Stand Up for All the Rights and Freedoms without Discrimination

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Stand Up for All the Rights and Freedoms without Discrimination

Defend Principles Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

(Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders – December 10, 2018) 

In China, workers protesting unpaid wages, workplace illnesses and unsafe working conditions encountered police brutality, censorship and detention;

Villages, towns, and markets in Xinjiang are empty, as millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims have been forced into internment camps as part of the Chinese government’s counter-terrorism campaign; 

Thousands of migrant laborers and their families have been evicted from cities, with officials referring to them as the “low-end population” because their residential status at birth marked them for life; 

Petitioners traveling to Beijing found themselves blocked from boarding buses or trains, sometimes identified by facial recognition or other surveillance tools, despite no known criminal charges against them. 

These workers, Uyghurs, families, petitioners, underpaid teachers, and unemployed veterans are among the millions of Chinese prohibited and punished by the authoritarian state from organizing, demonstrating, going on strike, running in local elections, or speaking freely. Their stories poke gaping holes in the “success” story of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” that the Chinese government is selling to the world. 

The values and principles underpinning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by member states of the United Nations seventy years ago, on December 10, is under intensified assault today by powerful authoritarian governments and nationalist leaders. Spearheading an aggressive campaign that is threatening to distort, weaken, and demolish the very core of the human rights principle—that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind”—is the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping. On the 70thanniversary of the UDHR, it is more important than ever to stand up for the universality and integrity of human rights.

Since a major speech by Xi Jinping at the UN in Geneva in January 2017, the Chinese government has actively advanced this campaign through aggressive tactics in influencing and weakening UN human rights mechanisms. The government made the further claim at a recent UN review of China’s human rights that “there is no universal road for the development of human rights in the world.” In place of the principles of universal and indivisible human rights, the Xi government wants to globalize “human rights with Chinese characteristics.” 

The Xi government has been pushing UN member states to take a “win-win cooperation” approach, which, once adopted, would practically silence any criticism of its human rights violations in China and violations committed in its operations to replicate the “China model” in many parts of the world, e.g., through the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The ”China model” that Xi Jinping is promoting today as a “shared destiny of common humanity” has left a trail of serious human rights abuses and numerous victims in China. These so-called “human rights with Chinese characteristics” have little to do with human rights enshrined in the UDHR, but has everything to do with systemic discrimination entrenched in Chinese societyand the ruthless suppression on civil and political liberties by the government.

In Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, the Chinese government is trying to shape a new world order in its own mirror image—mega infrastructure projects and rapid development coupled with expanding disparities, big data censorship and surveillance, erasure of ethnic and religious minority culture, suppression of labor rights, destruction of the environment, while perpetuating unaccountable governance without rule of law. 

At the recent UN human rights peer review, known as Universal Periodic Review, the Chinese government claimed that it achieved “great success” in protecting economic, social and cultural human rights (ESC rights). Many governments accepted such a claim at face value. They profusely praised the Chinese government while turning a blind eye not only to China’s systematic abuse of civil and political rights, suppression on lawyers for their efforts at rule of law reform, arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, and torture of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, but also, more glaringly, the government’s failure in fulfilling its treaty obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Economic Growth Does Not Mean Protection of Social Economic Human Rights

China’s rapid economic growth since the adoption of the “opening and reform” policy, marking its 40thanniversary this month, must not be mistaken for “success” in protecting ESC rights. The jobs, travel, education, healthcare, pension, properties, and savings that many Chinese are allowed to enjoy today, in exchange for not challenging the government’s monopoly of power, are not safeguarded by the authoritarian system as equally endowed, inalienable rights for everybody in China. 

Though China has the second-largest economy in the world, it is “severely unequal” based on an International Monetary Fund study; China’s Gini coefficient has rapidly increased by a total of about 15 Gini points since 1990, to 50 points by 2013. A World Bank study published in 2018 showed that the top 10% in China became substantially richer as the bottom 50% became poorer.The urban-rural gap in national income has grown considerably between 1978 and 2015 due to a rise in urban incomes and population. China’s National Bureau of Statistics estimates that 43.3 million people in China’s rural areas still live in extreme poverty (defined as earning 2,300 RMB per year, or less than $1 USD/day), but it does not provide numbers of the urban poor and poor migrant laborers. As Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign goes after mostly his political rivals and other mid-to-high level officials, many top leaders and their families, like those of Xi Jinping and Wen Jiabao, have amassed vast fortunes. The Panama Paper leaks disclosed names of the families of three out of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members, China’s most powerful body. 

The one-party ruled government allowed enough freedom for the economy to grow, but still controls social economic opportunities, dictates what to worship or teach, what information can be searched or posted on the Internet. Stripped of and left unprotected by civil and political rights, the Chinese people, whether housing/land owners or tycoons, rural migrants or movie stars, factory workers or businesspeople, army veterans or high-ranking officials, are all vulnerable to the tyrannical state, which has unconstrained power to rob them of their fortunes, jobs, houses, land, monitor their places of worship, forbid expression of their ethnic cultural identities, and silence their complaints. That is not what success in protecting social, economic and cultural rights look like.   

