Monday, October 25, 2021

Article 299: Criminalizing Disrespect of the National Flag, Part II

 Read Part I here.

A flag hoisting ceremony in Tiananmen Square in 2005. Image credit: 武当山人 / CC BY-SA 3.0  

The desecration of national symbols is a crime under Chinese law. The National Flag Law was enacted in June 1990 and was extended to cover the national emblem one year later. While the laws were merely codes governing formalities to display the national symbols, a provision to the 1979 Criminal Law added in 1990 made intentionally desecrating the national flag and symbol in public a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.  

This article explores the often-ignored topic of flag desecration in China. Part I looked at trends in sentencing and the law’s application across different cases. Part II discusses how the law is applied to different groups like Falun Gong, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. While most publicly disclosed cases involve “ordinary” offenders who did not desecrate the flag for political reasons, the same acts committed by practitioners of Falun Gong and ethnic minorities tend to result in lengthier prison sentences. 

Political Cases 

In cases where national symbols in China are desecrated in protest of public policy, like those of Wang Chunhua (王春花) and Lie Jinjie (刘杰津) discussed in Part I, the starting point for sentencing appears to get noticeably longer. Two other cases, which involved criticism of the CCP and so-called “anti-China elements,” also resulted in lengthier prison sentences. However, the circumstances of these cases have not been made entirely clear in available sources. 

  1. Tianjin’s first flag desecration case concerned Wu Zhaoming (吴兆明), who was sentenced to two years in prison in December 2017 for cutting up and damaging a total of 66 national flags, allegedly in a bid to express his discontent with the CCP. Some of the damaged flags and flagpoles were found in garbage bins and on sideroads. Available sources did not explain why Wu became dissatisfied with the CCP. 
  2. In a separate case in Changsha, Hunan, Wu Di (吴迪) was sentenced to 18 months in prison in January 2020 for setting fire to four flags with a lighter. Prosecutors alleged that Wu experienced depression due to unemployment and became “thrill-seeking” after he browsed overseas “anti-China” websites. From October 1-2, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, he circulated a video to his friends of himself burning the flags on a university campus. 

Falun Gong 

As shown in the chart below, from 1998-2016, only five people had received the maximum sentences of three years in prison. Of them, Dui Hua found that two were Falun Gong practitioners: 

Chart 1. Sentencing breakdown of defendants convicted of Article 299

Source: Records of People’s Court Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 

An early case involved Zhang Jingzhi (张敬之) and Wen Yanyu (文廷玉); each was sentenced to three years in prison for throwing paint-filled eggs at flags at a public memorial in Chongqing in August 2009. The heavy sentences could be attributed in part to the timing and setting of their protest. The flags were displayed at a memorial for “revolutionary martyrs”—300 Communist political prisoners held and then slaughtered by Kuomintang security agents in Chongqing’s notorious Zhazidong Prison Camp on November 27, 1949, as the city fell to the People’s Liberation Army.  

According to media accounts, national and local leaders expressed concern about this flag desecration case, and personal instructions to investigators were reportedly issued by then-Chongqing governor Bo Xilai—whose use of public patriotic campaigns and a heavy-handed crackdown on corruption and organized crime was seen by some as an attempt to generate popular support to become a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. 

Another pair of Falun Gong practitioners, Dong Zhiyong (董志勇) and Zhi Xunlin (茆训林), in Jiangsu were sentenced for both Article 299 and Article 300 on November 2016. Although Article 299 in this case only carried one year in prison, they ended up serving prison sentences of 57-69 months because of Article 300. Chinese government sources said that the duo used sickles to damage 114 flags flown on street lampposts in the run up to the 64th National Day. 

Tibetans 

From time to time, Tibetans have undertaken flag desecration to express their blatant rejection of Beijing’s repressive religious policy, desire for genuine autonomy, and even independence. In her blog Invisible Tibet, prominent writer Tsering Woeser chronicled multiple instances of what appeared to be flag desecration incidents across the Tibetan plateau amid the 2008 Lhasa Riots. Protesters across cities and townships reportedly raised the “snow lion flag,” a symbol of the Tibetan independence movement, in place of the Chinese national flag just months ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics. 

The Tibetan flag carried during Olympic torch run demonstrations in San Francisco, California, on April 9, 2008. Image credit: Victor Lee / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

However, many flag burning protesters might not have been charged with Article 299. Court statistics indicate that only three ethnic minorities were convicted of flag desecration from 2008-2009. It is possible they were convicted of the more serious charges of splittism or inciting splittism, with the former carrying a potential death sentence. 

Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database has information on two Article 299 cases from 2011-2013. The two cases, both reported by Radio Free Asia, were likely linked to the self-immolation protests involving over a hundred Tibetan women and men who set themselves ablaze to highlight resistance to Beijing’s rule: 
  1. Around 2011, Sonam Norgye received a three-year prison sentence in Basu [Pashoe] County, Tibet, for hauling down and soiling with feces a Chinese flag that had been raised by government workers in the area; 
  2. In September 2013, a court in Sichuan’s Kardze County reportedly handed prison terms of between one and four years to three monks accused of pulling down the Chinese national flag at a local school. Because Article 299 only carries a maximum sentence of three years, one of the monks might have been convicted of an additional crime. 
Dui Hua previously reported the case of Garab (嘎热) who was accused of desecrating the flag out of frustration over the disaster relief efforts for the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Nepal on April 25, 2015. The earthquake also brought causalities and widespread damage to southwestern Tibet, including his home in Tingri County.  

According to the court judgment, Garab found an old Chinese national flag in the ruins of his former home weeks after the April quake. Prosecutors alleged that he burned holes in the flag and then used a marker to write “Free Tibet” on it. After allegedly hiding the flag under his mattress for several days, he discarded it along a path where some village children found it. Members of a work group stationed in the village noticed the children playing with the flag and reported the incident to local authorities. Garab received a prison sentence of two and a half years in November 2015. 

Uyghurs

A picture of Jama Mosque in Kargilik County, Kashgar, with China's flag and propaganda banners that read "Love the Party, Love the Country." The photo is undated but was published by Radio Free America (RFA) in August 2018. Image credit: RFA via an unnamed RFA listener
 
The PPDB also has information on two Article 299 cases involving Uyghurs. In both cases, the Uyghur defendants received relatively lengthier prison sentences. 
  1. On February 20, 2013, two Uyghurs were sentenced to 24-30 months’ imprisonment in Wensu County, Aksu Prefecture. State news media sources claimed that they refused to perform salah, the obligatory Muslim prayers which are performed five times each day, in mosques where the national flag was displayed. They pulled down and burned the Chinese national flag on December 26, 2012.

    This trial was attended by a total of 1,208 people, including county congress representatives, religious figures, and villagers. The large size of the court audience suggested that the trial was conducted in the form of a public sentencing rally, which is often held in large outdoor public spaces like plazas and stadiums where the accused are bound and flanked by police in front of crowds of spectators that can number in the thousands. While public sentencing rallies in Xinjiang are typically held in cases involving violence, drugs, and state security, this case indicates that Uyghurs in flag desecration cases can also be brought to a public rally.

  2. Just a month after the flag desecration case in Wensu County, a similar case was concluded in Awat County, also in Aksu Prefecture. According to news media sources, all mosques in the county were required to fly the Chinese national flag after August 2011. A muezzin (the person who performs the call to prayer) put the flag into a fireplace; he blamed the flag for the drop in mosque worshippers. Concerned about the choking smoke, he threw the half-burned flag outside of the mosque. He received a 30-month prison sentence on March 19, 2013. 
Article 299: Beyond the National Flag

It is worth noting that the scope of activities punishable under Article 299 is expanding. The tenth amendment to the Criminal Law, which went into force in November 2017, made insults to the national anthem a crime punishable under the same article. Dui Hua previously reported the first known such case involving a female member of Almighty God in Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. She received a 30-month prison sentence for composing “the Song of Satan’s Victory,” similar in tune to the national anthem. 

Effective March 1, 2021, a new provision added to Article 299 extended the same punishment to those who “misrepresent, defame, profane or deny the deeds and spirits of heroes and martyrs.” On the same day, Chinese blogger Qiu Ziming (仇子明) became the first person to be convicted of this new crime over his posts that authorities say demeaned the Chinese military casualties of a border clash with Indian soldiers in June 2020. Qiu, also a victim of China’s practice of airing forced confessions on state television, is serving his eight months’ prison sentence in Jiangsu until October 19, 2021. 

