Defending Human Rights in the Era of Dystopia: The Situation of Defenders in China (2019)

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Defending Human Rights in the Era of Dystopia: The Situation of Defenders in China (2019)

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders—February 12, 2020) In 2019, human rights defenders in China and its peripheral regions braved cruel punishment in challenging the Chinese government’s human rights abuses and draconian laws. They refused to back down from the rising totalitarian rule of President Xi Jinping. Pushing for his vision of a dystopian digital surveillance state, Xi wielded his largely unfettered powers to suppress those aspiring for and promoting a vision of China with respect for universal human rights. Defenders sought accountability and justice and stood in solidarity with victims, often putting their own liberties and lives at risk.

30 years after the Chinese Communist Party’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1989, and 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, human rights defenders (HRDs) in China faced huge obstacles as the space for rights advocacy has rapidly closed under Xi’s iron fist. 2019 saw enhanced government efforts to fortify “the Great Firewall” to block “subversive” information and purge dissent in the media and on the Internet. Authorities expanded the use of artificial intelligence, including facial recognition, DNA collection technologies and big data algorithms, to monitor and target critics and suppress ethnic Tibetans and Uyghurs. 

Beijing backed Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam after large pro-democracy protests broke out in the territory, including her use of emergency legislation to ban protesters from wearing face masks. Civil society and international calls for Hong Kong police to be held accountable for excessive use of force against protestors on June 12 and repeatedly afterwards were dismissed. The Chinese government engaged in disinformation campaigns on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube against Hong Kong protests and meddled in Taiwan’s presidential election. 

In 2019, human rights defenders in China defiantly reported rights violations, criticized abusive laws and policies, organized protests, and fought abuses of power in courtrooms. In retaliation, authorities subjected many defenders to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, administrative penalties, collective punishment against their families, and targeted surveillance. 

Defenders in China documented 1,016 cases of prisoners of conscience—individuals in police custody for defending or exercising human rights—at the close of 2019. Of the total, 335 people are under enforced disappearance and pre-trial detention, and 681 people are in prison. (The database also includes 122 defenders who have been released, who are not counted in the total 1,1016 number). The civil liberties essential to advocating and promoting human rights—freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and free association—remained harshly suppressed. Many Tibetans are in jail or under strict monitoring. At least one million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim minorities have been forced into “re-education” internment camps.  

While abusing human rights at home, the Chinese government under Xi has flexed its diplomatic muscle to erode the international human rights system. At the United Nations, China has since 2017 pushed with unprecedented aggressiveness to replace universal human rights with its own alternative vision. China led like-minded governments on the UN Human Rights Council to push for a “development first” model that minimizes civil and political rights. Meanwhile, the Chinese government tried to block HRDs from China from speaking at UN human rights forums.

The human rights crisis in mainland China, its peripheral regions, and its threat to people in other countries, especially those on the “belt and road” of China’s trade and investment expansion, demands a serious international response. The international community must face up to the urgency of guarding democracy, human rights, and rule of law against China’s aggressive campaign to globalize Xi’s alternative vision for “a shared destiny of common humanity” devoid of these universal values. This requires steadfast support to those who fight on the frontlines against dictatorship, digital surveillance, torture, censorship, religious persecution, mass detention, and cultural genocide on mainland China and in its peripheral regions. 

Criminal Prosecution of Defenders as “Enemies of the State”

In 2019, Chinese authorities levelled the most serious political charges against human rights defenders in many more cases. Charges used against HRDs such as “subversion of state power” and “leaking state secrets,” combined with other crimes such as “separatism,” or “terrorism,” are classified under the rubric of “endangering state security” crimes in China’s Criminal Law. “Subversion” was in the past reserved for persecuting high-profile political dissidents and opposition “democracy party” organizers in cases involving Han Chinese outside Xinjiang and Tibet. This move by authorities sent an unmistakable signal of the government’s resolve to stamp out any human rights activism, including advocacy for social-economic rights, of which Chinese leaders have often ostentatiously claimed themselves “leaders” or “champions.” 

During the year, authorities charged several detained Han Chinese defenders with “subversion” for defending socio-economic rights and seeking justice for victims of forced eviction or discrimination against people with disabilities. These defenders included land and housing rights activist Chen Jianfang and three staff—Cheng Yuan, Liu Dazhi, Wu Gejianxiong—at the Changsha Funeng NGO, which focused on promoting disability, health, and LGBTQ rights. 

Lawyer Wang Quanzhang was convicted of “subversion” in January in retaliation for his work as an attorney defending persecuted defenders and religious practitioners. NGO leader Huang Qi, who ran the website “64 Tianwang” that published grievances against abusive officials, received a 12-year sentence in July for “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities” and “intentionally leaking state secrets.” Police detained defenders Zhang Baocheng and Zhang Zhongshun on terrorism related crimes and detained lawyer Hao Jinsong for his online speech, citing the Counter Terrorism Law. 

