I recently attended a conference focused on human rights defenders and strategies to combat the fear-mongering, security-driven, and illiberal discourses of our day. I was one among dozens of activists, NGO workers, religious leaders, and influencers from more than 30 countries invited to share, speak, and build solidarity.
At the conference, I shared this quote: “Wherever fear dominates, true happiness vanishes and individual willpower runs dry. Judgments become distorted and rationality itself begins to slip away.”
It came from a New York Times editorial penned by Chinese artist and public intellectual Ai Weiwei, in which Ai analyzes how the most successful censorship systems work by incentivizing self-censorship and internalizing fear.
In the four days and many discussions at that conference, there was no other mention of China.
This is not, unfortunately, unusual. Although networks focused on “vulnerable” or marginalized groups see some success in working with international networks, most civil society in China has developed outside major networks or membership-based organizations, even those based in Asia.
The challenges to integration are likely to continue; an Overseas NGO Management Law in place since January requires offices of international NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security, a process that involves disclosure of funding sources and approval of project activities.
In discussions of the situation for human rights defenders and the importance of reviving social movements, non-Chinese activists need to think better about how to incorporate Chinese voices and experiences. The increasing willingness of the Chinese government to thumb its nose at matters like human rights and the rule of law poses a challenge not only to civil society in China, but to the global human rights community.
One of the most common arguments for welcoming a more prominent role for China at the international level is true – on many things, China can deliver. On poverty alleviation, for example, China has lifted between 500 million and 700 million people from poverty. This is remarkable.
But as UN expert Philip Alston says in a recent report on China, the reason we don’t know the exact number is that we have no accurate, transparent data. And regardless of how many people have seen increased income, he cautions that this achievement has been accompanied by high levels of inequality and a failure to ensure public participation and to create effective accountability mechanisms. Alston himself reported being surveilled during his country mission.
Similar arguments are made for issues like climate change, where China seems keen to declare its commitment to the Paris Agreement at precisely the moment when the United States withdraws, or the UN’s development and peace agenda, to which China committed $1 billion in 2015. But the UN, and its secretary generals, have always been clear that the UN’s system rests on three pillars, not two. International human rights have become a victim of Xi Jinping’s administration in the country and well beyond its borders.
Within China, the last two years have been characterized by a sustained attack on human rights and on those who defend them. In July 2015, roughly 300 lawyers, legal professionals, and activists were detained, harassed or questioned by state authorities. About 30 remained in detention for extended periods. Now, nearly two years later, justice remains a distant hope.
Some of those activists and lawyers have been released, it’s true, but only after televised confessions. Even after release, lawyers face isolation and imposing bail conditions that severely limit rights defense activities.
Some of the detained activists were tried for crimes, ranging from “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” to “inciting subversion of the state.” Zhou Shifeng, the head of a Beijing public interest law firm, received a seven-year sentence – but even of those receiving suspended sentences, not a single release has been unconditional.
Last month, lawyer Li Heping was tried in secret. Earlier this month, in a trial announced with 30 minutes’ notice, a second lawyer and alleged torture victim, Xie Yang, pled guilty to inciting subversion of the state, likely under duress.
The detention of lawyers in the “709 crackdown” is just one case. Dozens of influential activists remain in detention or under threat, including citizen journalists, Tibetan Buddhists, advocates for victims of forced evictions, and women human rights defenders like Su Changlan or transparency activist Liu Ping.
It would be nearly impossible to think of more red flags for an international human rights community.
As challenging as the situation in the country may be, there are other reasons why the human rights community should be paying more attention to China. A government willing to suppress dissent and maintain its power at any cost is not a government we want making decisions about the future of the international order.
It is increasingly apparent that the influence of China does not stop at its borders. Chinese corporations, state-owned and private, extend their investments and operations globally, often with devastating effects on the environment, on working conditions and trade union rights, and on communities displaced by massive development projects decided behind closed doors. According to one NGO, Chinese internet and mobile company Baidu ranks dead last on commitments and policies affecting freedom of expression and privacy.
Chinese security agents have “disappeared” Chinese activists from Myanmar and Thailand, and have pressured Thailand, Malaysia, Turkey, and other countries to refoule asylum-seekers, including human rights defenders and members of persecuted ethnic and religious minorities. The whereabouts of a Taiwanese NGO worker detained in March of this year while on a trip to the mainland are still unknown.
At the UN, the Chinese government regularly questions the legitimacy of UN experts, the mandate and expertise of UN treaty body members, and the role of the Human Rights Council in clearly addressing country-specific situations. China and a handful of other countries like Burundi, Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Sudan are ardent gatekeepers of a Committee that grants NGOs the right to enter UN grounds and participate in UN meetings.
At the same time as it throws wrenches into the existing system, the Chinese government increasingly refines its own version of human rights with Chinese characteristics. They blast any critical dialogue as unconstructive, and dismiss the majority of independent civil society voices as biased and non-objective. They advance apparently anodyne concepts like a “community of shared future for mankind,” which are, in fact, a dangerous threat to the universality of human rights and the foundations of the UN system.
The UN fails to respond effectively to this challenge, at all levels. In a speech delivered at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva in January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave remarks about the future of China’s leadership in global governance. No UN official – not the president of the General Assembly, not the director of the UN Office in Geneva, and not the secretary general – raised concerns about China’s human rights record.
In a blow to generally-accepted UN practices (and principles), independent journalists and NGOs were not given access to the event and access to the grounds was restricted; when pressed later, UN officials admitted that this was a price they were willing to pay for the president’s presence. They added that they didn’t really have a choice.
Activists have long been concerned about intimidation and reprisals by China, and list this as a key factor discouraging them from participating in UN meetings. In 2014, activist Cao Shunli died in detention as a result of her efforts to provide input into the UN’s human rights review of China.
The issues with access continue. In early May, the UN in New York removed a Uyghur activist from the grounds during a conference on minority peoples. This occurred allegedly at the urging of China, which regularly condemn his organization as a “terrorist group” for seeking to highlight violations of rights to freedom of religious belief. What has been called the “long arm of China” is no longer grasping at straws when it comes to asserting itself globally. It is grasping the reins of power, soft and other.
The human rights community talks in a range of forums, constantly and with a tendency to navel-gazing, about closing space, about threats to human rights defenders, and about the future of human rights globally. If we fail to ensure that these discussions take China seriously and incorporate the views of those who know it best, we make a grave error. We do a disservice not only to the community of defenders in the country, but also to the principles and commitments of universal human rights, which we all strive to defend.
The editorial by Ai Weiwei concludes by saying – about China, but I think with relevance to all the places where people defend rights – that, “as things stand today, rational resistance can be based only on small actions of individual people.”
If the international human rights community, as a movement, can build and support the “small actions” of even a fraction of China’s population, we might see a big difference for them, and for ourselves.
Sarah M Brooks works for the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights, where she leads their advocacy work on Asia. She has spent over a decade working in and on Asia in government, academia and the NGO sector. Sarah won a Fulbright research award in 2007-2008 and received her MA and MPP from the University of Michigan in 2011.