Footage of Qiu's televised forced confession. Image credit: Hanqiu.com

China is not alone in taking an aggressive stance towards desecration, but questions remain as to whether sentencing is consistent, appropriate, and fair to all. The cases demonstrated in this post suggest that Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and those who commit the crime as a symbolic political expression against the CCP are at higher risk of receiving longer prison sentences. As Xi continues to cement the notion that a deep love for the CCP and even himself is the same as a deep love for the nation, it is likely that more people who do not share his version of patriotism will run afoul of an ever-expanding Article 299. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Article 299: Criminalizing Disrespect of the National Flag, Part I

A Chinese flag left on Hong Kong Road 01 in 2019. Image credit: 梁柏堅(表弟) Pakkin Leung / CC BY 1.0  

The desecration of national symbols evokes different responses from different governments. In some countries it is an acceptable form of political expression, in others an act that is merely tolerated, and in others a crime. China is among the countries that place broad restrictions on speech to criminalize acts it finds disrespectful to national symbols.  

The five-starred red national flag, which symbolizes the Communist Revolution and unity of the Chinese People under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is at the heart of the legislation to mandate respect. Its first effort began with the National Flag Law in June 1990. The following year, the law was extended to cover the national emblem, which comprises the design of Tiananmen in a red circle illuminated by five stars and surrounded by sheaves of wheat. While the laws were merely codes of practice governing the formalities to display the two national symbols, a provision to the 1979 Criminal Law added in 1990 made intentionally burning, mutilating, scrawling on, defiling, or trampling upon the national flag and symbol in public a crime punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. 

Despite being a criminal offense in mainland China for nearly three decades, flag desecration cases have yet to be thoroughly discussed by observers. Internet searches are swamped with media coverage related to the now-rescinded extradition bill in Hong Kong. During the second half of 2019, Hong Kong protesters made headlines for burning, trampling, and flinging the national flag into the sea and defacing the national emblem on China’s liaison office. The former British colony is slated to amend its flag desecration law to criminalize acts in the virtual world, while extending the time allowable for a prosecution for up to two years. 

Drawing on Dui Hua’s research into news media sources, court records, and online judgments, this article sheds light on the little-discussed topic of flag desecration in China. Part I looks at trends in sentencing and the law’s application across different cases. Part II explores how the law is applied to different groups like Falun Gong, Tibetans, and Uyghurs.  Most publicly disclosed cases involve “ordinary” offenders who did not make a political point against the CCP. However, the same acts committed by practitioners of Falun Gong and ethnic minorities tend to result in lengthier prison sentences. 

Court statistics, 1998-2016 

Chart 1. No. of accepted and concluded first-instance criminal cases invoking Article 299 

Source: Records of People’s Court Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016

First and foremost, Article 299 has not been frequently invoked in China. The 12-volume Records of People’s Court Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016 published by the Supreme People’s Court in 2018 indicated that there were only 61 first-instance criminal cases involving 86 defendants from 1998-2016. Except for 2014, the number of people brought to trial every year never exceeded 10. No court cases were tried or concluded in 2001, 2005, and 2006.  

While Article 299 only covered the national flag and emblem from 1998-2016, criminal cases concerning the latter are rare. A possible reason for this is that the national emblem, typically displayed at government offices, is less readily accessible to the general public. Dui Hua has only found one case where someone was sentenced to one year in prison for editing an online image of the national emblem. His sentence was reduced to six months’ criminal detention upon appeal. Most, if not all, of the cases Dui Hua found relate to the physical desecration of the national flag in public spaces. 

The surge of cases beginning in 2012 coincided with Xi Jinping’s ascension to General Secretary. This increase likely reflects his image as a patriotic leader who is more eager than his predecessor to punish disrespect of the national flag, which has come to symbolize the unity of the Chinese people under his leadership. After 2016, the last year for which court statistics are available, Xi continued to usher in new laws aimed at further legislating respect for the national flag. In October 2020, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed another amendment to make it a crime to simply turn the national flag upside town

Nearly four in every five defendants received prison sentences of less than three years. The maximum sentence of three years was only meted out to five defendants. After cross-referencing cases recorded in its Political Prisoner Database, Dui Hua found that Falun Gong practitioners and Tibetans were among those who received the maximum sentences. 

Chart 2. Sentencing breakdown of defendants convicted of Article 299

Source: Records of People’s Court Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016

Another notable observation gleaned from court statistics is that 70 percent of all the defendants were ethnic minorities. The court records did not specify which ethnic groups were involved. Public information about these cases is also sparse. Of the 46 Article 299 judgments posted on China Judgements Online, all but five were Han Chinese. The selective disclosure of court judgments suggests an effort to cover up ethnic discord. 

