National Report by China in the 45th UPR Session: Hiding More than it Reveals

Date
10-04-2024

Abstract

China’s report on human rights in the 45th session of the UPR on 23 January 2024 has drawn the attention of human rights activists worldwide. It has painted a rosy picture of the human rights situation within China. It has shown China’s inclination to take the recommendations of the international community in the third cycle of Universal Periodical Review in 2018 seriously. However, a close reading of the reports on the condition of the minorities in China and the overall approach taken by China to handle dissent would suggest that the report provided by China tries sugarcoat the bitter reality of continued human rights violations within the country. The other stakeholder’s reports as well as observations by different countries in the present cycle of review bring out the contrasting reality of persisting attempt of the Chinese state to criminalise dissent and homogenise minority culture in the name of stability and order. There are about 418 recommendations given by about 141 states and other stakeholders which China has to consider implementing in the next five years before the next cycle of review kicks in. It has reacted sportively so far to the comments and recommendations, but given its previous record, it is unlikely to change its policies to accommodate the rights of the minorities and dissenters in future.

What is UPR?

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process put in place by the United National Human Rights Council (UNHRC) since 2006, which entails a recurring examination of human rights records of each of the 193 UN Member States. It is a UN mechanism where 193 UN member states review each other’s human rights record every five years and issue recommendations for progress. The UPR is founded on the principle of treating all nations equally. It gives every State the chance to outline the steps they have taken to strengthen the state of human rights in their nations and remove obstacles to the exercise of such rights. The exchange of global best practices for human rights is another aspect of the UPR. It is a significant UN mechanism focussing on human rights situation across the world. The UPR Working Group, comprising the 47 members of the Council, is responsible for conducting the reviews. However, any UN Member State is welcome to participate in the conversation or dialogue with the reviewed States. Groups of three States, or "troikas," acting as rapporteurs assist the process of review. The troikas for each State are chosen by drawing lots. Reviews are conducted through participatory dialogue between the State being reviewed and the UN Member States. NGOs can even submit information as "other stakeholders," which is taken into account in the review. UPR is regarded as an effective way “to domesticate international human rights norms and to translate them into consistent legislation and practices in a multi-stakeholder process” of governance in individual countries.

The first, second and third UPR reviews of China had taken place in February 2009, October 2013, and November 2018. 1. This Issue Brief seeks to analyse the latest National Report submitted by China in the fourth cycle of UPR (2022-2027), which was presented in the forty-fifth session of the UPR Working Group (22 January– 2 February 2024). The submissions by other stakeholders are being discussed and analysed in this issue brief as well.

The National Report Submitted by China for UPR

Recently, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) presented its report highlighting the progress in human rights situation in China, on 3 November 2023 ahead of the 45th session of the UPR  working group which took place between 22 January and 2 February 2024. . The troika for China were Albania, United Arab Emirates and Malawi. The report mentioned that China upholds “the equality of all ethnicities, respect the religions, beliefs of the masses and guarantee the lawful rights and interests of all ethnic groups.” Moreover, Beijing’s objectives are aimed at the full establishment of a “great modern socialist power in all aspects” via Chinese-style modernisation, whereby people’s democratic rights are guaranteed by combining the principle of universality of human rights with Chinese practice. The development of the cause of human rights are, therefore, be promoted in the light of the “national conditions in China.” Enacting 51 new laws and revising 113 ones, the 298 laws currently in effect are claimed to provide a “solid foundation for the development of human rights.”
However, reports of the UN, human rights organisations and media reveal a different picture.

Labour rights

In its national report, China claimed that it has “acceded to the 1930 Convention on Forced Labour, the 1957 Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, and the Marrakech Treaty” since the previous review. However, in the latest Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, it is mentioned that global automakers from China are failing to ensure that the Uyghur forced labourers are not used in their aluminium supply chains from China. The Australia Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) report (2020) mentioned that an estimated number of more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang between 2017-2019 whereby they are assigned work at Chinese factories chains involving electronics, textiles, automobiles, under its government’s ‘Xinjiang Aid’; some of them were even sent to these factories from detention camps, who are then forced to work under coercive environment, with no freedom of movement to leave their work as the they are under threat of arbitrary detention. China’s factory chains comprises about accounting for 83 per cent of the supply chains for popular global brands are found to be directly and indirectly drawing benefits from China’s practice of forced Uyghur labour. The same was reiterated by the UN in 2022 when it reported of possessing evidence to reach to a reasonable conclusion that in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), forced labour of minority population have been found in sectors like agriculture and manufacturing. This practice of forced labour is in clear violation of International Labour Organisation’s Employment Policy Convention of 1964 which Beijing ratified in 1997.

