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Illustration: Jordan Baccam

“But we must try!”: Cao Shunli, the unsilenceable legacy

Ten years ago, Chinese woman human rights defender Cao Shunli was a victim of deadly reprisals for engaging with the United Nations. The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and partners are paying her tribute and honouring other Chinese, Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong human rights defenders who continue to hold the Chinese government accountable.

In China, like everywhere else, people want to live in dignity. They want to be able not only to meet their basic needs and care for their families, but also to express themselves freely and treat each other with fairness and respect. Unfortunately, the government perceives efforts to create a more inclusive, diverse, rights-respecting and just Chinese society as a threat to its power. 

Cao Shunli, a brave woman human rights defender, attempted to speak truth to power by bringing the human rights situation in China to the attention of the United Nations. Her unwavering dedication led to her arbitrary detention by the Chinese authorities and ultimately to her tragic death after spending six months in custody, on 14 March 2014, exactly ten years ago.

Cao’s story is not an isolated incident. It is emblematic of the broader crackdown on human rights defenders who dare to uphold the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  in China. Many like her have been unjustly imprisoned, harassed, or forcibly disappeared. Many suffer from reprisals for attempting to cooperate with the United Nations, including by coming to Geneva like Cao tried to do. Yet, despite these adversities, human rights defenders in China continue to resiliently document, denounce, and mobilise against injustice.

Today, as we mark the tenth anniversary of Cao Shunli’s death, we pledge to carry forward her legacy by amplifying the voices of Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Hong Kong human rights defenders who continue to be targeted by the Chinese government.

Cao’s powerful words, ‘But we must try!’, are a reminder for all of us, that even in the darkest of times, we must keep trying in our pursuit of justice. For only through our collective efforts can we hope to realise a world where human rights are upheld, cherished, and protected for all. This is Cao Shunli’s legacy.

Cao Shunli in 2013. ©Pablo M. DÍEZ (ABC Spanish Daily)

 

'Our impact may be large, may be small, and may be nothing. But we must try. It is our duty to the dispossessed and it is the right of civil society.'
Cao Shunli

Who was Cao Shunli? 

Cao Shunli was a brave Chinese woman human rights defender and lawyer. She campaigned for the meaningful consultation and contribution of an independent civil society to the Chinese government’s national reports for its first and second Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR). On 14 September 2013, one month before this second review, Cao Shunli was detained and then forcibly disappeared by Chinese authorities for five weeks. This occurred while she was travelling to Geneva to attend a human rights training organised by ISHR and CHRD. 

When she resurfaced in custody in October 2013, Chinese authorities charged her with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble,’ and it was evident that she experienced serious medical issues in detention. Despite repeated international calls for her urgent release over months of being denied adequate medical treatment, Cao Shunli died on 14 March 2014 from multiple organ failure. She was granted bail for medical reasons just days before her death. Cao Shunli was one of the finalists of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2014.

To this day, Chinese authorities have ignored appeals seeking accountability for Cao’s death, including repeated calls by UN Special Procedures experts in 2014 and 2019 for a full investigation into this ‘deadly reprisal’. Her case remains as one of the longest-standing unresolved cases from China in the UN Secretary-General’s annual reports on reprisals. 

Cao Shunli’s story is a paradigm of reprisals, not only because of her belief in the importance of civil society participation in UN mechanisms, but also due to the array of severe human rights abuses she endured resulting from this belief. 

A Memorial for Cao Shunli

In September 2023, sixteen human rights organisations sent a letter to the Administrative Council of the City of Geneva requesting them to positively consider the installation of a statue paying tribute to Cao Shunli, marking the ten-year anniversary of her death. 

At the same time, six of these organisations commissioned a bust of Cao Shunli from Czech artist Marie Seborova, which will be unveiled on 14 March 2024. 

