I think we can all agree, regardless of where we live, that 2022 was a tumultuous year. There was seemingly a new crisis every day. Totalitarian regimes moving against their populations became increasingly normal, from Iran to China. The ongoing rise (and occasional fall) of populist politics. The Russian invasion of Ukraine. The rise of energy and food costs and the impact on some of the world’s poorest. The attempted murder of Sir Salman Rushdie. And to be parochial just for a moment, complete political insanity in the UK.
I really hoped that 2023 would mark the end, or at least a pause, of that wonderful Chinese saying – we live in interesting times. Even for just a few months I had dreamed of a period of calm, of quiet, of dullness. Or at least a few weeks so we could all catch up on life and enjoy the world we live in, rather than being anxious at turning on the news.
It is only the sixth day of the year and my wish for calm has already been broken. This week we have seen political dysfunction in the USA; Belarus has commenced trials against many of their high-profile detainees who were arrested during the demonstrations against Lukashenka; there have been deadly riots in Mexico and the news is filled with the gloom of Covid (and China’s censoring of news on it), flu and inflation. It’s day six…
We knew that this year would see significant world events, as the impact of the war in Ukraine continues to be felt. But China is also likely to seek to exploit this global diplomatic distraction for their own nefarious wants. And of course the protests in Iran, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Mexico continue apace – even as they evolve.
Index will remain busy in the months ahead as we seek to shine a spotlight on the actions of totalitarian regimes and make sure that you hear from the people behind the headlines. From the women now banned from attending university in Afghanistan, from the democracy activists imprisoned in Belarus, from the Rohingya mothers held in camps as they flee Myanmar, from the journalists who fight to be heard and stay alive in Mexico. Index will keep providing a platform for the persecuted, so they can tell their stories and you can hear them.
Today, 19 September 2022, marks one year in detention for two young Chinese human rights defenders: Huang Xueqin, an independent journalist and key actor in China’s #MeToo movement, and Wang Jianbing, a labour rights advocate.
We, the undersigned civil society groups, call on Chinese authorities to respect and protect their rights in detention, including access to legal counsel, unfettered communication with family members, their right to health and their right to bodily autonomy. We emphasise that their detention is arbitrary, and we call for their release and for authorities to allow them to carry out their work and make important contributions to social justice.
Who are they?
In the 2010s, Huang Xueqin worked as a journalist for mainstream media in China. During that time, she covered stories on public interest matters, women’s rights, corruption scandals, industrial pollution, and issues faced by socially-marginalized groups. She later supported victims and survivors of sexual harassment and gender-based violence who spoke out as part of the #MeToo movement in China. On 17 October 2019, she was stopped by police in Guangzhou and criminally detained in RSDL for three months – for posting online an article about Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement.
Wang Jianbing followed a different path, but his story – like Huang’s – demonstrates the commitment of young people in China to giving back to their communities. He worked in the non-profit sector for more than 16 years, on issues ranging from education to disability to youth to labour. Since 2018, he has supported victims of occupational disease to increase their visibility and to access social services and legal aid.
Arbitrary and incommunicado detention
On 19 September 2021, the two human rights defenders were taken by Guangzhou police; after 37 days, they were formally arrested on charges of ‘inciting subversion of state power’. Using Covid-19 prevention measures as an excuse, they were held for five months in solitary confinement, and subject to secret interrogation, in conditions similar to those of ‘residential surveillance in a designated location’, or RSDL. After months of delays and no due process guarantees, their case was transferred to court for the first time in early August 2022.
We strongly condemn the lengthy detentions of Huang and Wang. In a Communication sent to the Chinese government in February 2022, six UN independent experts – including the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and the Working Group on arbitrary detention (WGAD) – raised serious concerns about Wang’s disappearance and deprivation of liberty. They asserted that Wang’s activities were protected and legal, and that Chinese authorities used a broad definition of ‘endangering national security’ that runs counter to international human rights law.
In May 2022, the WGAD went one step further, formally declaring Wang’s detention to be ‘arbitrary’ and urging authorities to ensure his immediate release and access to remedy. Noting other, similar Chinese cases, the WGAD also requested Chinese authorities to undertake a comprehensive independent investigation into the case, taking measures to hold those responsible for rights violations accountable.
We echo their call: Chinese authorities should respect this UN finding, and immediately release Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing.