Freedom of association

The UPR report claimed that the Chinese government “actively protects citizens’ freedom of association.” While it made mention of social organisations and NGOs (including some foreign NGOs) active in the fields of education, technology, cultural health, public welfare and charity that China recognises, it is found to routinely violate basic human rights of ‘freedom of assembly’ as evident in its practice of strict censorship and state surveillance. This was found in the reactions of common citizens frustrated with China’s zero-Covid policy. They witnessed imposition of strict lockdown which culminated in the “White Paper Revolution” or “A4 Revolution”, a nationwide silent protest in November 2022, that was followed by the Urumqi apartment fire break. Protesters were met with heavy police crackdown and arbitrary arrests were made and harsh interrogations were conducted to quell dissent. While the zero-covid policy was abandoned the next month, on Xi Jinping’s call, police opened investigations on those who participated in the protests and detained the protestors for weeks. There were even reports of harassment faced by participants’ family members while protestors were being held in custody. Many protestors even fled China to escape the police crackdowns.

Freedom of Speech and of the News Media

Freedom of expression is further suppressed due to online censorship of contents deemed “politically sensitive” and pervasive use of sophisticated tools to stifle any criticism of the government. As per the latest Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, authorities in China were found to continue with their policy of harassing, detaining and prosecuting people for their online posts and private chat messages that were deemed critical of the government. Therefore, dissenters were charged with “spreading rumours”, “inciting subversion”, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, and “insulting the country’s leaders.” The worst victims are the human rights defenders and dissidents, whose freedom of expression are not only curbed via authorities’ repressive actions but their freedom of movement also comes under restriction as a result.

Amnesty International documented many cases since the past five years, of Chinese authorities arbitrarily restricting dissidents and  human rights defenders’ right to freedom of movement and travel by rejecting passport applications citing national security reasons, stopping individuals at airports, and banning individuals from buying train tickets.

The Freedom of Press Index put out by Reporters Without Borders reported China to be the largest prison for journalists and one of the biggest exporters of propaganda content, with about 121 journalists facing detention in China as of 2023. Media freedom in China, moreover, comes under the category of “very serious situation”, standing in 179th position out of 180 countries, according to 2023 index. Press and media, including social media, are subject to stringent state surveillance and censorship. Journalists who report on subjects that the CCP and Chinese authorities consider to be "sensitive" are subjected to intimidation, harassment, restriction, and coercion. Journalists, to have their press card renewed, are required to download ‘Study Xi, Strengthen the Country’, a propaganda application that also collects user’s personal data. Journalists reporting on sensitive issues, or journalists belong to minority groups such as Uyghurs, are also found to face more imprisonment and harsher punishments on charges of ‘espionage’, ‘subversion’, ‘provoking trouble and threatening national security’. These journalists, before being formally arrested, face prolonged detention whereby they face torture such as solitary confinement.

Right to Fair Trial

China claimed in its national report that it was committed to implement fairness and justice in every judicial cases. However, new legislative measures such as the National Security Law (2015), National Intelligence Law (2017), Counter Espionage Law (2014, amended in April 2023), Counter Terrorism Law (2015) and establishment of a National Supervisory Committee (2018) that came into force to protect national security are designed as political tools to target dissidents and minority population who are arbitrarily arrested, given no access to family and lawyers of their choosing and subjected to ill-treatment and torture while in detention.

