FREE THE FIVE!
China should not be allowed to use the Olympics to sportswash its human rights record. Human rights need to be a main focus of interest this winter in Beijing.
2022 BEIJING WINTER OLYMPICS AND PARALYMPICS CAMPAIGN
In February and March 2022, the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games will take place in and around Beijing, China. It will be the second time in history that the Olympics occur in China. The first time was in 2008, when China hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games. The Chinese authorities promised at that time that the Olympics would be accompanied by human rights improvements in China. This did not happen. In fact, the human rights situation deteriorated and has continued to worsen sharply during the past decade, especially since Xi Jinping became president in 2013.
With the organization of the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, the Chinese government aims to showcase how China has grown since the 2008 Summer Games. It wants to highlight China’s superpower status and deflect attention from its abysmal human rights situation. This amounts to sportswashing. China is using the Olympics to try to improve its global image, capitalizing on the glamour, prestige and public interest of sport to gloss over its deplorable human rights record.
The international community needs to take this opportunity to remind the Chinese government that respect for human rights and genuine commitment to the international human rights system are fundamental conditions for China to become, and to be seen by others, as a responsible world leader. China should not be allowed to use the Olympics to sportswash its human rights record. Human rights need to be a main focus of interest this winter in Beijing.
THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN CHINA
Among the many human rights violations committed by the Chinese authorities, their systematic violations of the right to freedom of expression demand specific attention at the 2022 Olympics. It is highly problematic that the Chinese government, while hosting a mega sports event that aims to celebrate international exchange and mutual understanding, is implementing an immense system of massive censorship and crushing control over what people can say and see.
The Chinese government is exercising ever-tighter control over what Chinese citizens can see of the world and what they can say about it. It runs an extreme internet censorship regime, blocking thousands of websites and social media services. Chinese journalists operate under tight censorship, messages deemed too critical of the government are swiftly removed by an army of censors, and dissenting voices face harsh punishments. Communities that have been particularly harshly targeted in China’s continuing assault on freedom of expression include, among others, citizen journalists, academics, human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders, and ethnic and religious minorities.
Advanced digital and other surveillance technologies have become a central feature of the Chinese state apparatus in all parts of the country. From megacities to tiny villages, online and offline, people in China are kept under non-stop observation, which greatly enhances and facilitates government control.
Chilling Effects in Mainland China and Hong Kong
The omnipresence and the high technological standard of the censorship and surveillance system in China greatly inhibit freedom of expression in the country. The system not only directly punishes what is deemed as inappropriate by the Chinese authorities. It creates a climate of self-censorship, where growing groups of people are aware of the tight monitoring by the authorities of online and offline spaces and therefore try to adjust their voices to avoid crossing any “red lines”. This adjustment is notoriously hard and impossible to get right. Official guidelines on forbidden content tend to be very vague. In addition, the definitions of “national security” and similar terms often used by the Chinese authorities to legitimize crackdowns on dissent are so sweepingly broad that they lack any type of clarity or legal predictability. The rapid deterioration of the right to freedom of expression and other human rights in Hong Kong provides a stark illustration of how the mechanics of censorship work in the People’s Republic of China.
Censorship Beyond China
The Chinese government has progressively been trying to impose its censorship on the world. Foreign journalists in China who write stories critical of the Chinese authorities increasingly face systematic delays to and refusals of visa renewals, and even expulsion. China stubbornly keeps refusing calls from the international community for unfettered research and reporting access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) and other regions, even though it claims that no human rights violations are taking place. Foreign individuals residing outside of China have faced condemnations for speaking out on Chinese human rights violations. Chinese tech firms operating outside China, complying with domestic censorship standards back home, have been blocking and censoring content deemed to be “politically sensitive”, including criticism of the Chinese government.
Ensuring China Plays by the Rules
Freedom of expression is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It entails the right to say what you like and think, and to seek and share any type of information, regardless of borders. It also encompasses the right to agree or disagree with those in power and to express these opinions in any way or form. Freedom of expression is closely linked to other human rights, such as the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. It allows these rights to flourish.
China endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has included the right to freedom of expression in its constitution (Article 35). Moreover, when bidding to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Chinese authorities made several promises related to freedom of expression. They indicated that media seeking to report on the Games would have freedom to report and unrestricted internet access, and would also be free to report on preparations for the Games. They also gave assurances that there would be designated protest areas for use during the Games.
Now, in the run-up to and during the 2022 Winter Olympics, the international community as a whole should urge the Chinese government to show its genuine and sustainable commitment to better protection of freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and other human rights.
These Winter Olympics, we invite the world to celebrate five individuals who have been imprisoned, otherwise detained or disappeared for exercising their human right to freedom of expression. These individuals all belong to communities that have been particularly harshly targeted in the Chinese government’s continuing assault on freedom of expression and related human rights. Simply by peacefully expressing themselves and refusing to give in to repression, they have demonstrated Olympic-level courage. Their immediate release is important as a first and public step for the Chinese government to adequately show its sincere engagement regarding a better protection of the human rights of all people in China, in line with international human rights standards and the Olympic Charter.
We urge the Chinese authorities to release these five individuals without delay, and we invite the international community to consistently call for their freedom:
- Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, sentenced to four years imprisonment for reporting the Covid-19 reality in China.
- Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, sentenced to life in prison for suggesting constructive approaches to overcome unequal treatment of ethnic groups in China.
- Human rights defender Li Qiaochu, detained for reporting torture committed by the Chinese authorities.
- Lawyer and former prisoner of conscience Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in 2017, shortly after publishing his memoirs of the years he was detained and tortured by the Chinese authorities.
- Tibetan monk Rinchen Tsultrim, sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment for expressing his political views online.
According to international human rights law and standards, no one should be imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression or any other human right. At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the international community should insist that the Chinese government starts playing by the human rights rules. China should free the five immediately and stop the harassment and persecution of all those peacefully exercising their rights.
FREE THE FIVE!
THE FIVE CHAMPIONS AND THEIR COMMUNITIES
ZHANG ZHAN: CITIZEN JOURNALISTS IN CHINA AND COVID-19
Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, is a citizen journalist who has actively spoken out about politics and human rights issues in China. In February 2020, Zhang Zhan travelled to Wuhan, then the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak in China. She used online platforms (including WeChat, Twitter and YouTube) to report on the situation on the ground. She reported on the detention of other independent reporters, as well as the harassment of victims’ families. Zhang Zhan went missing on 14 May 2020 in Wuhan and was subsequently revealed to have been detained by police in Shanghai, more than 640km away. Zhang started a hunger strike in June 2020 to protest and assert her innocence. However, her lawyer reported that Zhang was force-fed by the authorities, forced to wear shackles and had her hands restrained 24 hours a day for more than three months. These punishments aimed at stopping Zhang’s hunger strike amount to violations of the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. On 28 December 2020, she was sentenced to four years in prison on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Zhang Zhan is a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for exercising her right to freedom of expression. Zhang Zhan has continued to carry out a partial hunger strike since being transferred to prison. She was able to speak to her mother on 2 August 2021 for the first time in five months. Zhang’s mother urged Zhang to reconsider the partial hunger strike. However, despite the grave risk to her health, Zhang Zhan remains determined to continue the action as a way to assert her innocence and protest her sentence. To date, all requests from Zhang’s family to visit her have been refused without any reason being provided. Without access to family and lawyers of her choice, Zhang Zhan remains at risk of further torture and other ill-treatment by the authorities, especially if she continues her hunger strike.
