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Human Rights in China sends letter to High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson outlining the current human rights situation in China in preparation for the High Commissioner's upcoming visit

August 13, 1998

New York, 13 August 1998

High Commissioner for Human Rights
Ms. Mary Robinson
Palais des Nations
1211 Geneve 10

Re: Visit to China

Dear Ms. High Commissioner,

As you prepare for your visit to China, we at Human Rights in China (HRIC) take this opportunity to express our hope that you may be very successful in this endeavor. A first visit to China by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has a high symbolic value; beyond symbolism, we hope that the fact that human rights violations occur on a widespread, systematic basis in China will be at the core of the forthcoming exchange between the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the government of China. We sincerely wish that your visit will achieve substantive and positive results which mark moves towards greater respect for human rights in the People's Republic of China.

Violations of human rights in China include arbitrary detention, political and religious imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, deprivation of the rights to freedom of expression and association, widespread failure to enforce laws protecting the rights of workers and women, suppression of religious freedom and the use of physical and psychological coercion in the implementation of the population control policy. We trust that in your public addresses and in your private discussions with Chinese officials you will raise these concerns.

In engaging in a dialogue with China, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should promote greater transparency and accountability in the field of human rights, as well as an increased respect for universally recognized human rights standards. It is therefore essential that you urge the Chinese government to make good on its pledge to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as its additional protocols, without reservation. The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights should also be ratified at the next session of the National People's Congress Standing Committee. Ratification of both instruments would provide benchmarks against which the Chinese state's performance in promoting realization of economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights could be assessed, both internationally and domestically, and would create mechanisms for regular monitoring of the full range of human rights in China.

Greater accountability should be required of the Chinese government regarding reporting mechanisms. A first step would be for the government to take steps to implement the recommendations of CAT, CEDAW, CERD and CRC.

The text of the never-adopted resolution on China at the UN Commission on Human Rights included a request that China increase its cooperation with the Thematic Procedures of the Commission on Human Rights. We hope that you will recommend the Chinese government to extend an unconditional invitation to the Special Rapporteur on the question on torture and to the Special Rapporteur on summary, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions.

When dealing with the communications from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chinese officials' replies are too often inaccurate, in blatant contradiction with the information provided by victims of rights abuses themselves or by their families. The Chinese government's replies to these communications should be timely and respect the facts; the Chinese authorities should take into full account the annual reports of the Thematic Procedures. Such moves will be an indication that the government of China is truly willing to engage in meaningful cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The plight of prisoners of conscience and the detention regime in China constitute a focal point of HRIC's monitoring activities. Our organization maintains regular contact with rights advocates and the families of detainees of all types inside China.

We are deeply concerned at the increasing use of the administrative measure of deprivation of freedom known in China as Reeducation Through Labor (RTL). According to China's official figures, 230,000 people are currently held under RTL, as compared with around 150,000 in the early 1990s. RTL applies to people believed to be responsible of acts "too minor" to merit formal prosecution and is ordered by the public security departments alone, without any judicial review. RTL detainees do not have the right to counsel, the right to a hearing or the right to have the lawfulness of their detention reviewed by a judicial authority. Although its maximum duration is three years, it can be renewed for up to one more year if the detainee is believed to have performed badly in his or her "reform." It is frequently used to detain Chinese people who have peacefully exercised their rights to freedom of thought, religion, expression and association. However, we believe that this measure is arbitrary under the definition put forward in the judgement of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and thus should not be applied to any detainees, regardless of the reason for which they are sent to RTL. Over the years, many Chinese legal scholars have argued that RTL is incompatible with due process guarantees and should be eliminated. We suggest that you strongly recommend to the Chinese government that this form of detention be abolished.

HRIC has closely followed the Chinese government's shift of recent years toward using "state security" as a rationale for the suppression of dissent, a process which culminated in the replacement of the concept of "counterrevolution" with that of "endangering state security" in the revised Criminal Code. The term "state security," and what constitutes harm to it, is left undefined in the Chinese legal system. The way the concept of state security is used to justify violations of basic rights, including peaceful acts of freedom of expression, association and assembly, is very clear. HRIC is therefore concerned that this substitution broadened the capacity of the state to curtail the peaceful exercise of fundamental rights. The fact that the 2,000 "counterrevolutionary" prisoners (according to Beijing's statistics) have not had their convictions reviewed after the revision of the Criminal Code is an indication of that. The High Commissioner should urge the Chinese authorities to proceed with a comprehensive review of the convictions and sentences of all those imprisoned for alleged "counterrevolutionary crimes."