These legislative measures are a clear violation of right to fair trial. For instance, the “National Intelligence Law” gave new powers to authorities to monitor suspects, raid premises and seize assets, thereby, deepening the government’s reach in state surveillance. It also includes citizens’ duty to cooperate with security agencies and state intelligence by working as informants. The “Supervision Law” legalises arbitrary detention of suspects without entitling them to a lawyer or other criminal procedural protections that help prevent abuse during investigation. The amendment of the “Counter Espionage Law” broadened the definition of espionage to include cyber-attacks, meaning any transfer of information deemed to be “national security” interest by the authorities, otherwise called “state secrets” would be considered to be an act of espionage. This amendment puts at risk the activities of journalists, academics and executives whose work involves frequent foreign engagements. This is also violative of the freedom of speech and the rights of the news media and press that China claims to guarantee in its UPR report.

Rights of Ethnic minorities

With respect to ethnic-minority culture, China claimed to attach great importance to its protection, whereby, it guarantees all ethnic groups equal enjoyment of rights in all areas in accordance with the law. The two major ethnic minority in China, Tibetans and Uyghurs, are reported to face systemic repression through a series of new legislative measures that aim at cultural assimilation and in effect, erosion of their ethnic minority identity. Local Tibetans are reported to have been subjected to intense scrutiny and detention for possessing ‘banned contents’ on their phones and have been charged with ‘spreading rumours’ and ‘communication violations’ regardless of the content. Other restrictions such as periodic internet blackouts, prohibition of use of Tibetan language on social media apps and censorship on news covering Tibetan issues have been strictly applied in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). A new cyber law that came into effect in February 2023 includes punitive measures against those found guilty of creating “public disorder by engaging in separatist acts”, meaning, posing a threat to China’s national security and public interest. The ambiguity of the law makes Tibetans vulnerable to state surveillance and intimidation, targeting their social, cultural and religious practice. The year also witnessed new efforts by state authorities aimed at communication crackdown in Tibet’s Drago county, making it difficult for the Tibetans to have communication and make online financial transactions to families living outside Tibet. 

The announcement of the State’s intention of curbing all “separatist activities and terrorists” in Xinjiang in 2017 unleashed unprecedented crackdowns on Uyghurs in Xinjiang under a ‘mass internment’ policy whereby more than one million ethnic minorities were reported to have been killed, arbitrarily arrested, detained and forced to live in prison camps reffered to as ‘re-education/de-radicalisation’ camps where they faced torture, humiliation, assault and political indoctrination. Ethnic and religious minority women were also reported to be subjected to forced population control, implemented via the CCP’s coercive measures leading to massive drop in population growth since 2018. Coercive measures included mass forced sterilisation, forced abortion, involuntary IUD insertions and pregnancy checks conducted at the detention camps. A UN report (2022) recognised China to be responsible of committing “serious human rights violations” in Xinjiang province which may constitute international crimes, in particular, crimes against humanity.

The UPR report claims that free education from kindergarten to high school has been achieved by China in parts of Tibet and Xinjiang. What the report did not mention is that nearly 80 per cent of Tibetan schoolchildren were made to attend state-run boarding schools forcibly by the Chinese authorities. The United Nations Special Rapporteurs in its February report expressed alarm by Chinese efforts at forced cultural assimilation of roughly one million Tibetan children into majoritarian Han culture.

These children were found to be forcibly separated from their families and sent to state-run boarding schools far from home with no contact with family, where they are taught Mandarin language compulsorily, while lessons on Tibetan language, history and culture were removed from their syllabus. It has also been reported that the Chinese government has put pressure on the Tibetan schools to shift medium of instruction to Mandarin. This is a deliberate state effort at cultural assimilation that risks the erosion of unique Tibetan identity.

Similarly, in case of Uyghurs, children from families who are sent to state ‘re-education/ detention camps’ are forcefully separated from their families and transferred to state boarding schools to provide ‘protection’ to children “under difficult circumstances”, where Uyghur children undergo “special political education.” The aim of these lessons is to develop obedience and loyalty towards the Chinese government and the CCP at an early age. The medium of instruction of these lessons is Mandarin, in line with state’s assimilationist policy, which further reveals Chinese state’s intention of breaking the roots and lineage of Uyghurs cultural, linguistic and religious identity. Cultural assimilationist policy targeting Uyghur children was further reinforced in Pomegranate Flower Plan (2021) pronounced by Xi Jinping that “all ethnic groups must cluster together like pomegranate seeds” to instil interethnic ‘kinship’.