The Chinese authorities tried to censor information about the outbreak of the coronavirus from the very beginning. Li Wenliang, a medical professional who tried to sound the alarm about the virus in December 2019, was immediately silenced and punished by the authorities for “spreading rumours”. He later died in February 2020 from the effects of the very virus he was trying to stop. His death caused nationwide outrage and grief on the internet, with demands for freedom of expression and an end to censorship. The authorities blocked hundreds of keyword combinations on social media and messaging apps. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, numerous articles relating to the virus have been censored, and related social media posts, sensitive hashtags and demands for freedom of expression have all been quickly deleted or censored.
Citizen journalists like Zhang Zhan were the primary, if not only, source of uncensored and first-hand information about the Covid-19 outbreak in China. Working independently and unaffiliated with state-controlled media outlets, citizen journalists in China have always had to tread carefully. They face constant harassment and repression for reporting news and disseminating information that is censored by the government.
The tight government control and censorship of Chinese citizens and other journalists continues unabated. In what appears to be an attempt to further exercise control over citizen journalists, the Chinese government issued new regulations in January 2021 that require all public accounts that provide online news services to obtain formal media accreditation. During that same month, the Chinese government indicated that the mandatory press card renewal process for journalists working for state-owned and approved media organizations needs to include an assessment of journalists’ social media use, thus enhancing government control over both professional and private speech of journalists.
Zhang Zhan should be released immediately and unconditionally. By reporting on the Covid-19 reality in China, she has done nothing more than exercise her right to freedom of expression.
ILHAM TOHTI: PERSECUTION OF THE UYGHURS AND THE MUZZLING OF ACADEMIA
A renowned Uyghur intellectual in China, Ilham Tohti was an economics professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing. He worked for two decades to build understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Consistently rejecting separatism and violence, he tried to reconcile differences between these ethnic groups. Ilham Tohti was the founder and director of the bilingual website “Uyghur Online”, which reported on human rights violations suffered not only by Uyghurs but also by ethnic Han Chinese. The website was shut down by the authorities several times, the first time this happened was before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. On 15 January 2014, Ilham Tohti was taken from his home in Beijing by police. For five months, family and friends were not told where he was. He was denied food for 10 days and his feet were shackled for 20 days straight during his detention. Despite the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finding his detention to be arbitrary in March 2014, on 23 September of that same year, following a brief and unfair trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of “separatism”. Ilham Tohti is a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression.
“Separatism” is often used by the Chinese authorities to suppress freedom of expression. In the mind of the government, any criticism of its ethnic policies is in fact an attempt to harm ethnic relations and covertly promote separatist ideas. In his work, Ilham Tohti highlighted Chinese government policies that were fueling discontent and ethnic tensions, including policies that limit the use of the Uyghur language, severely restrict Uyghurs’ ability to practice their own religion, block their chances of getting a job, and encourage Han migration into the Xinjiang region. While he criticised oppressive policies against Uyghurs, he wrote extensively on how unequal treatment between ethnic groups could be overcome through dialogue and reconciliation. He consistently opposed violence and worked peacefully to build bridges between ethnic communities in accordance with Chinese laws. Instead of welcoming his work on building harmonious ethnic relationships in China, the government ruthlessly punished Ilham Tohti. Around the same time, the Chinese authorities started a massive campaign of targeted oppression against Uyghur and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Since 2014, Xinjiang has witnessed a greatly expanded police presence. It fell under a heavy blanket of surveillance as part of China’s publicly declared “People’s War on Terror” and its associated efforts to combat “religious extremism”. In 2016, surveillance and social control measures began spreading rapidly, and now Xinjiang’s Muslims are among the most heavily surveilled populations in the world. In 2017, things took an even more terrible turn. Since then, huge numbers of men and women from Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained. They include hundreds of thousands who have been sent to prisons in addition to hundreds of thousands – perhaps even a million or more – who have been sent to internment camps. In these so-called re-education camps, people have been subjected to various forms of torture and other ill-treatment, including political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation. Amnesty International has gathered convincing evidence that supports the conclusion that the systematic, state-organized mass imprisonment, torture and persecution of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang amount to crimes against humanity. China keeps refusing calls from the international community for unfettered research and reporting access to Xinjiang, even though it claims that no human rights violations are taking place there.
