This article was originally published under the headline Internationalizing rights-based resistance in China: the UN Human Rights Council and the citizen at openDemocracy.net on 15 November 2013. But in light of today, UN Human Rights Day, it seems appropriate to share again.
On the morning of 22 October, special envoy Wu Hailong led Beijing’s delegation in Geneva as China began its once every four year Universal Periodic Review (UPR) under the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). On 12 November the UN General Assembly voted to fill 14 vacancies on the Human Rights Council and China was elected to a third three-year term on the council. The country served two consecutive terms from 2006 to 2012 but was ineligible to run again until this year. After Jordan announced the withdrawal of its candidacy, the four vacant seats for the Asia Pacific region left Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, The Maldives, and China uncontested. But many analysts have remarked with frustration that even before Jordan’s surprising withdrawal, China’s bid had little chance of defeat due in large part to its permanent status on the Security Council – despite strong objections from rights groups. Considering the egregious record of these four countries, their entry to the rights body could mark an atavistic turn for the council.
Leading up to the Universal Periodic Review and China’s UN Human Rights Council election, one source of testimony has been conspicuously absent from China’s official reporting. Despite efforts by certain NGOs and international organizations, and shallow consultation by the Chinese government, input and participation by Chinese civil society in these important mechanisms for monitoring and upholding their country’s human rights obligations has been withheld. The Chinese government has acted to block civil society participation and engaged in reprisals against civil resistance geared to these international human rights mechanisms. It appears that when Wu Hailong’s delegation announced that, “The Chinese are in the best position to know the situation of human rights in China,” he wasn’t referring to the hundreds of notable Chinese citizens and groups who have been learning to frame their dissent in the language of international human rights as well as those who have been directly campaigning for broader civil participation in the drafting and international reporting on China’s human rights.
In the months leading up to the late July deadline for China to submit its official report to the HRC and the review itself on 22 October, Chinese activists organized a series of actions in multiple locations around the country culminating in a sit-in at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Beijing beginning on 18 June. The organizers, who chose an area around the East Gate of the Ministry building because of its proximity to the Human Rights Division, had planned to maintain the demonstration until 22 October.
The organizers, among them Cao Shunli, claimed that the principal grievances behind the sit-in were the ongoing refusals by the ministry to respond to a series of open information disclosure requests, eventually leading the ministry to claim that the UPR process was a matter of state security. At the high point, the sit-in attracted around 200 participants, mostly women. Cao Shunli remarked to Chinese Human Rights Defenders that, “We just want to have all the participants in the sit-in to have a dialogue with officials, to know how the country’s human rights report is produced and who should be part of the process.”
On 1 July, the first of three police raids dispersed the demonstrators. Around 9 a.m., hundreds of officers descended on the gathering and rounded them up in two groups. Activists from Beijing were taken away in one vehicle, while those from outside of Beijing were removed to separate locations in four different police vehicles. After 12 hours of interrogation, with some reports of physical abuse, almost all of the activists were released. Many of them returned to the ministry to resume the sit-in. The police would clear the sit-in two more times, on 22 August and on 3 October, holding activists separately by region and subjecting them to exhausting questioning.
Similarly, seizing the spotlight of the UPR – a common tactic among Chinese activists, to capitalize on sensitive dates and anniversaries – many have campaigned against China’s inclusion in the Human Rights Council. In Hangzhou, dissident writer Chen Shuqing and fellow organizers Lu Gengsong and Gao Haibin circulated an open letter denouncing China’s entry to the human rights body. The petition received hundreds of signatures from activists in over ten provinces. The organizers of this campaign were later detained on suspicion of ‘inciting to subvert state power.’ Similar campaigns took place in other parts of the country and some overseas organizations claim to have gathered over 10,000 signatures from Chinese both inside and outside of the country. International Chinese activists also staged actions in Geneva on the opening day of the Review.
During the UPR, Human Rights in China announced, that the Chinese government had continued to detain and question individual activists who had persisted in civil resistance pegged to China’s international human rights obligations, which prompted several Special Rapporteurs to specifically criticize China’s crackdown on peaceful assembly related to the UPR. The day before, on 21 October, Guo Feixiong, an outspoken rights defender from Guangzhou, was formally placed under criminal detention in reprisal for organizing a petition in March calling for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The ratification of this core instrument was a major issue during China’s first review in 2009. At the time of his arrest, Peng Lanlan, a Tujia minority and human rights defender from Hunan, had already been under criminal detention for a year under charges of ‘obstructing official business.’ Reportedly tortured in police custody, Peng Lanlan was the first activist to be arrested for pushing for civil society participation in the UPR and challenging the country’s entry to the Human Rights Council. She was targeted after several years of activism. In addition to relying on open petitions such as Guo Feixiong, mentioned above, Peng Lanlan utilized China’s 2008 Freedom of Information Act, also commonly relied upon by Cao Shunli and others.
On 14 September Cao Shunli was taken into police custody at the Beijing International Airport. Meanwhile, at about the same time, over two thousand kilometers to the South, fellow MFA sit-in organizer Chen Jianfeng was apprehended by airport security in Guangzhou. The two women had been on their way to Geneva to attend a training program on the UPR and other international human rights mechanisms. Although Chen Jianfeng was eventually released after intimidating questioning, Cao Shunli remained disappeared even after the UPR had begun. Activists involved in demonstrations related to the UPR told multiple sources that during interrogations police were forceful in questioning related to Cao Shunli, apparently working to contrive charges against her. Front Line Defenders has noted that state tactics of repression are increasingly relying on the manipulated prosecutions of activists.
Like Peng Lanlan, both Chen Jianfeng and Cao Shunli had been engaged in campaigning for transparency in UN reporting and civil society participation in China’s domestic and international human rights since before the first review in 2009. In addition to collective action and open information requests, the women had previously gone so far as to sue relevant ministries over transparency issues. Unlike the majority of her fellow demonstrators, Cao, who exhibited a sophisticated understanding of international human rights, had filed a report with the HRC under the name of the Rights Campaign, based out of Jiangsu Province. Her submission, which called attention to the persecution of civil society demands for participation in human rights plans, was included in the official UPR stakeholder analysis, a fact that has very likely contributed to maximizing her reprisals by the state, which understandably seemed less concerned with acts of collective action that generate limited attention than those generating more official condemnation.
Government reprisals against activists campaigning for broader civil society participation in China’s human rights implementation and reporting demonstrate that the Chinese government is at least somewhat concerned by the possible content of independent reviews of its internal human rights. That Chinese activists are gradually strengthening the framing of domestic grievances with the vocabulary of international human rights marks a departure from locality-specific episodes of contention. Although issue and locality-specific activism and rights defense remains the norm, activists such as Guo Feixiong and Cao Shunli are gradually turning to international norms and seeking training by international human rights experts, when unimpeded by the authorities, in addition to contained tactics like sit-ins and petitions.
Although a number of actors in civil resistance, such as at the MFA sit-in, still participate to draw attention to individual grievances or merely to express general disgust with the government, increasing exposure to concepts of international rights will have an impact on the development of their resistance in the future.
It exhibits an innovation in the framing and substance of civil resistance in China that challenges the often repeated claims of the Chinese government, when their human rights record is criticized, that universal values are incommensurate with Chinese values. On the contrary, it could be that the more Chinese activists become aware of universal rights the more they will include them in the framing of domestic civil resistance to counter attempts by the government to manipulate the discourse from within the Human Rights Council.