Freedom of Religion

China said that it guarantees citizens’ right to freedom of religious belief in accordance with the law. However, the Xi Jinping’s call for ‘Sinicisation of Religions’ (2016) is aimed at transforming religious practices (especially minority religions) to adapt to socialist society and promoting patriotism by encouraging interpretations of religious doctrines that are compatible with a socialist society.

This policy is essentially paving way for further restrictions on freedom of religious practice of minority population. The latest White Paper titled “Tibet’s Peaceful Liberation, Prosperity and Development” (2021) was reported to have intensified Chinese authorities’ control over Tibetan Buddhism. The ban on religious gatherings, destruction of Tibetans religious sites, like temples, statutes, monasteries, arrest and detention of Tibetan monks and nuns are followed with their political indoctrination at ‘re-education’ centres where they are subjected to torture for honouring their spiritual leader, the XIV Dalai Lama. The monks are also forced by Chinese authorities to sign documents saying that they are renouncing all ties with the XIV Dalai Lama who is perceived as a ‘separatist’. 

Similarly, for Uyghurs in Xinjiang, who are predominantly Muslims and designated as one of the official religious minorities, the state policies and laws restrict their freedom of religious practice. State regulations are aimed at ‘guiding’ religious practices whereby religious activities are strictly monitored. There is a ban on religious-homeschooling; religious personnel are required to undergo political education; religious clothing and restriction on religious content that is deemed to not be in line with the CCP’s official narrative are banned.

The Regulation of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) (1994) that codified the above-mentioned restrictions was further amended in 2014 to add new articles on punishments for violators, thereby, making the restrictions stricter. The Urumqi Regulations on Religious Attire (2015) banned Islamic veils, robes as a means to “stifle infiltration of religious extremism” and protect “China’s cultural heritage and its fine traditions”, essentially as a measure to criminalise religious practice.

China’s Sinicization policy was imposed on Uyghurs as well, whereby the XUAR authorities enacted a new law that prohibits “expressions of extremification” through restrictions on religious dresses, dietary laws, customs and traditional practices. Another law was passed in 2019 to “Sinicize” Islam for the next five years aiming “to guide Islam to be compatible with socialism and implement measures to Sinicize the religion.” The latest law went a step ahead to have more political control over religious activities, making it obligatory for religious institutions to show support to the CCP leadership and Xi’s “Sinicization of religion.” Thousands of mosques were reported to be closed, demolished, and Sinicised via removal of Islamic motifs, Arabic writings and domes from mosques in order to make its appearance look more Chinese.

Rights of Women

The implementation of Anti-Domestic Violence Law (2016) which is claimed by China to have ensured equality between men and women has been refuted by Human Rights Watch in 2021 which found victims to continue facing trouble in seeking protections from authorities and accountability of their abusers. China’s strict censorship and government action is a major hindrance to women’s rights issues in voicing any discussion on gender discriminatory practices on social media platform, as it was perceived by the government as a threat to its legitimacy. Women rights activists are, therefore, accused of being traitors or collaborators of foreign forces. Many women activists, including prominent activists like Xiao Meili and Liang Xiaomen, who have been vocal about gender issues and sexual harassments on their social media platform faced internet crackdown with their accounts being abruptly shut down following a smear campaign by the internet trolls, many of the prominent account holders seen to be endorsed by the CCP.

Prominent journalist and feminist activist Huang Xueqin, known to be a key figure to bring momentum to China’s ‘Me Too’ movement, was detained between October 2019-January 2020 under charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for writing about mass protests in Hong Kong. In September 2021, Xueqin was arrested under the charge of “inciting subversion of state power” and accused the Chinese authorities of trying to exert mental pressure and physical torture on her in February 2023. Moreover, she has been denied her right to choose her own lawyer or seeing family members. China’s ‘Me Too’ movement reached a new height in 2021 when famous Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai took to her Chinese social media platform Weibo account and accused the former Vice Premier and CCP cadre Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. However, soon after the accusation, Shuai faced enforced public disappearance for weeks and immediate censorship of her story. Peng Shuai’s subsequent appearances in photos and videos were widely believed to be staged by the state authorities.

