David Cameron should speak out on China human rights in both public and private

An open letter from NGOs to the Prime Minister

Monday 19 October 2015 20:25 BST

Dear Prime Minister,

As organisations that are working to improve human rights in China and around the world, we are writing to you regarding the state visit by President Xi Jinping on October 20-23, 2015. We are deeply concerned with the continuing deterioration of human rights since President Xi Jinping came into office in 2012. We urge you to speak out on human rights in a principled, forceful, and specific way – in both public and private.

President Xi Jinping has committed his administration to comprehensively promoting the “rule of law”, which is even one part of his signature governance platform known as the “Four Comprehensives”. However, to name just one example, his administration has launched an unprecedented attack on the legal profession that is not in any way compatible with the spirit of promoting the “rule of law”.

On 9 July the Ministry of Public Security launched a nationwide operation to target and detain lawyers and activists. As of 16 October, at least 248 individuals have been targeted, with 29 still under police custody. Most worryingly, seven lawyers and five activists have been placed under “residential surveillance in a designated place”, a process in which police are allowed to hold criminal suspects for up to six months outside of the formal detention system. This practice, in which numerous cases of torture and other forms of ill-treatment have been reported over the years, can amount to enforced disappearance, a violation of international law.

The Chinese government has paraded detained lawyers on state-run TV to make forced “confessions”, accused some of them of having been part of a “major criminal gang” in which “all sorts of evil plots are being exposed”. The lawyers have been accused of using “sensitive cases” to “provoke trouble” online and offline. Moreover, several lawyers who have been targeted in the crackdown – but who have not been detained and do not face any criminal charges – have been prevented from leaving the country.

This intimidation and harassment is in direct contradiction to the government’s obligations to respect the role of lawyers in society. Article 16 of The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which the UN General Assembly, has adopted, states that: “Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; (b) are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely both within their own country and abroad; and (c) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics”.

As your government has stated its commitment to promoting human rights, democratic values and the rule of law we therefore urge you to tell President Xi Jinping that the crackdown on lawyers is incompatible with upholding and respecting the vital role that they play in promoting the rule of law and ensuring human rights. Such activities may even imperil areas of cooperation between China and the international community in which trust in a well-functioning legal system is crucial.

During President Xi Jinping’s time in office, the already limited space for civil society has been shrinking even further. Since 2012, at least 450 people have been the victims of four major coordinated campaigns against civil society: the arrests of the core members of the New Citizen’s Movement, a loose network of activists dedicated to the principles of Constitutionalism, government transparency and civic responsibility; the targeting and detention of activists commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 2014; the detention of activists showing support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014; and the crackdown on lawyers and activists in the summer of 2015.

Many of the informal tactics that were commonly used to monitor and control Chinese civil society are now being “legitimized” by being written into laws and regulations. The draft Foreign NGO Management Law, which is expected to be passed late this year or in early 2016, would severely restrict the rights to freedom of association, among other rights. While the law is ostensibly designed to regulate and even protect the rights of foreign NGOs, it would give the Ministry of Public Security the responsibility to oversee the registration of foreign NGOs, as well as the task of supervising their operations, and pre-approving their activities.

Jeremy Corbyn will use his meeting with President Xi Jinping to call for the release of imprisoned human rights lawyers (Corbis)

The wide discretion given to authorities to oversee and interfere with the work of NGOs raises the risk that the law could be misused to intimidate and prosecute human rights defenders and NGO workers for their legitimate work. Other provisions would prohibit domestic NGOs in China from receiving financial support from foreign partners who have not set up offices in China according to the onerous procedures outlined in the law, thus potentially cutting off domestic groups from outside financial support. This move comes after at least 14 NGOs have been forced to shut down or have had their operation severely hampered by the government.

If enacted in its current form, the Foreign NGO Management Law could potentially put at risk many forms of cooperation between UK and Chinese civil society, including government-funded initiatives. We urge you to tell President Xi Jinping to hold off on passing the Foreign NGO Management Law, and ensure that any proposed and adopted law conforms to international human rights laws and standards.

We also have grave concerns about the situation for ethnic minorities and religious practitioners. The government’s draft Anti-Terrorism Law defines “terrorism” and “extremism” very broadly, and the law would regard “misrepresenting or insulting state policies, laws, administrative regulations” as a form of “extremist conduct”. Similarly, anyone suspected of “terrorist” activities could also see their freedom of movement severely restricted, and be subjected to so-called “education” measures or other forms of arbitrary detention. The law provides no redress mechanism for individuals who have been subjected to forms of arbitrary detention on suspicion of “extremism” or “terrorism”.

In Tibetan areas, there continue to be tight restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The government has recently reinforced its claims to control the institution of the “Dalai Lama”. Meanwhile, in Zhejiang province – where the provincial government is waging a campaign to demolish Christian churches and tear down crosses and crucifixes – a prominent lawyer who was providing legal services to affected churches, Zhang Kai, and one of his assistants are being held under “residential surveillance”. All unauthorized forms of peaceful religious worship – including unauthorized Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian house churches – can potentially be subjected to suppression and criminal sanctions.

Please tell President Xi Jinping of the commitment that your government has made to promoting Freedom of Religion and Belief and urge him to respect all human rights in ethnic minority areas, stop the cross removal campaign in Zhejiang, and ensure that freedom of religion is fully respected in China.

We appreciate that over the years your government has raised human rights with Chinese leaders and engaged in human rights dialogues with your Chinese counterparts. However, we are concerned that recent statements made by Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under-Secretary to the FCO state that human rights are not as high a priority as ‘prosperity’ . Our organisations find this deeply worrying and whilst we recognise the legitimate pursuit of economic ties, this must not come at the expense of human rights.

We therefore urge you to demonstrate your government’s commitment to human rights and we urge you to raise the above issues with President Xi Jinping when you meet with him.

Yours sincerely,

Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK

Philippa Carrick, CEO, Tibet Society and Tibet Relief Fund

Chloe Sanders, East Asia Advocacy Officer, Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Padma Dolma, Europe and Campaigns Director, Students for a Free Tibet

Tsering Passang, Chairman, Tibetan Community in Britain

Rahima Mahmut, Uighur activist

Kate Saunders, Communications Director, International Campaign for Tibet

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