Defending human rights deemed bigger political offense under Xi

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Originally published by Nikkei Asian Review on February 16, 2017

HONG KONG — China is growing less tolerant of basic human rights under the reign of President Xi Jinping. The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, or CHRD, warned that a crackdown on human rights activists is intensifying, with the government increasingly treating them like political dissidents.

In a report released Thursday, the nongovernmental organization said China has “moved further away from political openness and rule of law reform in 2016” as Xi tightened his grip on power.

People working to promote basic human rights, including human rights lawyers and civil rights activists, were detained, jailed and tortured, the group said, while some just disappeared. According to the group, 238 human rights defenders were criminally detained after Xi rose to power in 2013, and over half of them were formally arrested.

A number of them were persecuted for “endangering state security” offenses, charged with alleged crimes such as “subversion of state power,” “inciting subversion of state power” and “leaking state secrets.” For instance, Zhang Haitao, a human rights activist based in Xinjiang, was given a 19-year prison sentence in January 2016 for writing about human rights abuses on a local website and giving interviews to foreign media. A Xinjiang court convicted him of “inciting subversion” and “providing intelligence overseas.”

The report notes that restrictions were tightened especially in three realms of basic rights — freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Even though Article 35 of the Chinese constitution clearly stipulates that citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration,” a number of media outlets were forced to shut down, while internet content was blocked and erased. Article 41 spells out that citizens “have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary” as well.

Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace laureate, remains in prison on an 11-year term for peacefully expressing his views in the “Charter 08” manifesto on human rights in China. A similar fate has befallen on activist Zhang Shengyu and internet writer Liang Qinhui. A Guangdong court in April slapped Zhang with four years in jail and Liang with an 18-month term for supporting the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

In the meantime, a number of new draconian laws were enacted to bolster the force of crackdown efforts. A law on management of overseas NGO activity was passed in April, for instance, to support the “criminalization of NGOs for seeking and receiving foreign funding.” CHRD points out that although the law took effect on Jan. 1, 2017, local NGOs in China were aggressively pursued by the authorities even before that.

“These measures take aim at closing off the already diminishing civil society space,” Renee Xia, CHRD‘s international director, said in a statement. She added these laws and regulations have “effectively legalized Xi Jinping’s harsh crackdowns on activists and lawyers who tried to defend the rights of migrant workers, women, suppressed faith groups or ethnic minorities.” CHRD is demanding that Xi “uphold the Chinese constitution” and stop criminalizing lawyers and activists.

The situation looks quite dim, but supporters in Hong Kong are not shying away. Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, believes that the Chinese government “appears to be so paranoid and so frightened in hearing dissenting voices.” During a demonstration supporting Liu Xiaobo in front of Beijing’s representative office, he said the Chinese government’s “inside is weak and maybe quite fragile.”

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