Risks of torture and poor health
In addition to the lack of legal grounds for their detention, we are also worried about conditions of detention for Wang and Huang. Using ‘Covid-19 isolation’ as an excuse, Wang was held incommunicado, during which he was subject to physical and mental violence and abuse. His physical health deteriorated, in part due to an irregular diet and inadequate nutrition, while he also suffered physical and mental torment and depression. UN and legal experts have found similar risks, possibly amounting to torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, in other Chinese detention practices – including RSDL. According to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the ‘Mandela Rules’), prolonged solitary confinement – solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days – should be prohibited as it may constitute torture or ill-treatment.
Even more concerning are detention conditions for Huang Xueqin, because during the year she has been deprived of her liberty – again, without formal access to a lawyer or communication with her family – no one, including a legal counsel of her choosing, has received formal notification of her situation. We are deeply worried about her physical and mental health, and reiterate that incommunicado detention is a grave violation of international law.
Lack of fair trial guarantees
Given the circumstances, many brave Chinese lawyers may have stepped up to defend Huang Xueqin. But we are alarmed that Huang has been prevented from appointing a lawyer of her choice. In March 2022, her family stepped in, appointing a lawyer on her behalf; she was not allowed to meet her client or see the case file. Nonetheless, that lawyer was dismissed – according to authorities, with Huang’s approval – after just two weeks. The right to legal counsel of one’s choosing is not only a core international human rights standard, but a right guaranteed by the Criminal Law of the PRC.
Chilling effect on rights defence
As is too often the case in China, the authorities’ ‘investigation’ into Huang’s and Wang’s case has had concrete impacts on civil society writ large. Around 70 friends and acquaintances of the two defenders, from across the country, have been summoned by the Guangzhou police and/or local authorities. Many of them were interrogated for up to 24 hours – some for several times – and forced to turn over their electronic devices. The police also coerced and threatened some individuals to sign false statements admitting that they had participated in training activities that had the intention of ‘subverting state power’ and that simple social gatherings were in fact political events to encourage criticism of the government. The Chinese government has been repeatedly warned by UN experts that the introduction of evidence stemming from forced or coerced confessions is a violation of international law and that officials engaged in this practice must be sanctioned.
A call for action
One year on, we call on the Chinese authorities to respect human rights standards, and uphold their international obligations, in the cases of Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing. Until Chinese authorities implement UN recommendations and Huang and Wang are released, the relevant officials should:
Ensure that Huang and Wang can freely access legal counsel of their own choosing, and protect the rights of lawyers to defend their clients.
Remove all barriers to free communication between Huang and Wang and their families and friends, whether in writing or over telephone.
Provide comprehensive physical and mental health services to Huang and Wang, including consensual examinations by an independent medical professional, and share the findings with lawyers and family members, or others on request.
Guarantee that Huang and Wang are not subjected to solitary confinement or other forms of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and that the conditions of their detention comply with international human rights standards.
Cease actions that aim to intimidate and silence members of civil society from engaging in advocacy for the protection of rights, and ensure that no evidence from coerced confessions is permissible in Huang’s and Wang’s – or anyone else’s – court proceedings.
Center for Reproductive Rights
Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University
China Against the Death Penalty
China Labour Bulletin
CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Hong Kong Outlanders
Hong Kong Outlanders in Taiwan
Human Rights in China
Human Rights Now
Index on Censorship
International Service for Human Rights
Lawyer’s Rights Watch Canada
Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
台灣人權促進會 Taiwan Association for Human Rights
Taiwan Labour Front
The Rights Practice
Uyghur Human Rights Project
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
 As their cases are deeply connected, their friends and supporters refer to them as a single case called the ‘Xuebing case’, using a portmanteau of their first names.
Shanghai, a normally buzzing, dynamic city of 25 million, is in week three of an intense lockdown as part of President Xi Jinping’s desire to keep the country “Covid-Zero”. It’s buckling at the knees, so much so that they’ve had to ease measures in some areas. The desperation is in large part due to how mismanaged the lockdown has been. Shanghai authorities’ promises of providing necessities to those confined in their homes have not been kept, leaving many residents starving.
“Pets beaten to death. Parents forced to separate from their children. Elderly folks unable to access medical care. Locked-up residents chanting ‘we want to eat’ and ‘we want freedom’,” ran the lead in a Bloomberg article last week.
