Amnesty International Interview
What is the current status of Amnesty International’s operations in China and how much influence does your organization have with the Jinping government?
Amnesty International currently has no operations in mainland China – since, according to China’s laws, and within the current oppressive political environment, it wouldn’t be possible to work there.
How would you describe the human rights situation in China between the Jintao and Jinping government? Have you seen improvements or declines in occurance and intensity?
There is a large degree of continuity between the government under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. However, under Xi, there is a greater ideological tightening that runs across social media, the media, civil society, and academia. In Hu Jintao’s era, to some extent, as long as lawyers or civil society didn’t challenge the bottom line of Communist Party rule, they were allowed a degree of space. That has now changed.
What new laws have been made under the guise of “national security” that present serious threats to Chinese human rights?
The government enacted the new foreign NGO management law, whose provisions impede independent operations of registered NGOs. Foreign NGOs that have not yet registered, and continue to operate in China, could face a freeze on bank accounts, sealing of venues, confiscation of assets, suspension of activities, and detention of staff. In June 2017, the National Intelligence Law was adopted and entered into force. These laws were part of a national security legal architecture introduced in 2014 − which also included the Anti-Espionage Law, the Criminal Law Amendment (9), National Security Law, Anti-Terrorism Law, and Cyber Security Law − and all of these have presented serious threats to the protection of human rights in China. The National Intelligence Law uses vague and overbroad concepts of 'national security' and effectively grants unchecked powers to CCP intelligence institutions with hazy roles and responsibilities. All lacked safeguards to protect against arbitrary detention and to protect the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and other basic human rights.1
The draft 'Supervision Law' has legalized a new form of arbitrary detention, named liuzhi, and create an extrajudicial system with far-reaching powers that carry significant potential to infringe upon human rights.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in custody, what could have been done differently to prevent his detention and death?
Quite frankly, Liu Xiaobo should have never spent even a day in jail – as he was arrested merely for expressing his views in a peaceful manner. At the same time, later, the Chinese authorities continued to hold him in his last months, when there was a chance he could have received better medical care abroad. At the end of the day, we’ll never know whether his death could have been prevented with better medical care, or whether his health worsened due to conditions in prison. What is clear, however, is that many other prisoners experience worsening health conditions while in captivity (due to substandard health care they are provided). In this sense, Liu Xiaobo was a shining example of systemic injustice.
5) Given China’s vague laws and charges against activists such as “subverting state power”, “picking quarrels”, and “provoking trouble”, what can activists do to promote change within China without putting themselves in serious danger?
Typically, many activists have tried their best to seek protection for their work by framing their activism within rhetoric approved by the State – such as claiming that their activities were helping to build the “Harmonious Society”, the buzzword of the Hu Jintao era. Similarly, others try to keep a low profile on social media, or limit interaction with foreigners.
6) What are some examples of “human rights defenders being held outside formal detention facilities...for long periods, which posed additional risk of torture and other ill-treatment to the detainees?”
Probably the most significant systematic risk of torture for human rights defenders these days comes from “residential surveillance in a designated location”, which allows the police to hold criminal suspects for up to six months outside of the formal detention system – anything from an apartment to a hotel room or a private building. Additionally, the 'suspects' are denied legal counsel and any family visits. The police are supposed to notify family members within 24 hours of imposing the measure, but not of their loved-ones whereabouts or well-being.
In recent years, numerous stories of horrific torture and other ill-treatment have come out by people who were subjected to this system.
7) What is the motivation behind increasing controls on the internet and do you see an end in sight to the censorship issue?
Over the last five years or more, the government has tightened restrictions on social media, closed down websites that fail to censor adequately, and imposed greater control over the traditional media – including print, TV news, and even TV programs. It is doing this because the government thinks that the Soviet Union fell in part because they could not control the media enough, and thus this is a lesson that they have absorbed and constantly reiterate. At the same time, the government views itself in an “ideological battle” with the West, and thus it seeks to limit the West’s ability to influence Chinese public opinion. Of course, these are the high-level explanations. In reality, there are many other day-to-day scandals and human rights abuses that they simply want to cover, and the ideological explanations give theoretical and moral cover to this behaviour.
8) What’s behind the recent repression of religious activities outside state-sanctioned churches?
Again, we are roughly seeing the same pattern. From the 1980’s until the 2000’s local authorities in China had turned a blind eye to most religious practices, unless it touched on the “red line” of challenging Communist Party rule or local vested interests. However, President Xi Jinping has taken a more hardline approach seeing “foreign” religions – especially Islam and Christianity – as being influenced by “foreign hostile forces” that can “penetrate” China and cause ideological and political divide. So, there have been efforts underway to more tightly control these religions so that they can only be practiced within the confines of state-sponsored churches or mosques. At the same time, the government is trying to “Sinicize” these religions to make them more compatible with socialism and Chinese Characteristics (a euphemism for Communist rule and Chinese culture more broadly). The Communist Party is also reinforcing its atheist roots internally: especially in places like Xinjiang and Tibet, where there are many instances of cadres being fired for their religious practice.
As Xi Jinping has said “the government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the party leads them all”. In other words, the Communist Party aspires to ensure that all facets of life operate on the Party’s subjective and arbitrary terms.