on China’s second UPR report, which the Ministry was preparing for its October 2013 review in Geneva. In November 2012, the applicants received a rare reply that stated UPR information constituted “state secrets,” a term normally reserved for matters of national defense or foreign affairs, and thus could not be disclosed to the public. Cao Shunli knew very well that national preparations for the UPR must be open to civil society consultation, and that UPR was simply not a matter of diplomacy. She and fellow activists pressed for the MFA for an explanation of this outrageous declaration. Cao was briefly detained again in November 2012 and once more on Human Rights Day the following month.

In January 2013, Cao Shunli attended a training program on UN human rights mechanisms in Asia, hosted by Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights, with assistance from CHRD. CHRD had reported on her actions since 2008 and had supported her work since 2012. This was the first time she attended this program, which had for nearly a decade provided training to almost 150 Chinese human rights defenders.

Cao was unassuming, gentle-mannered, and soft-spoken. One would not have connected her to the person who had mounted such fearless and tenacious efforts challenging a powerful government. Despite what she had suffered over the years, she looked healthy, energetic, and optimistic. She spoke with high expectations for the coming UPR, seeing it as a useful tool for changing the human rights situation of millions of Chinese petitioners. To our surprise, she already had in-depth knowledge about the UPR. She said she had done research online with the aid of her English and law school training. We also learned that she had translated many UN documents from English to Chinese, and had printed and distributed them to other petitioners. During the time we spent together, she expressed a strong desire to interact with the UN directly – submitting information to the UPR and participating in the UPR at the Human Rights Council. Cao Shunli told us:

“I must attend the UPR in Geneva. We have collected all this information to bring there. We’ve tried everything, but the government has given us no chances, blocked every channel, and obstructed us at every step.”

Following the training, she continued her push in Beijing with a sharp focus – to get the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain its claim that UPR-related information is a “state secret.” Now, she was armed with more information about the UPR and the various channels for civil society participation. She submitted to the UPR Working Group information about rights abuses of the group of petitioners and reprisals against those seeking participation in the UPR, under the auspices of three groups: Human Rights Campaign in China (HRCC), Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch (CRLW), and CHRD.

Stillhaving not received any reply from the MFA by June 2013, she and a group of activists staged a sit-in outside the MFA. When asked in an interview about her rationale for staging the sit-in, she responded:

“[The government] controls the gigantic state apparatus to manipulate us. We resist but we’re the powerless, with no power to fight. So this [sit-in] is a choice made out of helplessness.”

They simply asked to meet with officials and waited for the Ministry’s reply. At times, up to 200 people, many of whom were women or elderly, took part in the peaceful sit-in, which lasted nearly five months, often day and night (see image below). Police took away all the demonstrators on July 1 and cordoned off the area in front of the MFA. Cao and the group didn’t retreat despite the passing of the July 22 deadline for China’s submission of its state report to the UPR, and as the citizens faced incessant police harassment. As Cao explained:

“We’re waiting for a reply, peacefully and reasonably…We don’t display banners or shout slogans…We’re not even staging a protest against [the government] or opposing it. We’re just waiting for a written reply that should come, according to the law. But we still have no reply, and so we can only wait.”


In August 2013, a court in Beijing ruled in favor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the administrative lawsuit that Cao and more than 60 fellow activists had filed the prior April against the MFA for refusing to disclose UPR-related information. In the suit, the activists asked the court to order the MFA to take back its claim, made in November 2012, that such information is a “state secret.”In its decision, the court stated that the MFA represents the Chinese government during UPR and its submission of the state report to the HRC was a “diplomatic action” that cannot be subjected to a suit waged by citizens. The ruling is clearly at odds with the government’s 2008 “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information,” which specifically stipulates in Article 9 that the government must make public “information that needs to be extensively known or participated in by the general public.” Cao told CHRD at the time:We have to fight this ruling, because UPR is supposed to be “extensively known or participated in by the general public.” Cao and others appealed the ruling. Meanwhile, police – for the third time – cleared away the sit-in in front of the MFA in early September, and for a final time in October, just prior to the UPR on China.

Cao Shunli’s Disappearance and Death

On September 14, 2013, Cao Shunli was taken away by authorities at Beijing Capital International Airport as she was on her way to Geneva to attend a training course on how to use UN instruments to promote protection of human rights, completing the program she began in January. Cao was also to attend a session of the Human Rights Council, which was due to review China in itssecond UPR on October 22. A fellow participant in the program witnessed Cao being stopped by airport security, taken aside, and questioned for more than 20 minutes. Security personnel were apparently getting orders through a cell phone from higher authorities, and they eventually took her away.

