In the land where even global K-pop sensation Lisa Manobal of Blackpink can be expunged from the internet after headlining a burlesque extravaganza at Paris’s Crazy Horse, fellow superstars Angelababy Yeung Wing (楊穎) and Jenny Zhang Jiani (張嘉倪) have received complementary online suspensions seemingly just for attending the performance.
Thus, the unelected Chinese Communist Party (CCP) polices the independent moral, leisure and professional choices of people both within and beyond its borders, providing a neat backdrop to its All-China Women’s Federation meeting on October 30. Here, President Xi Jinping encircled himself with avidly note-taking female federation heads to expound his monologue on the importance of promoting “traditional Chinese virtues and sound family values” and strengthening the “political guidance of women” as well as cultivating “a new perception of marriage and child-bearing.”
Should any of those listening consider that improved conditions for certain groups of women would be best achieved through forming an organization based on voluntary activities and donations, they will soon have a reformed Charity Law to navigate. Draft amendments to the legislation will assure that, in the future, all charities can be disbanded if they are deemed “contrary to social morals.” Their work here-forward will also be “to uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.” With that, another tiny space for civil society in China is eliminated.
But it is not just women and charities that require tight, intersecting control: Academics and students must also be contained. As a result, according to the Free to Think report, which has just been released for 2023 by the Scholars at Risk Foundation, China’s “extensive surveillance apparatus, including student informants, to suppress dissent both at home and abroad” has caused academic freedom in the country to continue its decade-long descent from an already atrociously low base.
Due to policies like an “ideological index” to rank universities by political fealty to the CCP, disciplinary actions against students with pride flags, imprisonment of scholars, contracted travel bans for family members of overseas students, increasingly systematized supervision of discourse in lecture halls and the suspension of teachers who comment on touchy subjects like food security, even Afghanistan is ranked as a more welcoming atmosphere for intellectual freedom.
Other recently published reports from right-wing U.K. think tank Civitas and the charity UK-China Transparency have meanwhile highlighted the threats, demands, political vetting and ideology-based training endured by many Chinese PhD students before they study abroad and the now-paused $34 million relationship that Cambridge University, one of the world’s leading research and learning institutions, has held with Huawei for research on topics with concerning human rights implications like swarm robotics and recognition tech.
IVPM, a research and trade publication for the surveillance industry, has meanwhile revealed that U.S.-sanctioned camera-maker Hikvision won a $9 million contract in July 2022 from China to create a “Smart Campus” for Minjiang University in Fujian Province with features such as a “Ramadan alert” to automatically notify administrators of students’ fasting behaviors and a specific system for “assisted analysis of ethnic minority students.” Hikvision denials that it has implemented these requirements due to its “steadfast commitment to respecting human rights” were met with skepticism, particularly as they were not backed with evidence.
For the wider China context shows no shows no let-up in the abuse of minorities. Details of their plight have continued to emerge with news of the beating of Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin (崔浩新), whose life has already been blighted by years of detentions and police tracking, after he spoke out against state mass internments in East Turkestan (Xinjiang); the alleged torture and forced confession of Uyghur filmmaker Ikram Nurmehmet; and the reported purchase and pollution of Tibetan land for lithium mining to produce batteries for the electric vehicle industry, among others.
In the words of Turquoise Roof, the research collective that has investigated the impact of resource extraction for renewable energy in Tibet, any person speaking out on these issues from areas under CCP rule risks “being killed, tortured, imprisoned and the loss of their livelihoods.”
Increasingly, the essence of that threat extends to neighboring countries as well, which has been pointed out in a letter to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence and Impartiality of Judges and Lawyers, Margaret Satterthwaite. Penned by the heads of two Mongolian rights organizations and timed to inform Satterthwaite’s official visit to Mongolia from November 6 to November 15, the letter draws attention to the ten-year prison sentence received in Ulaanbaatar by the writer, activist and journalist Munkhbayar Chuluundorj last year, apparently for the crime of “collaborating with a foreign intelligence agency” against China. Chuluundorj was a critic of what he perceived as submissive policies toward Beijing on the side of Mongolia and China’s domestic subjugation of Mongolian citizens. That is believed to be the real reason for his detention, quite underlining his point.
Unfortunately, the United Nations’ ability and commitment to deal with this and other incidents is uncertain as indicated by a U.N. Dispute Tribunal judgment against Emma Reilly, a former member of staff at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Reilly alleged that she was wrongfully dismissed from her position after she had revealed publicly to media and to representatives of EU countries that the office was confirming to Beijing the names of human rights defenders scheduled to attend Human Rights Council meetings, putting them and their families at risk of intimidation or worse.
While the tribunal found Reilly’s claims to be evidentially corroborated, i.e. the U.N. staff were indeed giving information to China in a manner that was truly dangerous to human rights defenders, it also dismissed Reilly’s argument that she had been wrongfully sanctioned for revealing the practice to the public at large. It came to this conclusion despite acknowledging that Reilly had previously attempted to report the matter internally, over the course of years, and had not received an adequate response, including because the U.N.’s High Commissioner “did not meet officers of her level.”
Thus, in the future, if the U.N. continues to tip off brutal governments that the witnesses to their crimes will soon be presenting evidence against them, any member of staff who spots the danger had better not inform the public about it if they want to keep their job. Moreover, despite claims that name confirmations have stopped, the U.N. seems to have lied on this topic before.
Predictably, people with relatives who have been arbitrarily imprisoned by the CCP search for other solutions aside from the U.N., one of which was pressure from President Joe Biden of the United States. Therefore, ahead of his meeting with Xi Jinping at November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Week conference in San Francisco, the chair and co-chair of the United States’ Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Chris Smith and Jeffrey A. Merkley, compiled a list of 37 Chinese and three American political prisoners for Biden to pass to his counterpart in the hope that their release could be secured.
Representing a “wide spectrum of Chinese society,” these include the Uyghur scholar Gulshan Abbas, Uyghur webmaster Ekpar Asat, pastors David Lin and Wang Yi (王怡), businessperson Mark Swidan, Hong Kong media magnate Jimmy Lai (黎智英) and the legal professionals Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Lu Siwei (盧思位) and Xu Zhiyong (許志永). Some have been held for over a decade.
Separately, Harrison Li, the son of Kai Li, another individual who is recognized as wrongfully detained by the U.N. Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, wrote to Biden expressing “bewilderment and frustration” at the level of the White House’s engagement for those Americans imprisoned by China in comparison with similar situations in Venezuela, Russia and Iran, as well as the Hamas hostage-taking. The admonishment was significant, because the international spotlight can make tangible differences to the conditions in which people are held captive.
Biden on Thursday said he had raised the issue of U.S. citizens being detained or prevented from leaving China with Xi, but said there was “no agreement on that.” Meanwhile, human rights defenders were allegedly warned off protesting in San Francisco by police visits to their families in China, and both Taiwanese media and Hong Kong activists reported threats at the APEC fringes even on U.S. soil. The signs are that deeper change in Xi’s approach to governance will not be forthcoming.