This statue would honour not only the tireless work of Cao Shunli, but also of all human rights defenders who believe in and engage with the Geneva-based UN human rights mechanisms , despite the grave risks they may face. Geneva has earned its reputation as a human rights and diplomacy centre, serving as a beacon of hope for thousands who seek justice and respect for their fundamental rights by reaching out to the Geneva-based United Nations human rights system. By installing such a statue, the City of Geneva would demonstrate international solidarity with human rights defenders at a time when they are jailed and disappeared for their beliefs in a more equal, just, and rights-respecting world. It will build up their resilience and amplify their voices and work– which is often unnoticed or suppressed.

As of March 2024, the City was still analysing our request. We reiterate our call to the Geneva authorities to honour Cao Shunli’s legacy by displaying her bust in the City of Geneva. 

Call on Geneva authorities to recognise and honour Cao Shunli's legacy by displaying her bust in the City of Geneva

Call on Geneva authorities to recognise and honour Cao Shunli's legacy by displaying her bust in the City of Geneva

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The human rights defenders who keep Cao's legacy alive

This campaign commemorates Cao Shunli’s unsilenceable legacy and shines a spotlight on other courageous individuals from mainland China, Hong Kong, Tibet, and the Uyghur region, who have faced severe reprisals for their activism. From pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong to Tibetan activists fighting for their language and environmental rights, from Chinese lawyers upholding basic rights in court to Uyghurs defending their culture and religion, these voices represent the ongoing struggle for human rights in China.

Chen Jianfang

(Released - under surveillance)

Chen Jianfang

(Released - under surveillance)

Chen Jianfang, formerly a farmer, began her human rights work after local authorities and developers seized her and her family’s land without adequate compensation. In the last decade, she has been working at the grassroots level to defend land and housing rights, promote the rights of vulnerable social groups and expose root causes of systemic rights abuses. 

Chen Jianfang campaigned with Cao Shunli for the participation of civil society at the UN. On 14 September 2013, the same day that Chinese authorities detained Cao Shunli, Chen Jianfang was prevented from boarding a flight to Geneva to attend a human rights training organised by ISHR and CHRD. She was disappeared in November, a week prior to a Human Rights Council election in which China would be voted to the body for a second term despite efforts by many, including Chen Jianfang, to expose the government’s record of rights violations. 

On the night of 19 to 20 March 2019, just days after paying tribute to Cao Shunli on the 5th anniversary of her death, Shanghai police officers seized Chen Jianfang from her home and disappeared her. They placed her in Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL) for two months. She was formally arrested in May 2019. Chinese authorities tried Chen Jianfang on 19 March 2021; on 5 August 2022, they sentenced her to four years and six months in prison, followed by four years of ‘deprivation of political rights,’ for, ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ The main ‘evidence’ cited was Chen’s participation in protests and in trainings organised by ISHR and other international organisations.

Chen Jianfang left prison on 21 October 2023. Following her return to her home in Shanghai, Chinese authorities placed her under strict surveillance, and plain-clothes agents guarded her residence.

Xu Yan and Yu Wensheng

(In detention)

Xu Yan and Yu Wensheng

(In detention)

Xu Yan is the wife of human rights lawyer and Martin Ennals Award recipient Yu Wensheng. Chinese authorities arbitrarily detained Yu Wensheng in 2018, the day after he released an open letter recommending changes to China’s Constitution, including a call for elections and the creation of an oversight system for the Chinese Communist Party. After a period in Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL), authorities arrested Yu Wensheng and sentenced him on the charge of ‘inciting subversion of State power.’ In March 2022, they released him from prison after he served for four years and three months. 

During these four years, Xu Yan campaigned courageously for her husband’s acquittal, including by sharing information with UN rights experts about his situation. After Yu’s detention, she began facing intimidation. Police threatened to arrest her if she continued to speak up for human rights, accept media interviews, or communicate with people outside of China. Authorities subjected her to surveillance like unannounced nighttime visits and following her while she was out.