Two days before her planned departure, CHRD had checked in with Cao and raised concerns about security risks, which we had also done previously. For months, Chinese authorities clearly were very nervous about the upcoming UPR, even to an unprecedented level. From information CHRD had gathered, police in various cities had visited and interrogated many activists regarding any plans to go to Geneva to attend the UPR. Authorities had refused to issue passports to several invitees and intimidated others into abandoning the trip. Several days before Cao was seized, another invitee had been arrested in connection to a matter unrelated to the trip. In fact, every year, for the same training program, a number of invitees are stopped or prevented from travelling. CHRD always tries to make sure that invited activists fully understand the risks and potentially dangerous consequences for participating in UN human rights activities before they accept the invitation. Over the years, the Chinese government has built up a track record of reprisals against invitees.

In that very last conversation we had, Cao Shunli was rather relaxed and confident: “I don’t think they’d stop me. After all, I have not broken any law. I am only doing what [the government] said they’d be doing all along.”

Cao was held incommunicado for five weeks and her relatives were reportedly threatened to keep quiet until after China’s review before the HRC. On October 21, a police officer at Chaoyang District Detention Center appeared to have “leaked” to another detainee that they were holding Cao. Later, her family was notified that Cao was formally arrested on charges of “creating a disturbance.” She wasn’t allowed a visit from her lawyer Wang Yu (王宇) until October 30. Her lawyer immediately reported that Cao looked frail and needed medical treatment, and submitted a bail request on medical grounds on November 6, with no response from police.

Cao’s health deteriorated at the detention facility, as she was given inadequate medical treatment and authorities repeatedly denied applications for medical release. She had contracted tuberculosis and had a liver condition, which had been managed in the past with proper medicine. But in the detention center, these conditions worsened and began causing ascites, or swelling of the abdomen, and she also developed uterine fibroid tumors and cysts. Authorities refused to grant her request for proper medicine and reportedly even confiscated medication that she had with her. Cao’s lawyer Wang Yu submitted a second application for medical parole in December, and this time she received a call from police who denied the bail application. In total, lawyer Wang saw Cao 4-5 times in detention, with the last visit on January 28. Authorities continued to prepare to prosecute her, sending her case to the Chaoyang District People’s Procuratorate twice.

On February 17, Cao was taken in critical condition to the intensive care unit of Beijing Qinghe Emergency Center, but her family was not informed until February 19. She subsequently lapsed into a coma and was moved to Beijing 309 Military Hospital on February 20. Police patrolled the hospital to keep out her lawyer and supporters. One of her closest associates, Liu Xiaofang, was detained for a month, and several others were also briefly detained for trying to visit Cao at the hospital.As she was fighting for her life, authorities forced her family to sign her release order for medical bail, which took effect on February 27, likely in an attempt to absolve the government of any responsibility if she died. Tragically, Cao Shunli passed away on March 14, 2014.

Reports in state media that claimed Cao had received proper medical treatment in detention fail to answer the question why, when Cao was in good health as she went to board the flight to Geneva on September 14, she died of multiple organ failure just five months later. Doctors at Beijing 309 Military Hospital spoke anonymously to family members of their disbelief in her condition when she arrived at the hospital; they revealed that her state of emaciation and the bedsores all over her back indicated that she had not received any care or treatment, and that nobody had seemed to have even turned her over or washed herfor a very long period of time at the detention center. As a physician was said to have told the family, “We’re doctors, and we don’t care whether the patients were brought in from criminal detention. But how could you wait to bring her here until she’s in such a state?”

After her death, Cao’s remains disappeared for nearly two weeks; her family had only been allowed to briefly view her body on March 14. That was when they noticed sores, discoloration, and bruises all over her body. Days later, staff at the hospital told family members they would have to speak to Chaoyang District police for information on her body and her medical records. Cao’s body now lies in a morgue. Her family and lawyers are still demanding an independent investigation of the cause of her death and they want an autopsy, but only if it can be performed by independent experts.

“Anyone in China could become the next Cao Shunli.”

After Cao Shunli’s death, statements from the EU, US, UK, Canada, UN special experts, and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon poured in, mourning the loss of a true human rights defender, and calling for an investigation and for China to end its reprisals against human rights defenders trying to access UN human rights mechanisms.

