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The period from 1 January to 30 June 2016 saw further restrictions on civil and political rights in China. Notably, a criminal investigation continued into a number of human rights lawyers and associates. A new foreign NGO management law was passed, which will require foreign NGOs, and potentially a wider range of other foreign organisations, to register with the police. There was some progress on social and economic rights. This was detailed in the implementation report on China’s National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-15), published in June. China’s first national law against domestic violence came into force and a new charity law was passed. Bilateral rule of law cooperation continued. China did not agree dates for the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue during the reporting period.
The space for civil society remained constrained. Following a tour of state media outlets in February, President Xi Jinping stated that the media served the Communist Party. Several media figures were punished for departing from the Party line, including high-profile businessman Ren Zhiqiang. Ren was subjected to Party discipline and had his blog, with 38 million followers, taken down. Nine rights lawyers, 2 legal assistants and several activists remained under arrest and in detention. Some had been held since 9 July 2015 in a coordinated criminal investigation. Most of those detained were being investigated for crimes relating to “state subversion”. They were reportedly being denied any communication with family members and not allowed to appoint their own choice of legal counsel.
In January, the EU issued a statement expressing concern about the continued detentions of EU nationals in China. This was in relation to the case of Swedish NGO worker Peter Dahlin and the disappearance of individuals associated with a Hong Kong bookstore, the Mighty Current Publishing Company. The UK remained concerned by the case of British citizen Lee Po and four others associated with Mighty Current. The Foreign Secretary’s 6-monthly report to Parliament set out the government’s view that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed from Hong Kong to mainland China. During the reporting period we continued to express our concerns about this case. The UK delivered a statement at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in March. It urged the Chinese authorities to release individuals detained for seeking to protect the rights of others. The UK joined eleven other countries in making a cross-regional statement at the HRC. That statement expressed concern over the lawyers’ arrests and ongoing detentions. UK ministers continued to raise these concerns with the Chinese authorities. The Foreign Secretary did so with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and President of the People’s Supreme Court Zhou Qiang in January, and again with Mr. Zhou in June. The EU made statements on this issue on 29 January and 24 May.
The UK continued work to support human rights defenders (HRDs) in China. Civil rights lawyer Ni Yulan was placed under house arrest in April after collecting an award from the US State Department. The British Embassy and other diplomatic missions remained in regular contact with Ni. They continued to raise her case with the authorities. Journalist Gao Yu, convicted last year of “leaking state secrets” but subsequently released on medical grounds, remained under police surveillance. Gao was reportedly denied appropriate medical treatment and refused permission to travel overseas for medical attention. Detained activist Guo Feixiong (also known as Yang Maodong) reportedly suffered from ill health in detention. According to his family, he had not received appropriate medical care and began a hunger strike in May.
In Guangdong, Zeng Feiyang and Meng Han, who worked for labour rights NGO Panyu Workers Centre, remained under investigation. This was for “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order”. They have been detained since December 2015. In Guangdong in January, lawyer Tang Jingling and HRDsYuan Chaoyang and Wang Qingying were sentenced for “state subversion”. In May, an appeal was dismissed and all three verdicts upheld. The conduct of the appeal process raised questions about due process. In April, democracy activist Su Changlan was tried for “‘incitement to state subversion”. Officials from the UK and other foreign missions were denied access to these proceedings.
UK-China rule of law cooperation strengthened after President Xi’s State Visit in October 2015. The then FCO Minister for Asia Pacific, Hugo Swire, set out the rationale for a broader and deeper partnership in a speech in March. The third annual UK-China judicial round table took place in Beijing in May. In parallel, Lord Neuberger, President of the UK Supreme Court, launched British Legal Week, the first country specific legal week in China. Zhou Qiang, President of the Supreme People’s Court, visited the UK in June.
In March, China’s first comprehensive national law against domestic violence came into effect. It aimed to strengthen the legal status of domestic violence as a crime under Chinese law. China passed its first ever Charity Law on 16 March. The law sought to strengthen rules for fundraising, registration and governance of charities. It is due to come into effect on 1 September 2016.
On 28 April, China passed a law regulating the activities of foreign non-governmental non-profit organisations operating in China. It is due to come into effect on 1 January 2017. Among other provisions, the law states that only foreign organisations with a Chinese government-approved partner can register in China. The EU statement of 4 May noted that the law was likely to hamper the development of civil society.
In April, a court in Hunan Province rejected Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang’s attempt to secure the right to marry. This was China’s first same-sex marriage case. Also in April, a court in Guizhou Province announced it would hear China’s first transgender labour discrimination case. In June, a Beijing court accepted a case against the Ministry of Education over textbooks which described homosexuality as a “psychological disorder”. The claimant, Qiu Bai, had sued the Ministry last year but dropped the case to pursue an alternative remedy through the petitioning process.
There were continuing reports of detentions and restrictions connected with freedom of religion or belief. On 22 April, President Xi called for “religion with Chinese characteristics” which adhered to the Marxist view of religion. President Xi said there was also a need to resist “infiltration by foreign elements” via religion. His remarks came against a backdrop of sustained pressure on “underground” religious groups without state sanction. These included the destruction of a large number of churches. A number of pastors and church members were detained in February after opposing the removal of crosses from churches in Zhejiang Province. There were ongoing reports of the disappearance of Catholic priests, including Father Yang Jianwei of Hebei Province on 15 April. Zhang Kai, the human rights lawyer detained in August after offering support to a number of churches, was released on 23 March. A British diplomat visited Wenzhou in May and spoke to church leaders.
The security situation in Xinjiang remained tense. Police and People’s Armed Police units continued to be deployed in heavy numbers. Although not as visible as last year, they were replaced with increased use of new technology. This included retinal and ID scans at some check points. Security measures were stepped up during Ramadan and there were reports that public servants were banned from fasting. A Chinese government white paper on religious freedom in Xinjiang concluded that the right to religious freedom was fully observed in China.
In Tibet, there were ongoing reports, mainly from Tibetan regions outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), of arbitrary detentions and imprisonment of Tibetan lay people and monks. In January, Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk was charged with “inciting subversion” after lobbying for Tibetan language education in Tibet. In February, Tibetan blogger Druklo (also known as Shokyang) was sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment. This was for “inciting separatism” relating to articles critical of Chinese policies in Tibet. Individuals continued to be prosecuted for carrying or sharing images of the Dalai Lama. In March, Tibetans residing outside the TAR were banned from travelling to Lhasa for a month. UK officials visited Tibetan regions in Gansu in March. The Chinese government has not yet confirmed dates for a visit by UK officials to the TAR later this year.