Waves of public protest – online and, for the first time in nearly three decades, on the streets – have been an inspiration. They were initially sparked by a public outcry following a tragic fire on 24 November, in which at least ten – but likely more than two dozen – mostly Uyghur individuals died, and where residents’ movements were tightly restricted as a result of stringent COVID-related measures that also delayed the intervention of first responders.
The protests quickly tapped into discontent with national COVID control policies, including inhumane and often arbitrary lockdown measures, and channeled criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman Xi Jinping himself.
The government’s response, however, shows little regard for its own laws; civil society groups have documented surveillance, harassment and intimidation of individuals attending the protests, and online, the government’s censors are acting ruthlessly to remove any reference to what is being called by some ‘the A4 revolution’. At least one lawyer has been sanctioned for his willingness to defend protest-related cases.
On 28 November, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reacted to the protests stressing that ‘no one should be arbitrarily detained for peacefully expressing their opinions.’ The OHCHR called on China to ensure a ‘broad debate across society, especially with young people’ and to ‘respond to protests in line with international human rights laws and standards’: it recalled that ‘any restrictive measures need to be limited in duration’ as well ‘necessary and proportionate’, while guaranteeing ‘safeguards and mechanisms through which people can channel their concerns and seek redress.’
This joint statement is available in English, Chinese and Traditional Chinese. The full text of the letter in English is below.
Respect Freedoms of Expression, Press and Assembly in China
Stop the violent crackdown and arrests of peaceful protesters
(Taipei, 2022-12-07) We, the undersigned, call on the Chinese government to strictly abide by its obligations under the Chinese Constitution and the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as its commitment as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and respect peoples’ basic rights to privacy, freedom of expression, press, association and peaceful assembly. The Chinese government should cease abusing the criminal code to detain peaceful protesters, harassing those who defend protesters’ rights, and immediately halt, investigate and prosecute any use of violence or extrajudicial measures by authorities against those who exercise their basic human rights and freedoms.
Over the past week, peaceful rallies and protests triggered by mourning the victims of the fatal fire in Urumqi have spread in a number of cities in China. People took to the streets to express their frustration with the severe lockdowns measures brought about by the zero-COVID policy. Some held white sheets of paper, expressed their discontent with the government or appealed for their human rights and fundamental freedoms. This set of protests is an example of people standing up to the repressive rule of an authoritarian regime.
Although some local governments have announced relaxed quarantine measures in an attempt to calm the protests, we understand that the Chinese authorities are at the same time cracking down on protesters across the country, and that some of those arrested have gone missing and are feared to have been forcibly disappeared. It has also come to our attention that the authorities are interfering with the protesters’ right to legal representation. Some lawyers have been warned by local authorities not to take up the cases, some others have had incoming calls to their mobile phones suddenly cut. Police have also stopped citizens on the street, inspected their electronic devices, and forced them to delete certain applications, content, and photos related to the protests on their phones. Given the lack of credible and transparent official information, we are extremely concerned about the possible magnitude and seriousness of the situation. We urge the international community to continue to monitor the situation and to condemn the ongoing rights abuses associated with the crackdown.
We would like to point out in particular that Article 35 of the People’s Republic of China Constitution guarantees citizens the freedom of “speech, press, assembly, association, procession, and demonstration,”; Article 40 protects citizens’ right to protection of and non-interference with their privacy of correspondence; and Article 41 stipulates that citizens have the right to criticize any state agency or staff and to make recommendations. China’s Criminal Procedure Law also guarantees the basic rights for suspects and defendants in the criminal process, including but not limited to the right to timely notification of family members, the rights to be represented and seen by lawyers, and the right to fair trial. The UN Convention against Torture, which China ratified in 1988, forbids all forms of torture and ill treatment. Article 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights furthermore enshrine the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
In this regard, we call on the Chinese government to immediately:
- Respect the rights to privacy and to freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression enshrined in the Constitution and international human rights law, and ensure all police responses are in line with international standards, including the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials;
- Stop pursuing persons involved in peaceful protests, and ensure that anyone subject to violations of their rights can seek effective remedy;
- Stop surveilling, harassing, mistreating, searching and arbitrarily arresting journalists and press freedom defenders for independently reporting on the protests;
- Publish the number of persons detained for taking part in peaceful protests; provide details of their alleged crimes;
- Ensure that the family members of all those deprived of liberty are notified of their whereabouts and the charges made against them;
- Ensure the physical and psychological safety and wellbeing of all those currently deprived of liberty on grounds related to the recent protests, and guarantee their rights, including to meet with a lawyer of their own choice; and
- Stop interfering with, harassing and intimidating lawyers and legal professionals, human rights defenders, and others who openly express concern about the protesters or who defend the right to peaceful protest.
Co-signatories (in alphabetical order)
- Amnesty International
- Article 19
- Asia Citizen Future Association
- Beijing Spring
- Campaign For Uyghurs
- China Change
- China Political Prisoner Concern
- Chinese Human Rights Defenders
- Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW)
- Citizen Power Initiatives for China
- Concern Group for Prisoners of Conscience in China
- Cosmopolitan Culture Action Taichung
- Democratic China
- Dialogue China
- Chen Wen-chen Memorial Foundation
- Freedom House
- Front Line Defenders
- Human Rights Network for Tibet and Taiwan
- Human Rights Now
- Human Rights Watch
- Humanitarian China
- Hong Kong Democracy Council
- Hong Kong Watch
- Independent Chinese PEN Center
- International Association of People’s Lawyers
- International Service for Human Rights
- International Tibet Network Secretariat
- Judicial Reform Foundation
- New School for Democracy Association
- Reporters Without Borders
- Safeguard Defenders
- Students for a Free Tibet
- Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty
- Taiwan Association for Human Rights
- Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation
- Taiwan Forever Association
- Taiwan Labour Front
- Taiwan Lily
- Taiwan Support China Human Rights Lawyers Network
- The Rights Practice
- The Taiwan United Nations Alliance
- The 29 Principles
- Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy
- Tibet Justice Center
- Uyghur American Association
- Uyghur Human Rights Project
- World Uyghur Congress