The more commonly used “endangering state security” criminal charge against defenders over the years, “inciting subversion against state power,” which can carry a lighter sentence than “subversion,” remained authorities’ favoured weapon against HRDs in 2019. In many cases, “inciting subversion” became the fallback crime used against defenders: Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, Li Yingjun, and debarred lawyer Ding Jiaxi, detained in a December 26 raid, were accused of this crime. Courts convicted NGO leader Liu Feiyue and pastor Wang Yi of “inciting subversion” and handed down harsh penalties. 

Chinese law gives police broad powers to curtail due process rights of defendants accused of “national security” crimes. In practically all the rejections to lawyers’ requests to meet their clients, police cited “national security” as the basis for depriving detainees’ right to legal counsel. Such violations of due process rights remained entrenched and systematic in 2019. Human rights lawyers who demanded authorities respect due process rights, who spoke out about the abuses of these rights, faced serious reprisals. Lawyers Xia LinZhou ShifengWang QuanzhangLi Yuhan, and Yu Wensheng remained behind bars and police detained lawyers Qin Yongpei and Chen Jiahong in 2019. Authorities stripped the law licenses from other lawyers, including Liu Zhengqing and Chang Weiping, thus preventing them from practicing law. 

Rampant Use of Enforced Disappearance as Handy Tool of Punishment 

In 2019, police routinely dumped detained defenders into “residential surveillance at a (police-)designated location” (RSDL). Detainees in RSDL are kept in a secret location for up to six months without access to lawyers or judges and are at high risk of torture. UN human rights experts called RSDL tantamount to enforced disappearance and urged China to abolish it. 

Defenders in China documented 17 cases of individuals disappeared into RSDL at the close of 2019. In a nationwide clampdown on mainlanders supporting the Hong Kong protests, Guangzhou police disappeared journalist and feminist activist Huang Xueqin into RSDL for three months after she wrote about the protests. Shenzhen police put three labor rights activists who edited the iLabour online publication into RSDL for reporting on migrant workers’ campaigns seeking compensation for pneumoconiosis. Enforced disappearance has not been limited to RSDL in China. August 2019 marked the two-year anniversary of the disappearance into police custody of disbarred lawyer Gao Zhisheng. His whereabouts remained unknown at the time of this report’s release. 

At least one million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim minorities have been forcibly disappeared into so-called “re-education camps” and many remained unaccounted for by their families. The Chinese government continues to maintain its system of “vocational training” internment camps and has used international platforms to defend its policy of mass arbitrary detention. Two leaked government documents revealed the intent and purpose of the camps. In December, the Xinjiang governor told reporters that all detainees had been released, however, that claim cannot be independently verified and many Uyghurs overseas still cannot contact their missing family members. Independent NGOs and UN independent experts have not been able to visit the region. China defied calls from many governments in July and October to close the internment camps. The government ignored 12 UN human rights experts’ denouncement of China’s Counter-Terrorism Law for its breach of international human rights law.  

Deaths in Detention, Medical Deprivation, and other Forms of Torture

Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment remained rampant in China in 2019. CHRD has continued to draw urgent attention to HRDs subjected to a particularly lethal form of torture and cruel punishment —deprivation of medical treatment for gravely ill detainees or prisoners of conscience in detention centers, jails, or extrajudicial detention camps. There are nine detained HRDs who suffer from serious illnesses on CHRD’s medical watch list, and whom authorities have refused to provide proper medical treatment. Authorities also rejected their lawyers’ requests for their release on medical grounds. 

The deadly consequences of torture continued to play out in 2019. Citizen lawyer Ji Sizun and detained activist Wang Meiyu died from suspected torture. No transparent and independent investigation has been conducted into their deaths. No official responsible is known to have been held accountable. In July 2019, citizen journalist and NGO director Huang Qi, who has suffered from a terminal kidney disease, was sentenced to 12-years in prison. Huang has been denied necessary medical treatment while in custody and his family and human rights groups believe the lengthy sentence is essentially a death sentence for Huang. Several detained Uyghurs reportedly died in Xinjiang’s extrajudicial detention facilities. There are also reports of Tibetans dying following torture in prison. 

Engaging in another alarming form of cruel and inhumane punishment, police in China increasingly used collective punishment against families, including children, of persecuted defenders. In 2019, one child of the human rights lawyer Li Heping was denied a passport by authorities for the third time for traveling abroad for school. Beijing police forced jailed rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s 6-year-old son out of school four days after he started first grade. Pu Wenqing, the 87-year-old mother of Huang Qi, disappeared into police custody for weeks and has remained under round-the-clock surveillance for demanding justice for her son. Police accused the wife of one of three detained NGO activists of “subversion” and monitored and restricted her movement. Authorities routinely made family members suffer by raiding their residences, confiscating bank cards, identification documents, and electronics. In Xinjiang, some Uyghurs were detained in internment camps or punished simply because their overseas family members campaigned or spoke out about mass detention, or because their family members had travelled abroad or had been detained themselves in camps. 

