What you need to know
Xi Jinping's track record on human rights is bleak across the board.
By Joseph Y.S. Cheng
The mass protests of May-June 1989 – which ended with the killing of unarmed protesters commonly referred to as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre” – were, in all likelihood, the most significant grassroots challenge to Communist Party control in the 69-year history of the People’s Republic of China. Many of the concerned citizens who took the streets during those months hoped for a government that would implement political reforms, combat corruption, and embrace human rights.
Since the suppression of the Tiananmen Incident, despite soaring economic growth, little or no progress has been made on any of the protesters’ aspirations. The Party regime has introduced no serious political reforms, and China’s liberal intelligentsia have obviously given up hope on CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, whose rule has become increasingly authoritarian. The CCP’s attempts to bury any public memory of the Tiananmen Incident are emblematic of this backsliding; many young people in China today have little idea what happened that night in Beijing, while the people of Hong Kong – who are supposed to enjoy freedom of speech and expression – were recently issued a warning against any public calls to “end one-party dictatorship” by former top PRC administrator for the territory.
Xi very evidently believes that absolute loyalty to the CCP is closely linked with social and political stability. As a result, he has greatly tightened state control over the Internet and social media, and demanded that official mass media swear political loyalty to the CCP, even going so far as to say that they should be “surnamed Party”. He and the CCP have used their strengthened tools of repression to target groups seeking to assert the individual’s right to justice and autonomy in the face of Party control.
Three groups in particular stand out, both in their willingness to stand against Xi’s emphasis on ideological orthodoxy, and in the consequences they have been made to suffer as a result: human rights lawyers, autonomous labor groups, and underground churches. Under the Hu-Wen administration, all three were subject to regular state harassment, but still enjoyed some space to operate. As part of the Xi administration’s crackdown on organization and expression, they have been viewed as threats to the Party regime, and treated accordingly.
Human rights lawyers
The fate of China’s human rights lawyers is perhaps the best example of the new climate. On July 9, 2015, Chinese authorities removed, detained or questioned at least 159 lawyers and activists throughout China, in what rapidly came to be known as the “709 Incident”. These 159 individuals were well known for their attempts to use the PRC legal system to protect clients’ rights, including clients facing forced evictions and persecution for their religious beliefs.
Previous Chinese leaders sought to support the rule of law, at least nominally, and praised the human rights lawyers who supported them in their goal. The Xi administration has widened the gap between rhetoric and action to a stunning degree. Xi has repeatedly stressed the need for a society “based on laws”; but his administration has designated human rights lawyers a threat, despite the fact that none have sought to challenge the Party regime.
Chinese authorities have deployed ill-defined criminal charges against human rights lawyers and activists, charges with names such as “creating disturbances” and “disturbing social order”. Since the mid-2010s, “inciting subversion of state power”, a serious charge that can result in prison terms of 10 years or more, has been trotted out with increasing frequency. Lawyers and activists are also frequently put on trial on national television, where they are encouraged to “voluntarily” confess to their crimes. These “confessions” are used to justify the arrests and trials, while humiliating the activists. It is believed that some of the “confessions” have been elicited through torture, which is, according to detainee accounts, widely practiced by China’s public security apparatus.
Official media now characterize these human rights lawyers as a “major criminal gang”, accusing them of “stirring up several serious public opinion issues” and “disrupting the legal process”. Even today the crackdown persists, and the list of lawyers affected has grown far beyond the initial 159.
Labor and NGOs
Labor movements too have come in for repression, after a brief heyday. A 2014 economic slowdown, coupled with rising wages caused by labor shortages, forced some factories to close or move inland, often without proper compensation for the workers affected. As a direct result, the number of strikes recorded by Hong Kong-based advocacy organization China Labour Bulletin more than doubled from 656 in 2013 to 1,378 in 2014.
Authorities saw the strikes as mass incidents threatening social stability, and responded by targeting so-called “autonomous labor groups” – organizations dedicated to helping workers organize. The groups were labelled “troublemakers”, and many labor activists were driven out of their homes and offices after police had told their landlords that they were politically dangerous.