On 13 April 2023, a little over a year after authorities finally released Yu Wensheng from prison, the couple was detained on their way to an event at the Delegation of the European Union in Beijing. In addition to preventing them from attending this meeting, their detention may have also been in retaliation for a tweet sent out by Yu Wensheng on 9 April 2023, in which he condemned the sentencing of human rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi. Yu and Xu were criminally detained on the charge of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ On 31 May 2023, the authorities added a new charge of ‘inciting subversion of State power.’ Their 18-year-old son is currently subject to close monitoring by authorities.

Chow Hang Tung

(In detention)

Chow Hang Tung

(In detention)

Chow Hang Tung is a Hong Kong barrister and woman human rights defender. She has advocated for labour rights, as well as for the rights of persecuted human rights defenders and activists in mainland China and Hong Kong. 

Chow was elected Vice-Chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HKA) in 2015. HKA was an organisation established in Hong Kong in 1989 that sought to rehabilitate the pro-democracy movement and fought for accountability regarding the Tiananmen Massacre. Every 4th of June between 1990 and 2019, HKA held a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre. The Chinese government considered this subversive; they forced HKA to disband in 2021.

Chow Hang Tung is facing several processes. She is currently serving 22 months for allegedly encouraging people’s participation in candlelight vigils in both 2020 and 2021. She also faces charges alongside Lee Cheuk-Yan and Albert Ho, the chair and vice-chair of HKA, for ‘inciting subversion of State power’ between 1 July 2020 and 8 September 2021. 

On 8 September 2021, the Hong Kong police arrested her and four other HKA executive committee members for refusing to comply with a police order demanding them to provide information about staff, funding sources and interactions with other organisations over the previous seven years. The police wanted to establish whether HKA constituted a ‘foreign agent’ under article 43 of the National Security Law. 

Chow Hang Tung remains in detention. All her applications for bail have been refused. In May 2023, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that her detention is arbitrary. She has been awarded the 2023 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, the CCBE Human Rights Award 2023 and the 2023 Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law.

Li Yuhan

(In detention)

Li Yuhan

(In detention)

Li Yuhan is a Beijing-based human rights lawyer and advocate for victims of human rights violations. She is known to many in China’s human rights community as ‘big sister,’ a reference to both her age (72 years old) and her compassionate demeanour. 

As a human rights lawyer, Li Yuhan has represented sensitive cases on freedom of belief and access to government information. In 2015, during China’s ‘709 Crackdown’ on human rights lawyers, she defended Wang Yu, a fellow human rights lawyer. Yu was one of the central targets of this crackdown. Li Yuhan successfully released Wang Yu on bail on 22 July 2016. 

As part of her advocacy for lawyers detained in the ‘709 Crackdown,’  Li Yuhan spoke to members of the UN Committee against Torture in November 2015. As a consequence, the police of Shenyang City (Liaoning Province) arrested her on 9 October 2017 without providing a warrant or notice to her family. She was disappeared for three weeks. In late October, a police officer confirmed her location and detention status. She was then able to receive visits from her brother and lawyer. Authorities formally arrestedLi Yuhan on 15 November 2017 for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ 

The judges in charge of Li Yuhan’s case repeatedly delayed her trial, and they either refused or ignored requests made by her lawyer to release her on bail. She was finally tried on 20 October 2021. Diplomats from six countries and her lawyers were not allowed in the courtroom. On 25 October 2023, she was ultimately sentenced to six and a half years. While in custody, Li Yuhan has reportedly experienced torture, ill treatment, and deprivation of medical care. She has severe medical conditions and is suffering from complications due to the poor detention conditions she faces. 

Li Yuhan was awarded the Franco German human rights prize in 2020 for her work as a human rights lawyer. UN special procedures have sent a communication to China concerning her arbitrary detention in 2023.

Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong

(In detention)

Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong

(In detention)

Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi are prominent Chinese human rights activists and jurists. In 2011, they both led the New Citizens Movement, which sought to encourage Chinese citizens to exercise their civil and political rights enshrined in China’s Constitution. Chinese authorities imprisoned them between 2013 and 2017 because of their peaceful advocacy. 

In December 2019, after attending an informal gathering of human rights lawyers and citizens in Xiamen, the authorities disappeared Ding Jiaxi under Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL). In February 2020, authorities also disappeared Xu Zhiyong and sent him to RSDL. 

Both Xu and Ding have alleged that the police tortured them during RSDL. In June 2020, authorities formally arrested both of them and, after another seven months, indicted them on charges of ‘subversion of State power.’ Only then were they allowed to see lawyers. However, their lawyers were not granted full access to the case files, nor were they able to freely meet with Xu and Ding. Xu and Ding did not have access to pen, paper, or books. They were not allowed to see or talk to their loved ones. 

Authorities secretly tried both men in June 2022. On 10 April 2023, the Linyi Intermediate Court sentenced Ding to 12 years and Xu to 14 years in prison. The court deprived them of political rights for three and four additional years respectively. Both men submitted ‘not guilty’ pleas to the Shandong Provincial Higher Court, but the court did not hear them. Instead, the Court directly announced the verdicts on 24 November 2023 as determined from the first trial. Authorities transferred Ding and Xu to prisons in different locations. As of today, their family members and lawyers have not been allowed to meet them, nor are they allowed to communicate with their family by mail or by phone. The detention conditions are very poor, and their health is deteriorating. UN special procedures have sent multiple communications to China concerning their arbitrary detention and sentencing.

Li Qiaochu

(In detention)

Li Qiaochu

(In detention)

Li Qiaochu is a feminist researcher and human rights defender. After Beijing authorities began to forcibly evict migrant workers from urban areas in the winter of 2017, she, along with other academics, civil society organisations, and volunteers, collected and disseminated information to help the evicted migrant workers secure new jobs and find affordable accommodation. Li Qiaochu also actively supported various #MeToo campaigns by compiling data, writing analyses, and posting these analyses online. During the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, she worked with a team of volunteers to provide sanitation workers with free masks and to help women suffering from domestic violence. 

In December 2019, authorities detained Li Qiachu’s partner, the prominent legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, and other human rights lawyers for meeting and discussing rule of law and reforms in China. Li Qiaochu started to campaign online for their release. As part of her advocacy, she shared information about the treatment of human rights lawyers in detention with two experts from the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) in September 2020.

Between December 2019 and June 2020, police repeatedly detained Li Qiaochu because of her connection with her partner and for publicising abuses done by authorities, including when they detained her for a 37-day period under Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL). After she tweeted about the harsh conditions at Linshu County Detention Centre, where Xu Zhiyong was detained, Qiaochu was again arrested on 14 March 2021 under the charge of ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ UN special procedures have previously sent communications to China concerning her arbitrary detention in April 2021.

Following a non-public trial, where her lawyer was not allowed to review evidence or question witnesses, authorities sentenced Li Qiaochu on 5 February 2024 to three years and eight months in prison. While in detention, Li Qiaochu suffers from depression and mental health issues. She is expected to complete her sentence on 3 August 2024. 

Leung Kwok-Hung

(In detention)

Leung Kwok-Hung

(In detention)

Leung Kwok-Hung, also known by his nickname ‘Long Hair,’ is a Hong Kong politician and social activist. He is a founding member of the Revolutionary Marxist League and was elected member of the Legislative Council in 2004-2017. In 2006, he co-founded a social democratic party, the League of Social Democrats (LSD), of which he was the Chairman from 2012 to 2016. 

Leung Kwok-Hung was arrested and released on bail multiple times in 2020 for organising and taking part in the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests against the Extradition Bill, which would allow extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China, against the National Security Law, and against  other laws. On 28 February 2021, Chinese authorities charged him under the newly enacted National Security Law with ‘subversion.’ They have been detaining him since then.