Ms. High Commissioner, nine years after the June Fourth massacre and subsequent repression across China, hundreds of Chinese citizens remain in prison for participating in the peaceful protests. We have the names of 158 individuals for the city of Beijing alone. Over 50 of these are held in Beijing No. 2 Prison and are serving sentences of 15 years to life. Their only crime consisted in standing up for democracy and respect for human rights. Yet these people were charged with criminal offenses and convicted on the basis of flimsy evidence in patently unfair trials. For compiling this list and making it public, Beijing student Li Hai was found guilty of "prying into and gathering" "state secrets," and sentenced in 1996 to nine years' imprisonment.

We urge you to present the attached lists to the officials you will meet during your visit, and to press for the unconditional release of all of the thousands of political and religious detainees in the PRC.

With regards to coercive practices resulting in rights abuses in the course of implementing China's population control policy, the pilot projects carried out by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) constitute a welcome development and, if their outcome is positive, they should be extended. However, evidence, including in reports from the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, points at the continuing use of coercive measures throughout the country, resulting in damage to the health of women and children; forced abortions, forced contraception and forced sterilizations; sex selective abortions, female infanticide and the abandonment of female infants by parents. Although central government officials have insisted that coercive practices are not permitted and have said that local officials have been punished for employing them, they have never shown evidence of a single prosecution for such acts. The High Commissioner should strongly recommend the revision of provincial and national laws and regulations on population planning, including a clear and unequivocal statement that the use of force to implement this policy is a crime and will be punished.

Other issues regarding the rights of women and the girl child about which the High Commissioner should enquire with the Chinese authorities include an increase in the trafficking and sale of women and widespread discrimination in employment and education. We also urge the High Commissioner to enquire as to whether the National People's Congress intends to incorporate the concept of domestic violence into Chinese law, and encourage it to consider taking such a step. HRIC is currently preparing a report on the situation of women in China, which will be duly forwarded to your office.

Chinese authorities allow virtually no space for independent, public advocacy on social, political, environmental, economic and religious issues. Tight restrictions are imposed on sensitive or critical media reporting, on free expression more generally and on freedom of association and assembly. Rather than contributing to "social stability" as the authorities claim, such restrictions, HRIC believes, can create an explosive social situation in a context where rapid economic reforms have intensified problems such as unemployment, inadequate welfare provisions, official abuses and corruption. Restrictions on basic rights deprive those who are excluded from the benefits of economic growth of channels for the articulation of grievances and interests, leading to the threat of social unrest. The right to establish free trade unions, in particular, is routinely violated, and attempts to set up unions or labor-related organizations outside the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions have often led to government reprisals and prison and RTL sentences.

China's Ministry of Civil Affairs is currently revising the national regulations which require that all organizations, associations and non-profit entities be registered with the authorities or otherwise be deemed "illegal organizations," and making attachment to a unit of the government or Chinese Communist Party a prerequisite for such registration. (See enclosed publications for an overview of the regulatory regime regarding associations in China.) According to our most recent information, the drafting of the new regulations is to be completed in November of this year. Thus this is a key opportunity for you to urge the Chinese government to revise the regulations in such a way as to ensure that people in China are able to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion, expression and association, including the right to hold and express divergent opinions and the right to form independent organizations, including unions. Creating more space for independent organizations is crucial to ensure that the rights of the Chinese people are protected, and the avenues for expression of grievances and for articulation of the needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged they create will be critical for China's stable development in the future.

In this regard the High Commissioner could encourage the Chinese government to seek support from the UN Advisory Services and Technical Cooperation Programs on revision of the regulations and the provisions of the Trade Union law and the Labor Law relating to the formation of unions. China's ratification of ILO convention 87 (right of association and rights to establish independent trade unions) would also be a welcome step. A more pluralistic dialogue would better serve the cause of human rights. We strongly suggest that the High Commissioner meet with actors independent of the government, such as members of social groups, scholars, lawyers, rights advocates and the relatives of prisoners of conscience. As the Chinese government is increasingly engaged in "constructive dialogues" with other governments, it should be encouraged to also open a dialogue domestically, with all actors of Chinese society.

HRIC is more than willing to assist you with any question you may have concerning specific areas of human rights violations in China. We are enclosing some of our most recent publications as reference material, as well as two lists of selected cases of political and religious imprisonment. We sincerely hope that the dialogue you are about to begin with the government of China will be fruitful and wish you a very successful visit.


Liu Qing

Xiao Qiang
Executive Director