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“It’s important that people around the world voice their concerns on China”

William Nee

The Beijing Winter Olympics kick off on Friday 4 February amid accusations of atrocity crimes by China and a partial diplomatic boycott. To better understand what is at stake, we have put three questions to William Nee, research and advocacy Coordinator with our SOS-Torture Network member Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).

China wants to project international friendship and normalcy during the Games. What are some of the faces it's trying to hide that you'd like people around the world to imagine?

Undoubtedly, the Chinese government will use the Olympic Games to show its own people that it has global recognition and respect. Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is likely set to rule for life, will seek international glory for himself as well. Under normal circumstances, there would be nothing wrong with a government getting a bit of credit for hosting a well-run Olympic Games.

However, the problem is that the government is actively perpetrating crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region and it is systematically persecuting human rights defenders.

Some of the people Beijing will not want you to see:

  • Chang Weiping, a former lawyer. Chinese authorities forcibly disappeared Chang Weiping after he posted a video in October 2020 on YouTube about being detained and tortured by authorities in January 2020. In the video, Chang described being forced to sit on a “tiger chair” non-stop for ten days, with the exception of bathroom breaks. From October 2020 until September 14, 2021, Chang Weiping was prevented from seeing a lawyer, and his friends and family were concerned for his wellbeing. After he saw his lawyer, his wife learned that Chang Weiping had been tortured again. He was once again subjected to the “tiger chair”, a torture device used in interrogations, including one stint of six days and six nights. Police subjected him to sleep deprivation and if he didn’t repeat the police’s talking points during interrogation, he wouldn’t be allowed to sleep. He was also given very little plain food on a daily basis – just three mantou (steamed buns) per day. The police also subjected him to psychological torment.
  • Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who was sentenced to four years in prison on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for her reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic, remained in prison with her life at risk. In August, Zhang Zhan’s mother revealed that Zhang Zhan’s weight had dropped to 40kg (lbs) as a result of her hunger strike protesting her innocence. She also suffered from malnutrition, ulcers and fluid retention in her limbs. As her health deteriorated, the international community voiced its concern, with the United States, the UN, and over 44 human rights organizations, including CHRD, calling on the Chinese authorities for her release. However, authorities continued to deny Zhang Zhan medical parole throughout 2021.
  • Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer who defended clients involved in New Citizens Movement, the Chinese Democratic Party, Christians, and victims of land grabs, was taken away by authorities on January 11, 2022, after he protested in support of Li Tiantian, a teacher in Hunan province who was forcibly put in psychiatric detention after she protested in support of a teacher in Shanghai, Song Gengyi, who was fired after she questioned the government’s official death toll of the Nanjing Massacre. Xie has now been criminally detained on the charges of "inciting subversion" and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble". There are reasons to be concerned about his safety: Xie was detained in 2015 in China’s notorious “709” crackdown on human rights lawyers. It later emerged that Xie was badly tortured while in prison, with his torturers telling him “we’ll torture you to death just like an ant”. The news of his torture caused an international controversy, and State media outlets called his accusations of torture “fake news”.

It is also worth noting that since 2017, Chinese authorities have committed systematic human rights atrocities in Xinjiang, a northwest region four times the size of California. The government targeted Uyghurs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups with severe restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The government has arbitrary detained up to an estimated one million in re-education camps. Survivors have reported systematic rape, torture, and deaths. The Chinese government says that many camp detainees have now been released, but investigations have uncovered mass transfers of detainees to forced labor in factories or to prisons, where they serve long criminal sentences. Authorities have sentenced many Uyghurs including poets, writers, doctors, and other professionals to long prison terms or to life and even to death. Meanwhile, children of the detained are separated from their families and forced into orphanages.

What could a diplomatic boycott achieve in terms of the respect of human rights in China, beyond being a mere symbolic gesture?

A diplomatic boycott won’t achieve any immediate tangible results, but it will send Beijing’s leaders a strong signal that the way the Communist Party is governing the country is simply not morally acceptable. A government that is engaging in such flagrant and ongoing violations of fundamental freedoms and human decency should not be awarded the glory and honor that a grand opening ceremony attended by State leaders would implicitly confer.

What can we, as citizens, do to improve things for the people persecuted by the Chinese authorities?

Probably the most urgent thing people can do is to inform themselves about what is happening in China. People can read the Chinese Human Rights Defenders website, and follow the work of other credible NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Based on this knowledge, it would be good if people pushed their home governments to engage with China firmly on human rights. At the moment, China views criticism of its human rights record mainly as “tool” that Washington DC is using against China in its geopolitical competition. So, it’s especially important that people wherever they are, but particularly if they are not in the US, voice their concerns.

But in a more general sense, China’s long-term goal is to weaken the normative power of the international human rights system. So, if a regular person can get involved in improving and strengthening that system, even if it is in their home country or a country that is not China, that will indirectly help. In the same sense, especially for people in the West, we need to ensure that our democracies are strong, that problems are solved, and that we are not needlessly polarized. We also must ensure that in voicing concerns about the Chinese government’s oppression, we never resort to demonization of Chinese people, which unfortunately has happened in the past few years.

As CHRD has shown again and again, Chinese human rights defenders are the people bringing about positive change, and we must recognize their sacrifices and support their work.

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