China’s new leadership, consisting of the Communist Party’s seven permanent standing committee members, assumed power at the 18Party Congress in November, ending the decade-long leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. That era saw sustained economic growth, urbanization, and China’s rise as a global power, but little progress on human rights. The government rolled back protections on the administration of justice, presided over a significant rise in social unrest, including the largest inter-ethnic incidents in decades in Tibet and Xinjiang, and expanded the power of the security apparatus.
Chinese people had no say in the selection of their new leaders, highlighting that despite the country’s three decades of rapid modernization, the government remains an authoritarian one-party system that places arbitrary curbs on freedom of expression, association, religion, prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations, and maintains party control over all judicial institutions. The government also censors the press, internet, and publishing industry, and enforces highly repressive policies in ethnic minority areas in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia.
At the same time, citizens are increasingly prepared to challenge authorities over volatile livelihood issues, such as land seizures, forced evictions, abuses of power by corrupt cadres, discrimination, and economic inequalities. Based on law enforcement reports, official and scholarly statistics estimate that there are 250-500 protests each day, with anywhere from ten to tens of thousands of participants. Despite facing risks, internet users and reform-oriented media are aggressively pushing censorship boundaries by advocating for the rule of law and transparency, exposing official wrongdoing, and calling for political reforms.
Despite their precarious legal status and surveillance by the authorities, civil society groups continue to try to expand their work. An informal but dedicated network of activists monitors and documents human rights cases under the banner of a country-wide weiquan (rights defense) movement. These activists face a host of repressive state measures.
The government announced in its 2012-2015 “National Human Rights Action Plan” that it would interpret its international legal obligations on human rights with a new vaguely defined “principle of practicality”—departing from the its previous rhetorical commitment to the principle of universality of human rights. The new principle appears to be another iteration of the government’s oft-repeated justification that China’s “national conditions” do not allow for participatory politics.
While legal reforms effectively stalled under the Hu-Wen leadership and the government rejects judicial independence, large parts of the legal community continue to be a force for change, spurred by increasing popular legal awareness and activism. The party maintains authority over all judicial institutions and mechanisms, and coordinates the work of the judiciary through its political and legal committees. The Public Security, or police, remains its most powerful actor. Forced confessions under torture remain prevalent and miscarriages of justice frequent due to weak courts and tight limits on the rights of the defense.
In March 2012, in an effort to reduce such cases and improve the administration of justice, the government adopted comprehensive revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL). However, the new revisions also legalize the power of the police to place “state security, terrorism, and major corruption” suspects in detention in a location of the police’s choice, outside the formal detention system, for up to six months. These measures put suspects at risk of torture while giving the government a justification for “disappearance” of dissidents and activists.
Freedom of Expression
Government restrictions on journalists, bloggers, and an estimated 538 million internet users continued to violate domestic and international legal guarantees of freedom of press and expression. Sina Weibo, the largest of China’s social media microblog services, gives 300 million subscribers space to express opinions and discontent to an extent previously unavailable. But like all online content, Weibo is subject to strict scrutiny and manipulation by China’s censors tasked with shaping online debate in line with government policy. Alternative social media operations including Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are blocked.
In mid-June, internet censors blocked all searches for Yili milk powder, an infant formula, after the company recalled products contaminated with mercury. Government censors excised eight pages of Southern Weekend newspaper’s coverage of the disastrous July 21-22 Beijing flood that caused widespread property damage and disrupted transportation infrastructure.
At least 27 Chinese journalists were serving prison terms in 2012 due to ambiguous laws on “revealing state secrets” and “inciting subversion.” Journalists are also at risk of perceived violations of censorship restrictions. Southern Metropolitan editor Yu Chen was removed from his position after an anonymous posting to the paper’s website criticized the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the People’s Liberation Army. Xian Evening News reporter Shi Junrong was suspended on July 2 for an unspecified time for writing a June 27 expose about local Communist Party member spending money on cigarettes.