Digital Surveillance and Cyber Policing of Defenders

Human rights activists faced obstruction and speedy punishment from police armed with the ever-present and invasive digital surveillance technology. In February 2019, when lawyer Jiang Tianyong was released from prison, police installed security cameras facing his sister’s home where he was forced to stay. Filmmaker Deng Chuanbin received a phone call from police within minutes of posting a “politically-sensitive” comment on social media in May. Deng deleted the post but police still detained him for months. In many cities, police use facial recognition technology at subway stops, bus and train stations to identify and detain activists and petitioners attempting to travel to state capitals to file complaints. Those taken to police stations were subjected to standard biometric data collection, including being fingerprinted, DNA and blood samples taken, and biometric photographs taken. Forced biometric data collection was routine at police check points in Xinjiang.

The Internet inside China remained a strictly censored and heavily policed space. A new law on encryption, which went into effect on January 1, 2020, requires encryption technology “relevant to national security,” a legally nebulous phrase, to be inspected before being released. Millions of Chinese relied on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to scale the state’s digital censorship system—“the Great Firewall”—to gain access to online information outside China; the punishment for using VPNs unapproved by authorities included imprisonment. Authorities selectively enforced the ban on unapproved VPNs, including targeting providers and users. The government announced a plan to develop “big data and artificial intelligence technology” to track “trouble makers” and “maintain stability.”

Police continued to target defenders who scaled the Great Firewall to use overseas social media. Human rights activists using VPNs to access blocked Twitter or Facebook so that they could freely express their views, including advocating human rights, encountered police summons or criminal prosecution in 2019. Police knocked on doors or summoned defenders and forced them to delete their posts or accounts. One Hui Muslim student revealed that she had been imprisoned in an internment camp in Xinjiang for using a VPN, which police consider a “terrorist software.” Meanwhile, Chinese state media and government departments and officials enjoy unrestricted access to use Twitter and Facebook to spread disinformation and intimidate overseas critics and international human rights activists. 

Silencing Free Expression in China and Beyond

China remained one of the most restrictive countries for free expression. The state tightly controls the media (newspapers, TV, radio, print and digital publications) which could have deadly consequences as demonstrated in the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in December 2019. Local authorities did not acknowledge the severity of the virus’ rapid spread through human-to-human transmission until the following month and instead detained or punished outspoken doctors and residents for “spreading rumours.” Government censors deleted millions of posts online and issued strict guidelines to web censors after the February 2020 death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who had been punished for trying to send an early warning and died from the virus. Millions of Chinese netizens expressed grief, outrage, and demands for free speech in response to Dr. Li’s death.

Authorities blocked Chinese users from accessing all language versions of Wikipedia and several international media sites around the June 4th anniversary. Two German news sites were blocked likely due to their coverage of the Hong Kong protests. Employees at Chinese tech companies revealed that in most cases, Internet censorship around sensitive dates like the June 4th anniversary, has been automated by artificial intelligence. Chinese IT companies censor information under pressure from the government. 

Academic freedom came under increasing threats. Some Chinese universities removed clauses on “freedom of thought” from their charters. The Ministry of Education promulgated new rules on ideological and political studies. Professors faced textbooks censorshipsuspension and investigation, or imprisonment for classroom speech or publications. Police detained foreign professors when they travelled to China. 

The government censored information about the Hong Kong protests and detained and threatened mainland supporters. CHRD has tracked at least 30 cases involving mainlanders persecuted with criminal or administrative detention for expressing support for the Hong Kong protests. Many HRDs told CHRD sources that they were sternly warned by police to keep silent about Hong Kong. CHRD also documented 37 cases involving individuals who faced detention or police intimidation for expression views online to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. In early June, authorities shut down millions of WeChat accounts, including thousands of celebrities’ accounts.

In 2019, several incidents indicated the Chinese government decisive move to impose censorship on foreigners affiliated with corporations doing business in China, or on foreigners who use apps developed by Chinese companies. The popular app Tik Tok, owned by the Chinese company Byte Dance, was apparently censoring users outside China. A teenager in New Jersey suspected that the video she posted on the detention camps in Xinjiang was the reason for her account being temporarily blocked by Tik Tok. Chinese state media and government censors encouraged online outrage over an NBA staff member’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors and over a soccer star speaking out about Uyghur persecution. Police detained at least two Chinese who returned to China for family visits over their social media comments posted while they were abroad. In December, China and Russia pushed through the UN General Assembly the adoption of a resolution on a new cybercrime treaty, which many feared could legitimise authoritarian governments’ suppression on free expression at home and beyond. 