Here again, the Xi administration has far surpassed the Hu-Wen administration in its determination to stamp out any semblance of an agenda outside its own. Beginning in 2010-2011, Chinese authorities attempted to co-opt autonomous labor groups and NGOs, drawing them into the official orbit by making it easy for them to formally register, and attempting to involve them in the delivery of public social services. Those groups that agreed gained funding and political support, but lost their autonomy in the bargain. Those that refused, soon became targets of political crackdowns.
Underground churches and religion
Christianity, especially family churches, is seen as a threat by the Chinese authorities, both because of their status as a potential vector for foreign influence, and because of their potential to contribute to a process of democratization. Where they operate, family churches have caused significant changes in China’s state-society relationship, as have impacted the values and thinking of their attendees. This explains why the Chinese leadership tolerates traditional forms of worship, but has moved to arrest the spread of Christianity. In April 2016, Xi Jinping gave a major speech on religion; he warned against “overseas infiltration through religious means” and called on religions to “Sinicize” or “adopt Chinese characteristics”. Apparently, he very much had Christianity in mind.
No signs exist that the human rights situation in China will improve.
The southeastern city of Wenzhou, famous for both its entrepreneurship and its ties with the outside world, has become a central front in this new fight. Many of Wenzhou’s businessmen are converts to Christianity, and have attempted to live out Protestant ethics through active engagement in charity work in their community. Their reward has been suppression. In 2015, many of Wenzhou’s Christians were detained for resisting a provincial attempt to remove crosses from church exteriors, in accord with Xi’s Sinicization campaign. Some of the individuals detained were released the following year; some were not.
In September 2016, the CCP went a step further, publicizing draft revisions to the PRC’s restrictive Religious Regulations, promulgated in 2005. The revisions stipulate that religion must “protect national security”, and prohibit individuals and groups that are not “officially approved” religious bodies from attending meetings abroad on religion. Prior to 2018, practicing religious organizations had to register with the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), a government body. SARA was dissolved in a sweeping government reorganization in March 2018, and responsibility for oversight of religion was handed over to the United Front Work Department, an organ of the CCP.
A bleak future
No signs exist that the human rights situation in China will improve. While Xi has moved against dissenting minorities with a harshness unseen since Tiananmen, his Party regime has been able to maintain a considerable degree of legitimacy through effective governance, economic growth, and the construction of a basic nationwide social security net. The Xi administration has boosted spending on public and social services, and Xi’s efforts to combat corruption and enhance China’s international influence have proven popular.
In the near future, China is unlikely to experience another Tiananmen Incident, or its own version of the Arab Spring, not least because of the tightening of already-severe restrictions on freedom of expression. In May 2016, the PRC government required internet video companies to sell equity stakes to the government as a means to increase control over content. Three months later, in August 2016, CCP imposed new requirements on content websites, including a requirement that staff to monitor content around the clock, while the country’s top media regulation body released a notice ordering all media “not to promote Western lifestyles” or “to poke fun at Chinese values” when reporting entertainment news.
These and other restrictions continue to place PRC civil society in an increasingly difficult position, without the voice or resources to mobilize. Civil society is in no position to confront the Party regime, and probably will not be able to do so during Xi Jinping’s second term. Over the longer term, less is certain. Although Xi has sought to instil a new sense of purpose and backbone, there are telling signs of a lack of faith in his regime. A considerable segment of the political elite have moved their families and wealth to the Western world, where they and their offspring can enjoy the freedom and security they would deny their own people.
Joseph Y.S. Cheng was a professor of political science at the City University of HK. He now serves as the convenor of the Alliance for True Democracy, an umbrella group for many of Hong Kong’s major pro-democracy organizations.
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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. China Brief is a primary source of timely information and cutting-edge analysis for policy-makers, intelligence and military personnel, academics, journalists, and business leaders.
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