As anger bubbles over, the censors are working overtime.
The phrase “buying vegetables in Shanghai”, a video showing mountains of food waste, a post written by Ho Ching, wife of the prime minister of Singapore, calling the Shanghai lockdown “a waste of time, money, resources and opportunities” are just three examples of content that has been censored in the past few weeks in China.
“I am not particularly concerned about politics, and I believe many other ordinary people are the same. Most people just want a safe and comfortable land to live in.” The words of another netizen whose post was blocked. These words speak volumes. Shanghai residents’ desire to post, and particularly post under popular hashtags, isn’t necessarily about making a grand political statement. It’s about a sense of unity at a moment of desperation. It’s a cry for help. It’s a way to pool resources and offer tips.
The intense lockdown, and the government’s response to criticism of it, is deeply disturbing. At the same time it follows a depressingly familiar pattern. Beijing has been pursuing a draconian Covid control policy from the start and censorship has been the government’s bedfellow. Remember Li Wenliang, the Covid doctor who was hunted down for blowing the whistle on the virus?
The censorship we are seeing fits perfectly into the Chinese model that only allows for minimal criticism of policy from the top. And the posts, while not always directly pointed at senior leaders, clash with what they fear the most – collective action. As outlined in 2012 by a Harvard study of Chinese censorship any posts with a hint of collective intent are targeted. One example in this study came from Zhejiang Province. There, following the Japanese earthquake and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant, a rumour spread that iodine in salt would counteract radiation exposure. To offset a hectic dash to buy salt, all online content was removed. Yesterday’s iodine in salt is today’s vegetables in Shanghai.
Many are now too scared to speak online about their situation in case they get the dreaded knock on the door. They know the internet police are watching. Some have made the brave move to switch on a VPN, even though VPNs are banned in China. They really want to know exactly what is happening in their city, outside of their own four walls. Who can blame them? By this stage it’s confusing to even know what is happening in Shanghai on a purely clinical level because we simply can’t trust the numbers. Just how many people are currently ill? How effective is the Chinese vaccine against Omicron, and other variants for that matter? The official line says vaccine uptake among the most vulnerable has been low. Exactly how low?
Without knowledge of the real stats, it’s hard to see justification for the lockdown and harder still justification for such an extreme one. As for the blocking of posts related to it that’s condemnable no matter the content or circumstance. Ultimately it feels like we are watching an elaborate show of Xi’s stranglehold on the country. Perhaps that’s the point? This though is a view that can’t be shared on Weibo. Or at least not for long.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks down at the podium during a media briefing in Downing Street. Photo: Justin Tallis/PA Wire/PA Images
It should surprise no-one that I am a political geek. I love politics. I love the cut and thrust of debate. I love the moments of high drama and the intrigue. Most of all I love the fact that genuine good can be done. That people’s lives can be made just a little easier by the power of our collective democracy.
So you’d assume that I would have relished the events of the UK Parliament this week. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being completely obsessed with the minutiae of the debate around Partygate and the drama of the precarious position of the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP as he seeks to survive the biggest political crisis of his premiership.
But I’m also angry. The British Government has been distracted for weeks, caught in a political crisis of their own making about whether or not the Prime Minister knowingly broke his own Covid-19 regulations. While the political establishment awaits a report from a senior civil servant to clarify what was, or wasn’t, happening behind the doors of Number 10, important issues are being sidelined or ignored and people are suffering.
This week the British Parliament held vital debates on the genocide of the Uighurs and the use of the British legal system to silence activists and journalists. Both debates passed broadly without comment or wider notice.
The Russian Federation is threatening the sovereign status of a democratic ally, Ukraine, on an hourly basis.
Protestors in Kazakhstan are being threatened with death if they continue to protest against the government, with 10,000 already arrested and 225 killed by the authorities.
23 million people in Afghanistan are experiencing extreme hunger as the Taliban starts attacking women activists.
These are some of the heartbreaking and terrifying realities which are happening around the world. These are the issues that should have dominated our news agenda this week, along with a cost of living crisis, a plan to deliver net zero and attacks on free expression around the world.
Index will continue to fight for these issues to be heard. For the voices of the persecuted to be recognised. While some of our leaders focus on domestic intrigue we’ll keep fighting for those that don’t have a voice.