Harsh Measures against Peaceful Protests and Private Gatherings

Despite the threat of stiff legal sanctions and police violence, people continued to take to the streets to air their grievances and demand justice. Under Chinese law, all assemblies must be approved by police and any protests with messages critical of the government are forbidden. Spontaneous protests are destined for clampdown by armed police and participants face severe punishments.

Yet, dozens of migrant workers stricken with pneumoconiosis from working in Shenzhen still marched in Hunan demanding fair compensation. Thousands of residents in WuhanYunfu CityWenlou township protested proposed polluting plants in their backyards. Teachersstudentsfamilies of victims of faulty vaccines, Catholics, and army veterans also held demonstrations in many cities throughout 2019.  Some of these protesters suffered from detention and police brutality. Ahead of International Labor Day on May 1, police interrogated and threatened activists to prevent workers from holding demonstrations.

Authorities continued to extend the government’s restrictions on free assemblies into friends’ gatherings in private residences in 2019. With the aid of digital surveillance of cell phone and messaging apps, police could quickly track down such gatherings. Shandong police summoned and interrogated activists and lawyers who attended a dinner gathering in Xiamen in early December. Four of them remain disappeared in police custody on “endangering state security” criminal charges at the time of writing. 

Suppression on Free Association Endangers Civil Society 

The newly enacted Overseas NGOs Law has had a detrimental impact on international and domestic NGOs working to promote human rights in China. The law took effect in January 2017 and has severely restricted NGO activities and practically cut off overseas funding for independent rights-based advocacy groups. It effectively closed down much of the already severely limited space for civil society. 

In the first known cases of government sanctions against international NGOs under the Overseas NGO Law, authorities detained the founder of Rainbow China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Kam Hung, in January. The government also formally investigated the US-based NGO Asia Catalyst for allegedly “violating” the law in November. 

Domestic NGO workers risk jail if their organizations had not obtained official registration. Independent rights-based organizations almost never receive government recognition. The Guangzhou Municipal Civil Affairs Department have published a quarterly list of “illegal social organizations” on its website. It urged people to report on “illegal” groups. This government agency also sanctioned two independent groups, Guangzhou Gender Education Center and Guangzhou University Rainbow Group. Consequently, both groups had to shut down operations. 

In 2019, since practically all independent groups advocating human rights, democracy, or rule of law ceased operation, some of their key members were in jail, and advocacy activities were driven underground, authorities went after groups advocating for what had in the past been considered less politically-sensitive, such as economic equality and social discrimination. Police targeted labor rights groups in 2019. In January, police detained Zhang Zhiru, the director of Shenzhen Chunfeng Labour Dispute Service Centre, and two former staff members. In May, police detained staff members and volunteers of several labor organizations, including Guangdong Mumian Social Work Center, Qinghu Social Learning Center, and Leng Quan Hope Social Centre. In July, Changsha police detained the co-founder and two staff members at Changsha Funeng NGO, which advocated for health and disability rights. Police accused all three of “subversion against state power” and have held them incommunicado. Labor rights activist Chen Weixiang was sent to administrative detention for 15-days at the end of December. 


To the Chinese government:

  • End arbitrary detention of anyone who exercises and promotes human rights in China;
  • Repeal the political crimes of “subversion” and “inciting subversion” against state power, revise legislation on counter-terrorism and state secrets to bring them into line with international human rights standards;  
  • Abolish the use of torture and enforced disappearances in all its forms, including the “residential surveillance at a designated location” system; 
  • Release all Uyghurs and ethnic minorities held in “re-education” internment camps and end the cultural genocide against Uyghurs and Tibetans;
  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression and press, end censorship, dismantle the digital surveillance police state, including the Great Firewall; 
  • Respect the right to free assembly and association, lift criminal and administrative sanctions against NGOs, and hold police accountable for use of violence against peaceful demonstrations;
  • End interference in Hong Kong affairs and allow an independent inquiry into excessive use of force by Hong Kong Police Force against protesters.

To the international community:

  • Governments must publicly raise serious concerns about the human rights crisis in China and its peripheral regions, including systematic abuses of the Uyghur and Tibetan people, through bilateral high-level visits and multilateral platforms such as the UN Human Rights Council and the European Union;
  • Governments must diligently apply their human rights sanction regimes to Chinese or Hong Kong officials who are complicit in human rights violations on the mainland, in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong;
  • The UN must take concrete measures to end government reprisals against human rights defenders who engage or seek to engage with UN human rights mechanisms, and guard against the aggressive efforts by China and like-minded Member States to cripple the UN system by weakening its human rights pillar;
  • The international community, including governments and NGOs, must strengthen support to human rights defenders in China and its peripheral regions. 


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

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

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