China is in the midst of its darkest period for human rights since the Tiananmen Square massacre, Human Rights Watch has said in its annual report.
But 2020 was also the year that world governments found “safety in numbers” to push back on China’s policies of repression, with less fear of retaliation, it said.
Worsening persecutions of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet, targeting of whistleblowers, the crackdown on Hong Kong and attempts to cover up the coronavirus outbreak were all part of the deteriorating situation under President Xi Jinping, the organisation said.
“This has been the darkest period for human rights in China since the 1989 massacre that ended the Tiananmen Square democracy movement,” the report on worldwide human rights abuses said.
“The Chinese government’s authoritarianism was on full display in 2020 as it grappled with the deadly coronavirus outbreak first reported in Wuhan province,” the report said, describing the initial cover-up of the outbreak by authorities and the punishment of whistleblower doctors including Li Wenliang and journalists such as Zhang Zhan, who reported on the Wuhan lockdown and on surveillance and harassment of virus victims’ families .
At the same time, “Beijing’s repression – insisting on political loyalty to the Chinese Communist party – deepened across the country”, it said.
“In Xinjiang, Turkic Muslims continue to be arbitrarily detained on the basis of their identity, while others are subjected to forced labour, mass surveillance, and political indoctrination. In Inner Mongolia, protests broke out in September when education authorities decided to replace Mongolian with Mandarin Chinese in a number of classes in the region’s schools.”
And in Tibet, authorities continued “to severely restrict religious freedom, speech, movement and assembly, and fail to redress popular concerns about mining and land grabs by local officials, which often involve intimidation and unlawful use of force by security forces”.
The demand for political loyalty also intensified in the special administrative region of Hong Kong. After more than six months of protests in 2019, Beijing implemented the internationally criticised national security law on the city, outlawing even benign acts of opposition as crimes of secession, sedition, foreign collusion and terrorism. About 90 people have been arrested under the law since June.
Internet censorship, mass surveillance and efforts to “sinicise” religion also deepened across China, the report said. Prominent critics, human rights defenders and journalists were jailed, disappeared or forced into exile, many accused of “inciting subversion” or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a common charged levelled against dissidents and activists.
“Since Xi Jinping came to power the repression has gotten worse and worse overall, in every aspect of Chinese society you can see how the party is becoming more intolerant of any kind of independent activity,” said HRW researcher Yaqiu Wang.
The 386-page report focused on China in large part because of the international response to worsening repression there. HRW said the rest of the world became more confident in criticising Beijing, having previously feared retaliation.
Retaliation still occurred: China and the US entered a trade war, traded sanctions and new regulations on visas, diplomats and journalists, and closed embassies. Australia was subjected to damaging trade tariffs and bans after it voiced calls for a “robust” investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
HRW was critical of the EU’s response to China, and in particular the finalising of a trade deal with Beijing late last year.
“If the EU had been serious about ending forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province, they could have insisted on it before they agreed to the investment agreement,” said HRW head, Kenneth Roth.
But in 2020, many world governments found “safety in numbers, reflecting Beijing’s inability to retaliate against the entire world”, HRW said. Fewer members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – who in the past have tended to support China – supported Xinjiang policies, and multiple statements of condemnation were produced at the UN.
The US passed numerous pieces of legislation targeting China’s abuses, while the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US all tore up extradition treaties with the country over its crackdown on Hong Kong.
“This growing international willingness to condemn the Chinese government forced it to respond,” the report said, and Beijing for the first time gave confirmation of the number of Uighur and other Turkic Muslims detained in Xinjiang, revealing that 1.3 million people had gone through what it termed “vocational training centres”.
Each UN statement was countered with statements in support of Beijing, which HRW said were “typically signed by many of the world’s worst human rights abusers”, and appeared to involve economic leverage.
The HRW report said the pushback was particularly notable for the “peripheral” role of the US, in that the Trump administration was often not involved or lacked credibility when it was.
“The lesson of recent years for other governments is that they can make a big difference even without Washington. Even under a more rights-friendly US administration, this broader collective defense of rights should be maintained”.