China has done too little in ending discrimination against various social, economic, cultural, and religious groups, in protecting equal rights to housing, health, and employment, and in ensuring equal access to basic services and the social safety net, as we explain in more detail below.

  • Systematic Discrimination

The household registration (hukou) system perpetuates state-sponsored discrimination against rural residents and migrant workers by restricting their access to government-subsidized social services and benefits, such as medical care, public education, housing, employment opportunities, and pensions, that are often only available to urban residents. Reforms to hukouhave stalled as the government continues to ignore a recommendation made by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) to abolish the system outright.

Due to a lack of access to public schools and housing in cities, many rural children, approximately 20% of all children in China (50-60 million), are “left behind” without parental care in the villages while their parents look for work in cities. These children are neglected, and vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking.

Extreme poverty in China today disproportionally affects ethnic minoritiesAccording to the Chinese government, ethnic minorities make up 8.49% of the population but account for approximately 30% of the rural poor in the country. Methods used to reduce poverty in ethnic minority areas have involved forced relocation and the massive migration of the majority Han people into the area, and has contributed to the destruction of the environment, harming of traditional cultures, and has disproportionately benefited Han migrants with job opportunities. 

Gender discrimination remains deeply entrenched in China. Women are mostly locked out of the corridors of power—there are no women on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, only one woman on the 25-member Politburo, 10 on the 204-member Party Central Committee, and no female provincial or regional Party secretaries. According to the World Economic Forum, women in China earn 64% of what men earn in 2017, a decreased rate from a peak in 2010. 20% of civil service job ads for 2019 reportedly specify “men only,” reflecting a steady increase in blatant gender discrimination. Women’s rights activists have been harassed and NGOs shut down as police have targeted women rights defenders with greater intensity since 2014. 

  • Forced Evictions   

Large scale land grabs and forced evictionsoften violent, have led to some of the most widespread and persistent human rights abuses during the past four decades of rapid development. In 2014, CESCR raised alarm over the Chinese government’s persistent use of forced evictions in thousands of cases and inadequate and poorly implemented regulations on housing rights. In 2009, the government admitted that between 70-80% of all petitions involved forced evictions. 

Recent international attention highlighted the mass evictions of migrant workers from Beijing, the imprisonment of villagers who resisted demolition in Fujian Province, and demolition and land grabs in Beijing. The government has harshly punished housing/land rights victims turned activists, such as Jia Lingmin (贾灵敏)Ni Yulan (倪玉兰)Su Changlan (苏昌兰), and Chen Jianfang (陈建芳).  

  • Rising Medical Costs, Unaffordable Healthcare 

Lack of transparency and accountability are largely responsible for several incidents of faulty vaccines harming children in 2018 alone. Despite government promises to punish illegal production and tighten regulations, police detained and intimidated victims and their families for speaking out and seeking redress. At least eight family members were detained in Beijing in September when they tried to stage a protest demanding national legislation tightening regulation on companies making vaccines.

Skyrocketing costs for medical treatment has left many patients in despair, especially for the rural population, who are 30% more likely to die after a cancer diagnosis than an urban resident. Inadequate healthcare facilities and unaffordable care have led to growing number of violent incidents in hospitals. Meanwhile, authorities continue to silence critics of the government’s poor public health system and advocates for reforming the existing medical insurance system that provides preferential treatments to government employees and the urban rich. Since 2014, authorities have targeted Yirenping, a NGO advocating elimination of policies discriminating against people with certain health conditions, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, and persons with disability, drastically reducing its operations.  

  • Suppression of Workers’ Rights 

Chinese workers are barred by the government from organizing or joining independent trade unions, exercising the right to strike, and engaging in collective bargaining with employers. Taking great risks, workers have gone on strikes and organized protests to demand protectin of their basic labor rights. Police repeatedly responded with arrests and brute force. In most cases, the workers’ grievances were not addressed. 

In April 2018, crane operators in 30 cities in 19 provinces went on strike, calling for a national strike on International Labor Day to demand better safety protections and higher pay. Crane operators work in a dangerous industry where they are at high risk of injury, but make monthly salary as low as 4,000 RMB (approx. $611 USD). Police swiftly detained, interrogated, and intimidated the workers, while censors deleted online posts to prevent a May Day national strike.

In November, over 700 migrant workers tried to lodge their grievances with the government and staged protests over a lack of compensation and medical care. They had become ill with pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling dust, from working in a factory in Shenzhen. Police broke up the protests and detained a number of workers. One NGO estimates that roughly six million Chinese workers, mostly migrant laborers from rural villages, have been fired from their jobs with little compensation after they got sick with pneumoconiosis. They can no longer work and most cannot afford treatment for the incurable disease, and many languish in extreme poverty. 

Authorities have heightened persecution of labor organizers and rights activists in recent years. During the summer, authorities detained a number of labor organizers and student activists supporting striking workers at a Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen. State media portrayed the strike as orchestrated by a “foreign funded” NGO. By September, 14 students and activists remained in custody, including four that had been formally arrested. In November, police kidnapped and put in secret detention 12 more students. Peking University’s Party secretary claimed there had been an “illegal organization” that infiltrated the university and “incited subversion of state power.” 