The law on Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests was amended and took into effect on January 2023, whereby new provisions were added to strengthen women’s protection in workplace and eliminate gender discrimination in hiring processes to precent workplace sexual harassment. However, despite the legislative measures, violence against women continue to remain widespread, coupled with state authorities’ practice of censoring any public discussion on the same. Under Xi-Jinping’s leadership, China is ranked 102 out of 146 as per the Global Gender Gap Index (2022).

Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Hong Kong

The imposition of National Security Law in 2020, claimed by China as necessary for securing long-term stability and prosperity of Hong Kong has been found to seriously threaten fair trial rights of citizens. The granting of extensive investigatory powers to law enforcement has been reported to impose a presumption against bail, which is inconsistent with presumption of innocence, weaken the safeguards in existing laws, and depriving local courts to review NSL’s compatibility with human rights safeguards in international and local laws.

NSL, ambiguous in its framing as to what constitutes a violation of national security, is said to target activities, deemed criminal by Beijing, with severe penalties such as, life imprisonment. It has essentially criminalised various kinds of expression, association and advocacy and targeted political oppositions. Since NSL’s imposition in 2020, about 231 are reported to have been arrested under the law. These reports are obviously not backing China’s UPR report which mentions that that Hong Kong has taken a “major turn from chaos to governance and moved towards a new phase of stability and prosperity” or that “the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents are better protected in a safer and more orderly environment.”

The new public consultation document, or Article 23, too, is said to be imposed alongside the Chinese imposed NSL (2020) that will continue to prevail. The proposed legislation, claimed to be ‘defensive’ law, rather than an offensive one covers five categories of offences— treason, insurrection, espionage, destructive activities endangering national security and external interference. The updated legislation contains a range of new offences, other than the ones mentioned in NSL. It further extends police power, allowing them to detain suspects for more than 48 hours and restricts due process on national security cases. Therefore, there is an anticipation that cases under the new law will allow suspects to only use officially appointed lawyers, like in the case of mainland China, and go against international norm, thus adds to already series of human rights violations in the nation.

China also claimed that freedom of press and expression are protected in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s only public broadcaster—Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) was placed under a pro-Chinese government management since the imposition of the NSL, which now censors any programme that is critical of China. The violence against journalists in Hong Kong also turned more systemic since 2019 pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong, to discourage reporting on the protests. 

The arrest of journalist Choy Yuk-ling for reporting on alleged police misconduct in the 2019 protest or the arrest and sentencing of journalist Tang Cheuk-yu  to 15 months of imprisonment under charge of “possession of offensive weapons” while covering news of one of the protests, are among  many cases of deliberate attempt at media suppression to discourage journalists from reporting on protests.

Major assaults on the region’s press freedom were witnessed in 2021 when Hong Kong’s two major independent (and pro-democracy) news outlets, Apple Daily and Stand News, were forced to shut down and cease their operations, followed by police raids at their offices, seizure of assets and arrests of some of their journalists. Patrick Lam, Stand News chief editor and Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, among other staff, were arrested under colonial-era sedition and “endangering national security” charges, while the raids and seizing of assets were carried out under the new ‘National Security Law’. Even more local independent media outlets such as Citizen’s News and Mad Dog Daily took the decision to close down, facing a deteriorating environment of media freedom in the region that has increased safety concerns for journalists and reporters. 

It is because of Beijing-backed systemic target on media outlets and journalists, over 1,000 journalists are reported to have lost their jobs as a result of the media crackdown. It is now recognised that China has violated international norms in its dealing with Hong Kong, and has further resorted to repressive measures to withhold right to information worldwide and media freedom needed for effective journalism, completely turning Hong Kong’s once vibrant media environment into a degrading state of journalism that is supposed to only follow and report Beijing’s narrative. According to a survey by Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in 2021, 84 per cent said that the situation of general working environment for journalists had deteriorated since the introduction of the National Security Law. Censorship, prohibition on publication of political books deemed critical of China and portrayal of films on Hong Kong’s political issue,  along with increased surveillance via counterterrorism hotlines to report on national security violations are now commonplace in Hong Kong.