On March 19, the Human Rights Council was scheduled to meet to adopt its second UPR report on China. Before the meeting, Chinese diplomats intensely lobbied countries to stop NGOs from using their speaking time to observe a one-minute’s silence for Cao Shunli. Delegates from China’s Permanent Mission in Geneva pressured and intimidated other delegates with “severe consequences” if they failed to support China’s use of procedures to block the tribute to Cao. They also delayed the session to adopt China’s report by one day, a rare move. When the session took place on March 20, a representative of the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) proposed the use of a part of its allocated speaking time to observe a one-minute silence for Cao. A Chinese delegate interrupted ISHR, raising a point of order in objection, and insisted that NGOs could only use their “speaking time” to speak but not do anything else. Many like-minded countries supported China’s objection. Several government delegations, however, including those from the EU, US, Germany, Canada, UK, and Ireland, supported the NGOs’ right to express their views during their speaking time at the HRC. “Silence is a form of speech,” as one delegate put it. The dispute led to a showdown.

Though China managed to block the moment of silence in a vote, many representatives from international NGOs stood up toward the end of the meeting and silently held pictures of Cao Shunli (see image below). Thus, they were successfully able to pay tribute to her in the HRC chamber in one of the most powerful moments in the history of the Council, and the Chinese government was ultimately defeated in trying to stop Cao Shunli from having her voice heard at the UN. Cao was heard on that day, loud and clear, and as many watched on live webcast and shared photos on social media, her voice echoed around the globe.


When the Chinese government frantically went beyond diplomatic protocol on the floor at the HRC to block the moment of silence for Cao Shunli, it could only mean one thing: Cao Shunli’s rights advocacy work is hugely important, and civil society participation in the UN’s work on human rights is as well. The desperate acts of the Chinese diplomats at the Council exposed the Chinese government’s deep fear of Cao Shunli, a symbol of the fight for UN participation by members of a genuine – non-governmental, independent – civil society. This is why the Chinese government subjected Cao to cruel and inhumane punishments to stop her, and even after her death, continues to silence her and erase any trace of her. On the Internet, Chinese authorities censored search results for Cao Shunli’s name soon after her death. The leaders in Beijing are afraid that “anyone in China could be the next Cao Shunli,” as a close friend of Cao wrote.

The death of Cao Shunli also tells the tale of “two faces, one repressive regime.” To the outside world and at the UN, the Chinese governmentdeftly and shrewdly manipulates the UN’s promotion of “civil society participation” by parading government-organized or government-dependent agencies or institutions as, for instance, “members of civil society” or “independent experts.” At home, as it faces its own people, the government harshly persecutes civil society activists like Cao. Behind this tale is an authoritarian government’s instinct to try and fool the UN and the world at large, while maintaining its monopoly on information presented to UN human rights bodies and attempts to shape the “reality” of China’s human rights conditions.

Cao Shunli paid the ultimate price for seeking to directly engage in UN rights bodies. Her sacrifice must shatter any illusions that activists in repressive countries like China are safe in cooperating with the UN and holding their governments accountable for their leaders’ empty promises made at the UN.

Cao Shunli left behind the legacy of her courage to challenge the Chinese government’s lack of respect for human rights, her undivided focus and determination to expose the hollowness of the government’s pledges “to promote and protecthuman rights” and its lies about “consultations with civil society,” as well as her unwavering faith in UN human rights instruments, which she believed could be made to work to improve human rights conditions in China.

CSL timeline

Additional Information

UN Special Procedures, “China: UN experts renew calls for accountability for Cao Shunli’s death”, March 14, 2024.

Justice for Cao Shunli: Sanctions Sought to Hold Chinese Officials Accountable for Torture, September 13, 2017, CHRD

Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders

Rebuttal to Chinese Authorities’ Claims About Death of Cao Shunli, March 20, 2014, CHRD

Chinese Government Must be Held Accountable for Death of Activist Cao Shunli, March 14, 2014, CHRD

Chinese government response on case of Cao Shunli, January 24, 2014

Chinese government response on case of Cao Shunli, January 7, 2014

Chinese Government Lacks the Qualifications for Membership on the UN Human Rights Council, November 7, 2013, CHRD

China Must Stop Excluding Civil Society From UN Human Rights Review, October 7, 2013, CHRD

Chinese government response on case of Cao Shunli, September 23, 2013

Submission to the UN on Cao Shunli, September 19, 2013, CHRD

中国的非暴力抗争—专访外交部前的坚守者曹顺利 (China’s Nonviolent Resistance – Exclusive Interview with Cao Shunli), July 26, 2013, CRLW

The Chinese Government Must End Reprisals Against Activists Demanding Participation in UPR, July 4, 2013, CHRD

向联合国人权理事会普遍定期审议工作组 – 第17次会议提交的报告(Submission to 17th Session of the UN Human Rights Council for Universal Periodic Review Working Group), March 1, 2013, CHRD

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