He faces several sentences for the different cases brought against him. Chinese authorities have denied bail several times since then, and he has remained in jail for more than three years.

Sophia Huang Xueqin

(In detention)

Sophia Huang Xueqin

(In detention)

Huang Xueqin, also known as Sophia, is an independent journalist. She was instrumental in launching #MeToo in China; she helped survivors of sexual assault publicly tell their stories in January 2018. The public reckoning sparked by this movement led to changes in China’s laws recognising sexual harassment as a civil offense. In 2019, she posted online about her experience observing the protests against the National Security Law in Hong Kong, and Guangzhou authorities forcibly disappeared her for three months Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL). 

On 19 September 2021, Huang Xueqin was due to leave for the United Kingdom to begin a master’s program at the University of Sussex on a British government scholarship. Instead, Guangzhou Public Security detained her that afternoon, while she was at the home of her friend, labour activist Wang Jianbing. A month later, authorities formally arrested both activists on the charge of ‘inciting subversion of State power,’ and transferred them in January 2023 to a detention centre to await a trial. Their continued detention is believed to be related to the weekly gatherings Wang Jianbing hosted the year prior to their detention, during which they discussed the challenges activists faced due to the shrinking space for civil society. 

On 22 September 2023, Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing went on trial. Seven foreign diplomats, including from the US, the UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, tried to observe the trial. Chinese security guards blocked their entry into the courtroom. The trial ended without the announcement of a verdict, which remains unknown. Huang Xueqin has reported serious health concerns while in detention. UN special procedures have previously sent multiple communications to China concerning Wang Jianbing and Huang Xueqin’s disappearances and trial.

Tashi Wangchuk

(Released - under surveillance)

Tashi Wangchuk

(Released - under surveillance)

Tashi Wangchuk is a Tibetan language advocate. In May 2018, Chinese authorities sentenced him to five years in prison in retaliation for his efforts to peacefully promote the right of Tibetans to study in their own language. In January 2016, authorities secretly detained Tashi Wangchuk after he appeared in a New York Times article and documentary in 2015. In the article and documentary, he advocated for the use of the Tibetan language in government offices and in schools. His relatives were not informed of his detention until 24 March 2016. After two years in pre-trial detention, authorities finally gave him a trial in January 2018 and sentenced him in May 2018 for ‘inciting separatism.’ 

Several UN experts in 2017 and 2018 expressed ‘serious concern’ over the case, describing it as the ‘criminalization of linguistic and cultural rights advocacy’ and called for his release. 

Authorities released Tashi Wangchuk from prison upon completion of his sentence on 28 January 2021. He remains subject to an additional five-year deprivation of political rights, under which he remains under tight government surveillance. Despite this, he has continued to work for the educational rights of Tibetans. Police summoned him in January 2022 for two hours to discuss his efforts to ‘petition’ government offices and social media posts regarding the language rights of Tibetans.

Yalqun Rozi

(In detention)

Yalqun Rozi

(In detention)

Yalqun Rozi is a renowned Uyghur writer, literary critic and public speaker. He worked on the Uyghur Textbook Department of Xinjiang Education Press editorial board from 2001 to 2011. He compiled and editedUyghur literature textbooks for elementary and middle schools to use across the entire Uyghur region. Additionally, he hasbeen responsible for compiling extracurricular humanities textbooks and their respective teaching manuals.. He retired in 2015 due to his health status.

After 13 years of using these textbooks across schools in the Uyghur region, with government approval, the Chinese authorities labelled them as problematic. They detained Yalkun Rozi along with other Textbook Compiling Committee members during a broader crackdown on Uyghur language education.

Throughout September 2016, Chinese authorities summoned Yalkun Rozi and the entire Textbook Compiling Committee for Uyghur literature books membership  to Xinjiang Education Press for urgent meetings. These later became known to be police questioning sessions. They were also ordered not to leave Urumqi.