 The stakeholders’ reports 2. prove the points raised in this brief.  The pre-session submissions by 162 stakeholders concerning human rights situation in China identified human rights violations in different areas and gave recommendations to ensure China’s compliance with universal human rights norms. The submissions noted unjust execution of thousands of people since last year, gathered from statistics that continued to be classified as “state secrets”. Detainees, especially human rights defenders, are given no access to lawyers of their choosing, thus compromising on effective trial mechanisms. These detainees are reported to be subjected to torture and ill-treatment while in detention, contrary to Chinese assurances of conforming to international standards, thereby violating right to fair trial. Judiciary is noted to be neither independent nor impartial, as the Chinese Communist Party has strengthened its control on it.

Human rights defenders in China are targeted, prosecuted and imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression. Other violations include restriction of movement, prolonged detention, enforced disappearances and trans-national repression. In educational institutions, too, freedom of expression is curtailed as administration routinely targets academic and political expression by students and professors using tools, including violence, imprisonment, prosecution, termination and professional retaliation, and restrictions on movement. China’s civil society continues to face increasing crackdown on dissidents, journalists, netizens for merely exercising freedom of expression, as Chinese government imposed restrictions on freedom of expression in general.

Besides freedom of expression, the right to privacy is simultaneously breached with the imposition of mass surveillance system on citizens across the country. This practice has become more intrusive and pervasive in recent years with technological advancements. Moreover, due to the lack of meaningful checks on governmental powers, surveillance system in China remains unchallenged. China’s cyberspace administration’s development of wide range of measures is noted to be aimed at information control via online censorship to China’s one billion netizens. For instance, restrictions on media coverage in XUAR coupled with close surveillance on foreign journalists reporting on the region. Since last UPR in 2018, Chinese authorities are found to resort to violent repression of public gatherings and protests, as observed in the Blank A4 sheets of paper 3., which became a symbol of the 2022 COVID-19 protests in China, representing censorship. .

With respect to China’s ethnic and religious minorities, the stakeholders’ reports noted that the Chinese policies essentially marginalises minority language and cultural identity through its practice of forced assimilation and restricting minorities right of cultural and religion expression like in the case of the Uyghurs and the Tibetans. Religious leaders of minority communities are subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention. In case of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities in China, the state continued perpetration of systemic forced labour on a large scale as part of its “poverty alleviation” policy. The report further noted that the Chinese government committed crimes against humanity by subjecting the minorities to imprisonment, torture and persecution. The Tibetan and Uyghur children are being subjected to China’s forced assimilation policy. The Uyghur children, whose parents are living overseas or detained in China, were reported to be forcibly taken to “orphan camps” or boarding schools where these children were not allowed to speak in their mother tongue. Similarly, Tibetan children as young as three are imposed with compulsory “bilingual” education at kindergarten whereby they are being taught Chinese language and subjected to state propaganda in the name of “strengthening unity of nationalities.” Moreover, these children are being subjected to forced “ethnic mingling” and “mixed classes”.

The stakeholders’ reports observed that China failed to enforce its 2016 Anti-Domestic Violence Law and women victims continue to struggle while seeking protection from  Chinese authorities. Gender-based violence and gender-based discrimination, therefore, remains a pressing human rights concern in China.

In Hong Kong, authorities use of vague national security law and sedition charges aimed at effective removal of all political opposition, criminalising various kinds of expression, association and advocacy. Peaceful activism by journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders have been faced with arrest and imprisonment. The 2020 National Security Law in Hong Kong became a major catalyst leading to attacks on internet freedoms via blocking of specific websites, arresting and prosecuting individuals for online speech and engaging in transnational actions against internet companies and websites in other countries.

Conclusion

In view of all this, it can be safely stated that the China’s national report on the state of human rights inside the country does not truly reflect the state of affairs on the ground. As a totalitarian one-party State, the state-craft in China has an extremely authoritarian reflex, which is visible in the increasingly restrictive measures that are put in place to ensure forced homogenisation of minorities and outlawing of dissent from politics and society. While UPR may be an extremely useful exercise to keep the States on their toes to ensure upholding of human rights in their territories, the fact that the jurisdiction of the UN Human Rights Council is mostly advisory does not make its recommendations binding on the states to standardise their laws and enforcement procedures for protection of the rights deemed to universal by the UN body. Moreover, the issues of sovereignty and national security continue to trump human rights as it has been seen in the case of China in light of the discussion provided in this issue brief.

