China | New Chinese-language factsheets from UN expert on right to peaceful assembly and association provide valuable resource in face of major crackdown

In the long shadow of Tiananmen, freedom of association and assembly in China are more threatened and more important than ever. ISHR, in partnership with the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, has launched a new series of Chinese language translations of the Rapporteur’s thematic factsheets.

In his final speech to the UN General Assembly, Maina Kiai reminded the States and stakeholders listening that the rights to freely associate and peacefully assemble are fundamental to the development and exercise of democratic, economic and social rights, and respect for individual freedoms. 

Maina Kiai took up his mandate in 2010, after the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognising the need for an independent expert to look into the erosion of assembly and association rights worldwide.The appointment of the Special Rapporteur by the Human Rights Council was an important step in filling gaps in the global understanding of good practices in, and challenges to, assembly and association rights. Critically, in this position Kiai has prioritised making the content of his reports accessible to a broad audience through the publication of factsheets.

ISHR, in recognition of Kiai's five and a half years of work to support human rights and civil society, has undertaken a project to provide Chinese language translations of key factsheets. This project aims to empower human rights defenders in the country to understand and exercise their fundamental freedoms, and to be heard at the UN and at home. 

Kiai reflected in his speech on 20 October, ‘My time in the mandate has covered a period during which the world faced a series of severe crises… it was – and still is – a time when assembly and association rights were needed most, as an avenue for people to peacefully speak out'.

‘Unfortunately, many governments have reacted to these crises by taking destructive and counter-productive measures.The message from this trend is clear: Many of those in power often don’t want to hear what people have to say’.

Fundamental challenges to fundamental rights

China is no different. While these rights are in principle commonly accepted, and indeed acknowledged in the Chinese Constitution, what is less known in China are the underpinnings in international human rights law and standards that guarantee these rights. The questions that arise for defenders in China are complex and reflect a reality of suppression of dissent: When can the State require advance notice for demonstrations, or limit or restrict freedom of association? What are the State’s obligations to facilitate freedom of assembly? Is it necessary to be a registered organisation in order to get funds?

Says one Chinese human rights defender, ‘We [in civil society] discuss these questions all the time. In China, there is so much tension between peaceful demonstrations and the authorities’ need to “protect national security”. We feel it is wrong, but just don’t know how to respond’.

Although the Chinese Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to assembly and association, the reality in law is different. For example, in recent years we have seen a proliferation of unwarranted use of criminal provisions to limit freedom of assembly. In 2013, for example, over 100 activists including Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, and Guo Feixiong were detained and sentenced for ‘illegal assembly’, ‘gathering a crowd to disturb public order’, and other trumped up charges that are incompatible with international law.

The human rights community responded in the best way they knew – a group of 78 lawyers and activists, and even scholars, wrote a letter to the National People’s Congress citing problems with the public assembly law, and in particular inconsistencies with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution. The law, and its application, were in violation of these inviolable rights.

Rather than take these comments under consideration, the Chinese government has rather done the opposite.

Says Sarah M Brooks, ISHR's Asia programme manager, ‘The proliferation of restrictive legislation, including laws that limit access to funds, monitor and restrict NGO activities, interfere in the independence of civil society organisations, and wield the threat of blacklisting is overwhelming’.

This includes the Charity Law, the National Security Law, and in particular the Overseas NGO Management Law, which is set to enter into force on 1 January 2017; latest reports from within the country note closed-door consultations on the implementing regulations are ongoing.

Ms Brooks continues, ‘Even more concerning is the political fundamentalist approach of indictment of anyone who criticises the government as a “danger to national security”. This sends a public signal that human rights organisations, who are fighting for the benefit of the Chinese people, are simply traitors, foreign agents, and criminal elements. The effects – self-censorship, suspicion and suppression of rights promotion activities – are dramatic’.

But there is still hope: despite the crackdown, activists and NGOs continue to do their work. Despite the tendency of some activists to focus on individual grievances, examples like Wukan village’s 2011 democratic shift – and the Guangdong government’s harsh response in recent months – show the power and potential of collective action. For this to continue, the human rights movement needs more tools to build awareness of human rights and to show that, despite the imposition of ‘Chinese characteristics’, such rights are universal.

The role of the international community

ISHR will be doing its part to expand the availability of these resources to a Chinese human rights defender audience. Over the coming weeks, we will periodically add new factsheets to our website and will ensure accessibility through the Special Rapporteur's portal,

Building awareness among the Chinese human rights community is so important. The experience of partners in Hong Kong can be useful, but so too are international human rights tools. ISHR hopes that through these factsheets, we can help build a sense of solidarity with human rights defenders and NGOs to say, clearly and definitively, that the restrictions they face – on association, assembly or any other rights – are not just in violation of domestic law, but of international human rights law.

For more information, contact Sarah M Brooks at s.brooks[at], or follow us on Twitter in English (@ISHRGlobal, @sarahmcneer) or in Chinese (@ISHR_chinese).