From 6 October to 30 December 2016, Rozi was detained and interrogated at an undisclosed location without any charges being laid against him.  He was then relocated to the Midong Detention Centre, where he was held in pretrial detention for over two years. On 3 January 2018, he was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment on the charge of ‘inciting subversion of State power’ and transferred to a prison in Urumqi.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche

(Deceased)

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche

(Deceased)

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, was a highly respected Tibetan lama known for his advocacy for Tibetan communities and the environment. 

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died under mysterious circumstances in a Chinese prison after spending 13 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. His ‘crime’ was devoting his life to helping his community and working tirelessly to preserve Tibetan identity, culture and Tibet’s environment. He was persecuted for his support for the Dalai Lama, his promotion of Tibetan Buddhism and for his cultural and social development work in Tibet.

Authorities convicted him for alleged involvement in a series of unsolved bombings in his region by the Chinese authorities. They sentenced him to death in December 2002. Authorities based Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s conviction on a confession obtained under torture from his alleged co-conspirator Lobsang Dondrup – who was subsequently executed – and no other evidence was offered. United Nations human rights experts protested that the case against him was seriously flawed, that he did not receive a fair trial, and that he was mistreated in detention. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on 26 January 2005.

After he died, Chinese authorities cremated his body against his family’s wishes, without an autopsy, and in contravention of China’s own regulation on the handling of deaths in prison.

Rahile Dawut

(In detention)

Rahile Dawut

(In detention)

Rahile Dawut is a prominent Uyghur ethnographer, internationally known for her expertise in Uyghur folklore and traditions. She was a professor at Xinjiang University, where she founded the Minorities Folklore Research Centre in 2007. In December 2017, when she was due to travel to Beijing, the Chinese government disappeared her. She has not been seen since. 

In December 2018, authorities secretly tried Rahile Dawut in a Xinjiang court, where they found her guilty of ‘endangering State security.’ She appealed the sentence. In September 2023, according to the Dui Hua Foundation, a source inside the Chinese government confirmed that her the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region High People’s Court rejected her appealand jailed her for life. Her sentence comes with a supplemental sentence–  deprivation of political rights for life.

Rahile Dawut was awarded the Courage to Think Award in 2020 by Scholars at Risk. In October 2023, Michael Rosen, winner of the 2023 PEN Pinter Prize, chose Rahile Dawut as the ‘international writer of courage’ with whom to share the award, selecting her from a shortlist of international writers ‘who have actively defended freedom of expression, often at risk to their own safety.’ 

Context faced by human rights defenders holding the Chinese government accountable

Every individual has the right to safely cooperate with the United Nations (UN) and its representatives. Yet, many governments retaliate against those who do so. Every year since 2010, the UN Secretary-General documents acts of intimidation and reprisals for engaging with the UN, listing cases country by country. On top of this list, China, alongside Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Vietnam and Venezuela are the most consistent perpetrators of reprisals over time. The UN has described China as a country engaging in ‘patterns of reprisals.’ 

The government’s strategy  of restricting civil society engagement with the UN includes: unauthorised photos in UN hallways, physical and verbal intimidation, harassment of family members, smear campaigns on social media, blocking of NGO accreditation at the UN, exit bans, detention, disappearances, and  ill-treatment. This is all to avoid international exposure for its human rights abuses. Or as the government calls it ‘telling China’s story well’. Many of these acts take place next door, inside UN premises in Geneva, by diplomats or NGOs working for the government. 

Defenders bring crucial information and perspectives regarding human rights situations on the ground; the UN depends on that knowledge and input to make informed decisions. Guaranteeing everyone a safe and unhindered access to UN human rights bodies is essential for their efficacy and relevance.

China has a vast array of laws, regulations, and policies to safeguard what it describes as ‘national security.’ Its Criminal Law includes a whole chapter on ‘Crimes Endangering National Security,’ which all carry extensive jail sentences. The crimes are vague and broadly-defined. In addition, an accusation of a national security crime allows the authorities to bypass basic due process, including allowing blanket denials of access to legal counsel. 