Coming to the recommendations, the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group adopted recommendations to China on 26 January 2024. 36 UN members filed advance questions on China in 2024 compared to just nine in 2009, which suggests that the PRC's record on human rights is under closer examination everywhere, particularly with regard to its commitments under international law. The recommendations urged China to cooperate more meaningfully with the UN system and its mechanisms – including implementation of expert policy recommendations and unfettered access for international rights experts. China, as a sovereign country, is at liberty to disregard the recommendations, but as part of the UPR process it is expected to take the recommendations seriously and bring about necessary changes to ensure that there is overall improvement in the human rights condition obtaining in the country. China had accepted 284 recommendations out of 346 in its third UPR in 2018. It remains to be seen how serious it is about the recommendations made in 2024. In the latest UPR session meeting, as per the compilation made in the advanced unedited version of ‘Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review’, there are about 428 recommendations to be examined by China in the coming months.  The recommendations included, among other things, clear calls to abolish the death penalty altogether or put a moratorium on it; to allow UN human rights envoys and mandate holders unrestricted access to the nation, including in Xinjiang and Tibet; to have China ratify and effectively implement human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); to end widespread censorship and remove obstacles to civil society, journalists, and lawyers' freedom of association, assembly, and expression; to repeal the broad "National Security" law of Hong Kong; to allow unfettered access to UN experts to visit the Uyghur Region, Cease harassment, surveillance, and threats against individuals abroad and in China including Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, Repeal the XUAR De-extremification Regulation and XUAR Counter-terrorism law, and report on their implementation; and to stop the well-documented internment and family separation practices in Xinjiang and Tibet. China is required to “provide its responses in due time, but no later than the fifty-sixth session of the Human Rights Council”, which will be held between 18 June 2024 - 12 July 2024.

The delegation of China, present in the session, consisted of about 58 members and it was headed by H.E. Mr. Chen Xu, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva and other International Organizations in Switzerland. He said in his submission that the report “just adopted” was “in general, objective and balanced”, and a majority of them were “constructive”. The report, he said, reflected the statements and the recommendations during the meeting”, which came from about 141 countries and other stakeholders. The Chinese diplomats had lobbied countries around the world to soften their stance on the human rights question and many countries were seen to be praising the steps China claimed to have taken in its report as a follow-up on the previous recommendations.

If one goes by the record of Chinese behaviour, China is expected to resort to its policy of denial on its treatment of minorities and its approach to Hong Kong. Amnesty International in its analysis of the Chinese response in the latest UPR session observed that China was “seeking to gaslight the global community, denying the scope and scale of violations of human rights documented in UN reports, while offering up its anti-human rights approach as a model for other countries”. The Chinese authorities, the analysis said, “flat-out refused to acknowledge fundamental facts: presenting their repression of Uyghurs as an effective counter to terrorism and their suppression of civic space in Hong Kong as providing stability in the city”. It said that “support for human rights defenders in China must be central to their engagement with the country”.  It is unlikely, however, that China would ever allow international observers due and genuine access to judge the reality on the ground objectively. China’s hide-and-seek game vis-à-vis the international community on the issue of protection and promotion of human rights will continue to characterise its approach towards human rights within the country. This is not to deny that UPR has its role to play in periodically calling China’s bluff and nudging it forward in the right direction.

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1. Click Here for Reports

2. There were submissions by 162  stakeholders. The major ones were: Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Washington D.C. (United States of America), Uyghur Human Rights Project, Washington D.C. (USA), Hong Kong Watch, Lawyers for Lawyers, Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, El Colectivo sobre Financiamiento e Inversiones Chinas, Derechos Humanos y Ambiente (CICDHA), Tibet Advocacy Coalition etc.

3. The protestors in China have been using blank sheets of paper as a mark of their opposition to the Chinese government since the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests, when protesters were seen showing blank sheets of paper to protest the passing of the Hong Kong national security law.