For the China Story to be Credible, the Chinese Government Must Confront its Abuses

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For the China Story to be Credible, the Chinese Government Must Confront its Abuses

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, June 15, 2021) New incidents of human rights violations in China in recent days, especially in the lead up to the 32nd anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre on June 4th, and now, before the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1st, must stop, especially if Xi Jinping wants China to plausibly present itself to the world as a “credible, lovable, and respectable” country.

In a speech Xi Jinping made on May 31, laying out the priorities for those in charge of China’s external messaging and publicity, Xi called for using China’s civilization of 5,000 years to “comprehensively tell China’s view on development, view on civilization, view on security, view on human rights, view on ecology, and view on the international order and global governance.”

But it is impossible to “tell the China story well” (讲好中国故事) and portray a “true, three-dimensional, and complete China” (真实、立体、全面的中国), as Xi Jinping is calling for, while ignoring the government’s systematic human rights violations.

The whitewashing of history, the silencing of dissidents, arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, systemic torture, the crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, and clampdown on democracy and rule of law in Hong Kong, are all undeniable aspects of reality in China today. Until these issues are dealt with in good faith, it will be nearly impossible to both “tell the China story well” and credibly portray a “true, three-dimensional, and complete” China.

Since Xi Jinping’s speech, a string of human rights cases that have emerged in the past two weeks, apparently tied to the two highly “sensitive” anniversaries, illustrate the heart of the paradox that China’s supreme leader Xi must confront.

Suppressing June 4th Commemorations

June 4, 2021, marked the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in which the Chinese army killed hundreds if not thousands of people in Beijing and other cities, bringing a violent end to the pro-democracy rallies that had spread throughout China in the spring of 1989. Rather than conducting any credible investigation into the massacre, holding the perpetrators accountable, and providing compensation for victims or their families, the Chinese government sought to suppress all mentions of the massacre and enforce its state-sponsored amnesia on the population.

In Hong Kong, where peaceful vigils have taken place every year since 1989, with the exception of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the permit for the vigil in 2021 was not approved on COVID-19 grounds. As if that pretense weren’t obvious enough, the government made its views on the Tiananmen Vigil crystal clear when it warned that anyone who attended an unauthorized protest could get five years in prison and those who publicized it could get one year. The police deployed 7,000 officers to prevent any demonstrations and arrested Chow Hang-tung, the vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organization that organized the annual Tiananmen Vigil.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which applies to Hong Kong and which the Chinese government has signed, clearly mandates that governments must protect the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly. Censoring the internet, detaining individuals who have posted historical photos, and banning peaceful assemblies is not compatible with the treaty.

On the mainland, the government tried to censor any reference to Tiananmen and the crackdown. On Weibo, the popular Twitter-like social media in China, even the candle emoji was removed

In Guangxi province, activist Li Yanjun, was summoned by the police after he posted a video of the iconic tank man on June 4th. 

In Guangdong province, on June 4, Gao Heng, a Christian, raised a small sign on the Guangzhou metro saying “June 4th: Pray for the Country”. He was detained at 1AM on June 5th.  His current whereabouts are unknown, but his friends presume he has been criminally detained.

Also on June 4th, the fire door outside the home of Pastor Wu Wuqing of Early Rain Church was chained up by authorities. Early Rain had in the past held commemorative services to remember the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre.

Prominent Guangzhou-based dissident Wang Aizhong was taken away by authorities on May 28, and the police confiscated 29 of his books. In a recent visit with his wife at the Tianhe District detention center, Wang Aizong said he believed he was being criminally detained on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, which he viewed as simply a way to criminalize speech. Wang said he was very honored to have experienced being a person who has been criminally prosecuted for speech crimes in China during this “Era” [meaning Xi Jinping’s much-touted “New Era”]

CHRD believes that, although it is unclear precisely why Wang Aizhong was detained, the fact that he was detained on May 29, 2014, right ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen when at least 150 people were detained in a massive nationwide crackdown, could indicate that he was detained to prevent him from speaking out ahead of the June 4th anniversary and/or the other sensitive upcoming anniversaries, the July 1st handover anniversary in Hong Kong and the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1st.

Lawyer prevented from reuniting with his daughter

While some people are unlawfully confined to their homes, others are confined within the country in violation of their human rights to leave or return freely. On June 2, Tang Jitian, a former human rights lawyer went to the Fuzhou airport to board a plane bound for Japan, where his daughter has been in a coma for over 30 days, having come down with tuberculosis that has affected her lungs, her brain (with meningitis and cerebral effusions).

However, police blocked him from going through the security check point and ripped up his boarding card, citing the suspicion that he had “endanger national security,” despite calls by a group of scholars and China watchers in an international petition urging the Chinese government to respect Tang’s right to travel on humanitarian grounds. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “(e)veryone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Torture in Incommunicado Detention

The Australian writer Yang Hengjun was put on trial on May 27 after he has been detained for 28 months. Little has been known about his condition until recently, when he revealed that he was tortured while under Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL): he was subjected to 300 prolonged interrogation sessions, deprived of sleep, and forced to sit on tiger benches and other rigid restraint devices.

Meanwhile, the mother of Niu Tengyu , a 22-year-old web developer now serving a 14-year sentence after a website for which he provided IT support leaked information related to Xi Jinping’s family, says that her son now has two permanently disabled fingers as a result of injuries he suffered while being tortured in RSDL. 

Xu Yan, the wife of former lawyer Yu Wensheng, said on June 10 that her husband can no longer write, hold chopsticks, or brush his teeth due to torture and other health problems that he contracted while in RSDL. He also suffers kidney stones and has problems with his spine.

RSDL, the form of secret detention that Yang Hengjun, Niu Tengyu and Yu Wensheng all were subjected to and suffered torture in has been condemned repeatedly by the UN human rights Special Procedures and the Committee against Torture. China has ratified the International Convention against Torture (CAT) in 1988. China has an obligation to implement the provisions of the convention through its domestic law and legal procedures in order to come into compliance. This includes launching a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed.

But the government has not yet done so in the above three cases.

China must change course to achieve communications goals

President Xi Jinping wants the global public to focus only on China’s story of development or poverty alleviation, not his government’s systematic and flagrant human rights violations, as committed in these cases. But if President Xi Jinping really wants the world to have a “credible, lovable, and respectable” international image of China, his government must deal with stubborn human rights facts. Those innocently gunned-down Tiananmen protesters and the demand for justice by “Tiananmen Mothers,” the arbitrarily imprisoned prisoners of conscience, the disabilities from torture of Niu Tengyu and Yu Wensheng cannot just be wished out of existence.

Until China does so, leaders from the international community must make human rights a priority in their policies toward China and a priority in high-level discussions with President Xi Jinping and other high-level Chinese leaders.


Renee Xia, Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012, reneexia[at], @reneexiachrd

William Nee, Research and Advocacy Coordinator (English, Mandarin), +1-623-295-9604, William [at], @williamnee

Ramona Li, Senior Researcher and Advocate (English, Mandarin) +1-202-556-0667, ramonali [at] ,  @RamonaLiCHRD

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