Chinese authorities systematically invoke threats to national security as a justification to commit rights abuses, and as a basis to jail human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists. No matter the topic, people organising, mobilising or questioning the authorities are characterised as a threat to the State-Party, and hence, to the whole country. This has a chilling effect on civil society as a whole. These national security instruments go against international law– national security may be invoked only to protect a country’s existence or territory against the use of force, and always within strict limitations.

These have been used against virtually anyone: 

  • Tibetan human rights defenders exercising their cultural rights, religious freedom or free speech are accused of ‘ethnic separatism.’ 
  • The 2020 National Security Law imposed by the Chinese central authorities on Hong Kong impinges on the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly of activists, journalists, and citizens in general.
  • Human rights defenders and lawyers in mainland China are subjected to arbitrary detention and lengthy prison sentences for ‘subversion of State power.’ Many face ‘exit bans’ and other restrictions to freedom of movement on national security grounds.
  • Uyghurs and Muslim populations are exposed to mass surveillance, arbitrary detentions and internment in labour camps under the pretext of national security. 

Those accused of national security crimes – which is the case for most human rights defenders – face actions done by the police, prosecution and judiciary that violate their human rights. They are often placed into ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL), a practice inscribed in China’s Criminal Procedure Law. Under RSDL, authorities can hold individuals in unofficial or illegal sites (such as the back of a restaurant or the basement of a hotel), and investigate them as suspects in potential criminal cases– all prior to a formal arrest. They are denied all contact with the outside world, even with their family or a lawyer, for up to six months. No one knows where they are. They are interrogated and often tortured to extract confessions. United Nations experts are clear: RSDL is a form of enforced disappearance, which may amount to torture, and is prohibited under international law. With estimates from 53,000 to 90,000 individuals placed under RSDL, enforced disappearances are endemic in China. 

The Chinese government imposes a particularly heavy-handed control in the Uyghur region (Xinjiang) and Tibet, which gravely undermines the intergenerational transmission of culture, language and religion. 

On 30 August 2022, the UN Human Rights Office concluded in a groundbreak report that ‘the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups’ as a result of laws and policies, in the context of tight restrictions to individual and collective rights, may amount to ‘crimes against humanity.’ Abuses documented by the UN Human Rights Office and various UN experts and committees include: mass arbitrary detention; torture; enforced disappearances; mass surveillance; cultural and religious persecution; separation of families; forced returns to China; forced labour;  sexual and gender-based violence; and reproductive rights violations. It is estimated that over a million Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples were detained during China’s ‘Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorism’ crackdown that started in 2017. They remain in prison today. Ongoing laws and policies at both the central and local level aim to forcibly assimilate Uyghurs, including through the ‘sinicization’ of Islam.

Since 1959, China’s government has exercised total political control over Tibet. The Chinese government uses various tools of repression to deter and punish Tibetan rights advocacy. UN experts have denounced forced labour schemes and the ‘forced assimilation’ of Tibetan children in residential schools. The authorities in Tibetan areas enforce severe restrictions on freedom of religion, expression, movement, and assembly. Tibetans who speak out over issues like mass relocation, environmental degradation, or the phasing out of the Tibetan language in primary education, are met with repression. Having banned content on one’s phone, or merely contacting Tibetans in exile, can result in detention.

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A week after Cao's death, in March 2014, ISHR and many other human rights groups sought to observe a moment of silence at the Human Rights Council in her memory. Following a procedural challenge and protracted debate at China’s request, the moment of silence was interrupted and the session was disrupted for an hour and a half; China argued that NGO speakers in the Human Rights Council were not allowed to be silent. Many representatives from international NGOs stood up and silently held pictures of Cao Shunli to pay tribute to her. As many watched the session on live webcast and shared photos on social media, her voice echoed around the globe.

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