Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong
Wednesday 15 February 2017 21.00 EST
China’s human rights situation further deteriorated last year as police systematically tortured activists and forcibly disappeared government critics while state TV continued to broadcast forced confessions, a new report shows.
A creeping security state also attempted to codify much of its existing behaviour on paper, giving the police legal authority to criminalise a host of NGOs deemed politically sensitive by the authorities, according to the report by the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).
“The Chinese government seems intent on eliminating civil society through a combination of new legislation restricting the funding and operations of NGOs, and the criminalisation of human rights activities as a so-called threat to national security,” Frances Eve, a researcher at CHRD, told the Guardian.
“What stands out is the almost institutionalised use of torture to force defenders to confess that their legitimate and peaceful human rights work is somehow a ‘crime’.”
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has overseen a sweeping crackdown on civil society. In 2015, police targeted almost 250 rights lawyers and activists in what some have dubbed a “war on law”, and the effects of that campaign continued to be felt throughout last year.
Reports of torture while in detention in 2016 were rampant, with methods including beatings, attacks by fellow inmates on the orders of prison guards, stress positions, deprivation of food, water and sleep, inhumane conditions and deprivation of medical treatment.
In some cases, human rights activists were prevented from receiving medical care even once they were released.
Huang Yan, who was detained in November 2015, was suffering from ovarian cancer and diabetes. Police confiscated her diabetes medication, and despite an exam done at a detention facility in April 2016 showing the cancer had spread, she was not treated and was denied medical bail.
When she was finally released, Huang was scheduled to undergo surgery last November to treat her cancer, but the authorities pressured the hospital and the team of surgeons declined to treat her.
Torture also took more overt forms. Last year reports also emerged that rights lawyer Xie Yang was subject to beatings and stress positions in detention, with interrogators warning him: “We’ll torture you to death just like an ant”.
In November 2016, Jiang Tianyong, a respected Christian attorney, disappeared while about to board a train and police waited weeks to confirm he had been detained. Jiang’s whereabouts are still a mystery nearly three months later.
In a rare strongly-worded statement, the European Union called for his immediate release along with several other lawyers.
China also continued the practice of airing confessions on state television, a move that is reminiscent of internal Communist party political purges.
In one of the most prominent cases, Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin was paraded on the national broadcaster after three weeks in detention, declaring: “I have violated Chinese law through my activities here. I have caused harm to the Chinese government. I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
The confessions air before detainees ever see the inside of a courtroom, and in Dahlin’s case he was promptly deported.
For those activists that do go to trial, in at least 15 cases last year police attempted to pressure activists into accepting government-appointed lawyers. In cases where state-appointed lawyers represented human rights activists, little defence was mounted and the accused pleaded guilty and promised not to appeal their cases.
The report also outlined two laws passed in 2016 that are likely to curb civil society: legislation regulating charitable giving and a law on foreign NGOs. The charity law, while not explicitly requiring all NGOs to register with the government, makes it difficult for unregistered organisations to raise funds domestically.
The foreign NGO regulations require overseas groups that give money to Chinese organisations to be registered with the police.
“Together, these laws will hamper the development of Chinese civil society by restricting their funding,” the CHRD report said.
“There are no more ‘grey areas’,” an unnamed human rights activist said in the report. “To advocate for human rights in China today, you must be willing to accept the reality that the government views your work as ‘illegal’.”