In an autobiographical essay of 2011, Ilham Tohti said: “I have always maintained that one should not fear differences of opinion and opposition, but rather, [fear only] not having opportunities for exchange.” Unfortunately, the Chinese government is increasingly closing down opportunities to exchange and manifests a growing fear of differences of opinion. This comes clearly to the fore in the government’s clampdown on freedom of expression in general, and on academic freedom in particular. Scholars, writers and academics continue to be a main target of persecution in Xinjiang, but academic freedom is also increasingly constrained in the rest of China. A recent example of the curtailing of academic freedom was the April 2020 imposition of stringent restrictions on scientific papers tracing the origins of Covid-19.
Ilham Tohti should be released immediately and unconditionally. By expressing his views on ethnic harmony in China, he has done nothing more than exercising his right to freedom of expression.
LI QIAOCHU: FEMINIST AND LABOUR RIGHTS ACTIVIST REPORTING TORTURE
Li Qiaochu is a prominent human rights defender. She has long been involved in issues concerning the equal rights for workers, women and other members of Chinese society. As the result of her activism, Li Qiaochu has often been harassed by the police. When her partner, the legal scholar and activist Xu Zhiyong, was detained and told his lawyer that he had been subjected to torture, she publicly called for his release and better treatment. She was subsequently detained, held incommunicado for about six months, and officially charged with “inciting subversion of state power”. Li Qiaochu is being held by the Chinese authorities merely for speaking about and reporting human rights violations and for her peaceful activism. The Chinese government is a party to the UN Convention against Torture, has an obligation to investigate allegations of torture and should protect people who report torture like Li Qiaochu. Instead, the Chinese government silenced her and holds her in detention.
Since Xi Jinping came to power at the end of 2012, the space for human rights defenders in China has been shrinking fast. This was already evident at the time Beijing was awarded the Winter Olympics on 31 July 2015. Just a few weeks before this decision was announced, the Chinese government started the “709 crackdown”, named after its starting date of 9 July 2015. During this crackdown, almost 250 lawyers and activists were questioned or detained by state security agents.
Today, China continues its unrelenting persecution of human rights defenders and activists. They are systematically subjected to harassment, intimidation, enforced disappearance and arbitrary and incommunicado detention, as well as lengthy terms of imprisonment. The absence of an independent judiciary and effective fair trial guarantees compound such recurrent violations. Human rights defenders and activists are regularly targeted and charged with broadly defined and vaguely worded offences such as “subverting state power”, “inciting subversion of state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
Li Qiaochu is one of the many peaceful activists being detained. She has broad experience working on various social justice issues. In the winter of 2017 Beijing authorities cleared and evicted “low income population” groups, mainly targeting migrant workers. It was the biggest forced eviction operation in Beijing since the preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Li Qiaochu worked with volunteers to compile and disseminate information about the most affected communities in order to help the expelled migrant workers find new jobs and affordable alternative accommodation. Li is also a feminist who actively took part in various national #MeToo campaigns. She compiled data, drafted reports and posted online messages of her support for the movement.
In June 2019, Li was diagnosed with depression and had to be on regular medication. However, this did not stop her from her activism. With the outbreak of Covid-19, Li again volunteered to help both online and offline with epidemic prevention in small communities.
Li Qiaochu was detained and questioned several times about her partner Xu Zhiyong, who has been detained since February 2020. One year later, shortly after Li Qiaochu publicly communicated complaints about the torture and ill-treatment of her partner and others, she received a call from a Beijing police officer and was asked to come out of her home to “have a chat”. She was then abruptly detained, and later charged with “inciting subversion of state power”. To date, the authorities still have not provided credible evidence that she has committed an internationally recognized offence.
Li Qiaochu should be released immediately and unconditionally unless there is genuine evidence against her and she is tried fairly. By speaking out about human rights violations, she has done nothing more than exercising her right to freedom of expression.