Poor labor protections and restrictions on labor rights in Chinaare being “exported” to other countries in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, where Chinese companies are building mega construction projects, as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In one measure of the seriousness of concerns raised by these practices, in May and June 2018, several UN human rights experts wrote to the Chinese government about accusations of labor and rights violations committed by Chinese state-owned companies in Zimbabwe and Ecuador.

  • Left Behind, Shut Out of Social Safety Net 

The discriminatory rural-urban divide, poor protection of labor rights, and weak legislation to protect basic social benefits have left many people in disadvantaged social groups in limbo. In recent years, spontaneous demonstrations by teachers, bank clerks, army veterans, and others demanding better pension, unpaid wages, or fair compensation have become common sights in many cities.

Veterans protesting in Luohe, Henan Province with a banner reading “We Want to Work, We Want to Eat, We Need to Care for the Elderly.”

China’s veteran population of approximately 57 million grew even more when Xi Jinping announced a cut to troops by 300,000 in 2015. A newly established Ministry of Veteran Affairs has apparently not helped the many demobilized soldiers find jobs and housing. In 2018, armed police responded to several veteran protests with heavy deployment, tear gas, detentions in several provinces.  

For years, public school teachers in rural areas and small towns have protested the lack of pensions, severance pay, and the systematically lower wages than their counterparts in urban public schools. They are typically contracted to teach, without job security or any benefits.  In March, a large protest of teachers demanding fair wages and benefits in Anhui province was met with strong police response– kidnapping, beating, and detention. More protests by teachers, including those from urban public school and retirees, demanding better benefits took place throughout the year in Liaoning ProvinceSichuan,Inner MongoliaShaanxiHenanGansuJilinHeilongjiang, and Guizhou.

  • “Sinicization” Policy to Erase Ethnic-Religious Minority Cultures in Western Regions  

The Chinese government has enforced a policy of “Sinicizing” ethnic Tibetan and Uyghur cultures – a complete “make over” of their traditions to “harmonize” with the state-promoted Chinese nationalism. The government’s policy—expressed through a speech by Xi Jinping and enacted in legislation like the Xinjiang De-Extremism Regulations— aims to “make religion more Chinese” in the name of countering extremism. To achieve this cultural cleansing, the government has detained up to 3 million Uyghur Muslims in “massive internment camps shrouded in secrecy” and heavily criminalized many to force them to denounce their faith and pledge loyalty to the Chinese state. Through state media propaganda, the government touts the “Xinjiang model” for countering terrorism and religious extremism as “great progress” in “development of human rights in the new era in Chinas” and a model for the world.

Many ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang have been punished for practicing Islam – praying, having religious texts on cell phones, having a long beard, wearing a headscarf, not drinking alcohol, and keeping a special diet—all considered by authorities to be signs of “religious extremism.” Over a million Han Chinese have moved into Uyghur homes in Xinjiang, closely monitoring residents to make sure that they have exorcised any traits of traditional culture from their daily life. Many mosques and major Uyghur cultural heritage sites, like the Old City of Kashgar, have been demolished. Some scholars argue that the Chinese government is practising a form of “cultural genocide” in Xinjiang.

Similar campaigns at cultural cleansing have been underway in Tibet. Tibetan cultural centers have been demolished or removed, such as the Larung Gar monastery in Sichuan which local authorities partially demolished and forcibly evicted resident nuns and monks in 2016. In October 2018, authorities issued a notice that no more large religious gatherings can be held at the site. In February, a fire broke out at the 7thcentury Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, one of the holiest sites in Tibet Buddhism, but there are fears that the government has suppressed information on the extent of the damage and has been conducting inappropriate repairs in secret. There are reportedly only 50 traditional Tibetan homes left in Lhasa, from approximately 700 in 1948, and government’s “modernisation” of local areas is primarily focused on strengthening security measures and surveillance and reproducing traditional buildings for tourists. Han Chinese tourism has rapidly increased in Tibet, despite ethnic Tibetans being denied passports and travel rights outside of the region. 

Other aspects of Tibetan and Uyghur culture—the Tibetan and Uyghur languages—have been downgraded or banned in school curriculum. An advocate for Tibetan language was jailed in 2018 and educational department officials in the city of Hotan in Xinjiang banned the use of the Uyghur language in schools in 2017.

On the 70thanniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, standing up to defend the universality and integrity of all human rights and freedoms against the encroachment of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” is all the more urgent today. The track record of the “China model” demonstrates that, despite rapid economic growth, social, economic and cultural human rights have not been safeguarded in the absence of civil and political liberties, and that an expanding economy, when decoupled from accountable governance and rule of law, has not led to equal protection of social and economic rights.


Renee Xia, International Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012, reneexia[at], Follow on Twitter: @ReneeXiaCHRD

Victor Clemens, Researcher (English), +1 209 643 0539, victorclemens[at], Follow on Twitter: @VictorClemens

Frances Eve, Researcher (English), +1 661 240 9177 franceseve[at], Follow on Twitter: @FrancesEveCHRD

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