GAO ZHISHENG: THE ONGOING PERSECUTION OF HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYERS
Gao Zhisheng is one of the most respected human rights lawyers in China. In 2001, the Ministry of Justice named him “one of the nation’s top 10 lawyers” for his pro bono work on public interest cases. Yet, in late 2005, the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau revoked his lawyer’s license and suspended the operation of his law firm. This was a direct result of Gao Zhisheng’s open letters to the government calling on it to stop religious persecution, including persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. In February 2006, Gao Zhisheng organized a hunger strike campaign to draw attention to the persecution of human rights activists in China. Shortly after the campaign ended, the authorities detained him. For most of the following 16 years, Gao Zhisheng has had very limited experience of freedom, having either been missing, locked up or under house arrest. Despite his difficult situation, Gao Zhisheng remained outspoken about human rights and continued to criticize the Chinese Communist Party.
In 2016, Gao Zhisheng launched a memoir titled Stand Up China 2017 – China’s Hope: What I Learned During Five Years as a Political Prisoner. In the book, he detailed his treatment while in detention from 2009 to 2014 and told of his life after he was released and sent to live under round-the-clock police surveillance. He wrote the book as a way of continuing his resistance against human rights violations under the ruling Chinese Communist Party. After publishing his memoirs, he went missing again on 13 August 2017. His exact location and current condition remain unclear. Given his previous treatment in detention, and without access to a lawyer, he is at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
Gao Zhisheng, called the “bravest lawyer in China” by a colleague, is far from the only lawyer harshly persecuted by the Chinese authorities. Since 9 July 2015, almost 250 lawyers and activists were questioned or detained by state security agents in an unprecedented government crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, often referred to as the “709 crackdown”. Today, many lawyers remain in prison or under strict surveillance.
Gao Zhisheng should be released immediately and unconditionally. By reporting on human rights violations and communicating his political views, he has done nothing more than exercising his right to freedom of expression.
RINCHEN TSULTRIM: PRESERVING TIBETAN CULTURE AND EXPRESSING POLITICAL VIEWS
Rinchen Tsultrim was a monk at the Nangshig monastery in the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. After a wave of Tibetan unrest in 2008, he began expressing his views through WeChat and a personal website titled “Scepticism on Tibet”. In 2018, the local public security bureau twice warned him to stop expressing opinions critical of Chinese policies online. He was closely monitored, and his personal website was shut down. Rinchen Tsultrim was detained in August 2019 and has been held incommunicado ever since. He was sentenced to four years and six months in prison in November 2020 without a fair trial. His family members only learned of the sentencing in March 2021. In August 2021, the Chinese government replied to concerns expressed by various UN experts regarding Rinchen Tsultrim. They indicated he was sentenced for “inciting secession” for publishing information on WeChat and that he is currently serving his sentence in Aba Prison in Sichuan Province. Rinchen Tsultrim’s family believes he has been imprisoned for expressing political views. Without access to family and legal representation, there are grave concerns for Rinchen Tsultrim’s condition and wellbeing.
Ethnic Tibetans in China face discrimination and restrictions on their rights to freedom of religious belief, expression, association and peaceful assembly. Severe and wide-ranging restrictions on and repression of ethnic minorities have been carried out under the pretense of “anti-separatism”, “anti-extremism” and “counter-terrorism” in Tibetan-populated areas. Tibetan monks, writers, protesters and activists are regularly detained as a result of their peaceful activities. Access to and from Tibetan-populated areas remains highly restricted, particularly for journalists, academics and human rights organizations, making it extremely difficult to investigate and document the human rights situation in the region. At least 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since February 2009 in Tibetan-populated areas in China to protest repressive policies by the authorities.
The state’s repression of religion remains severe. The government seeks to bring religious teachings and practices in line with state ideology and to comprehensively strengthen control over both state-approved and unregistered religious groups. Recent regulations, effective as of 1 February 2020, stipulate that religious groups must “follow the leadership of the Communist Party of China… persist in the direction of sinicization of religion, and practise core socialist values”. Rinchen Tsultrim should be released immediately unless there is sufficient credible and admissible evidence that he committed an internationally recognized offence and is granted a fair trial in line with international standards.
FREE THE FIVE!
RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE CHINESE AUTHORITIES:
We call on the Chinese authorities to drop all charges against and release all those who are prosecuted or detained solely for exercising their freedom of expression.
For a start, the authorities should immediately release the following individuals: Zhang Zhan, Ilham Tohti, Li Qiaochu, Gao Zhisheng and Rinchen Tsultrim. Pending their release, the Chinese authorities should immediately disclose their exact whereabouts and ensure that they are not subjected to torture or other ill-treatment while in detention and that they have regular, unrestricted access to their family, lawyers of their choice, as well as medical care on request or as necessary.
We furthermore call on the Chinese authorities, in line with their Olympic promises, to:
- Ensure full media freedom, including unrestricted internet access, for both Chinese and international journalists in all parts of China before and during the Olympics.
- Ensure that there are genuine opportunities for peaceful demonstration during the Olympics and that there is no punishment of individuals engaging in these opportunities.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE (IOC):
In line with the resolution “Promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal”, passed on 22 June 2020 by the UN Human Rights Council, Amnesty International calls on the IOC to fully embed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UN Guiding Principles) into their operations. Amnesty International acknowledges the current efforts undertaken by the IOC to develop a human rights strategic framework in order to comprehensively fulfill its human rights responsibilities and commitments. We call on the IOC to speed up this process and immediately adopt an IOC Human Rights Strategy which ensures stakeholder engagement and includes the main articulation of its overarching human rights policy in key Olympic documents such as the Olympic Charter.
The IOC should not wait for the adoption of its human rights strategic framework to start fulfilling its responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles. Amnesty International urgently calls on the IOC to conduct human rights due diligence and publicly disclose its due diligence policies and practices in accordance with international standards to identify, prevent, mitigate and address adverse human rights impacts throughout its operations, business relationships and supply chains in a timely manner. This should include the human rights due diligence related to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics both during the preparation for the Games and during the Games themselves.
The IOC should furthermore insist that the Chinese authorities fulfil the promises they made related to freedom of expression in the context of the Games. These include promises relating to the ensuring of media freedom before and during the Olympic period and relating to the provision of protest areas for use during the Olympics.
The IOC should respect athletes’ and sports officials’ freedom of expression and refrain from trying to discourage them from, or even penalizing them for, speaking out for human rights or expressing solidarity with those subjected to human rights violations, including in areas declared “sensitive” by the Chinese authorities. The IOC should ensure adequate space at the Olympics for athletes to express themselves. At the very least, the IOC should fully uphold the opportunities for athletes to express their views set out in their revised guidelines for the 2022 Winter Olympics while ensuring that any measures restricting freedom of expression are strictly necessary and legitimate.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO NATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEES (NOCs):
- NOCs should respect athletes’ and sports officials’ wishes to speak out for human rights and against human rights violations in China, and in no way try to discourage them from doing so. Amnesty International furthermore encourages NOCs to make sure that all athletes and other members of their national delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympics have access to information about human rights issues in China. Amnesty International also encourages NOCs to inform their national delegations on human rights as part of their general efforts to guide and assist the athletes (and others) on their Olympic journey.
- NOCs should not take any sort of punitive action against their athletes or officials for speaking out about human rights violations in China or elsewhere.
RECOMMENDATIONS TO SECOND GOVERNMENTS:
Amnesty International calls on government and state representatives, including those who plan to attend the Olympic Games, to use their influence with the Chinese authorities to take urgent action in line with the above recommendations. We urge governments to express their human rights concerns publicly, whenever appropriate.