The First Desecration Case 

China’s first criminal trial of flag desecration was reportedly concluded in April 1993. In this case, three students from the Fujian Vocational College of Geology were sentenced to 12-18 months of public surveillance. According to the judgment, the students became dissatisfied with the school after they received disciplinary punishment for violating school regulations. They held a grudge against the student guard team, who they believed was the whistle-blower. In November 1992, the students hoisted two men’s pants on a flagpole in the school playground. They doused the Chinese national flag with kerosene and set it on fire.  

The Chinese national flag and emblem. Desecrating either has been punishable by up to three years in prison since 1990. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons 

A commentary on this first case of flag desecration commended the court’s decision to hand down public surveillance to the adolescent defendants (one of them was minor at the time of the offense). The punishment was a rare act of leniency: public surveillance was only given once, in 2003 for a period of 18 years beginning in 1998. As part of the emplacement measures, the students were allowed to continue attending the same school. However, the court was obliged to hold them criminally liable for desecrating the national flag, which “represents the sovereignty and dignity of the nation.” Their acts of “intentionally insulting the national flag is an affront to the dignity of the country and damages the patriotic passion of the Chinese people.” 

Non-political Desecration 

The same line of patriotic argument has been reiterated to determine conviction in many other publicly disclosed flag desecration cases. Most of these cases are similarly apolitical, with offenders committing the crime over seemingly personal or trivial matters. There were also cases where defendants faced trials for what they claimed were drunken indiscretions. The prison sentences in such cases rarely exceeded six months.  

Recent examples include: 

  • Fang Runzhou (范润州), a farmer from Sanmenxia, Henan, was sentenced to six months of public surveillance in 2017 for ripping up a national flag after a futile attempt to register with the village committee as a “poverty household.” 
  • A man surnamed Zhong from Guangdong received a six-month prison sentence in May 2018 for trampling the national flag while performing a lion dance for a newly opened martial arts center. 
  • On October 1, 2019, Ma Yiyi (马义益) burned two national flags to “vent dissatisfaction with his life circumstances and social reality.” The flags were slated for display at a school in Zunyi, Guizhou, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Ma was sentenced to six months in prison in December 2019. 
  • Unable to find a cadre to discuss his own household issues, a man surnamed Pang pulled down a national flag flying over a village committee square in October 2020 and set it alight. On February 2, 2021, Pang was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. 
The court hearing for the defendant Pang, who was sentenced to six months in prison for desecrating the flag. Image credit: New.qq 

Political Desecration 

As with protests in western countries, national flags in China are sometimes burned in protest of public policy. This happened to be the case of Wang Chunhua (王春花), whose anger with the local government’s decision to rush the construction of a garbage incinerator in Nan County, Hunan, landed her a one-year prison sentence (suspended for 18 months) in May 2017. Wang took part in a protest, where she lowered the national flag from a flagpole in front of a county government office building. The court found her guilty of “recklessly waving the national flag, throwing it on the ground and trampling it multiple times.” 

The starting point for sentencing appears to get noticeably longer in cases triggered by political defiance. Dui Hua found a case where Lie Jinjie (刘杰津) was sentenced to 18 months in prison for burning the national flag in Chibi City, Hubei, in November 2020, allegedly in a bid to express discontent with the stringent COVID-19 quarantine rules. Unable to return to work in Jiangsu amid the province-wide lockdown, Lie claimed to have been inspired by online images of “Taiwanese and Hong Kong independence activists” who burned the national flag to vent discontent with the Chinese government.  

Part II, which explores cases of political desecration and looks at how Article 299 is applied to Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Falun Gong practitioners, will be published in two weeks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Mainland China Administrative Deacon Station: Leaders Receive Lengthy Sentences

Xiao County People’s Court in Anhui Province, where Wang Yongmin was convicted of violating Article 300. Image credit: Suzhou Intermediate Court WeChat account

In 2000, the Ministry of Public Security issued a circular concerning the identification and banning of 14 evil cult or sect organizations. Of them, 12 were unorthodox Christian groups. Following hefty prison sentences given to founders in the 1990s, many of these groups have been severely weakened, driven underground, or have gone extinct. After state repression of religion intensified in late 2012, there appears to be a consensus that Almighty God has become the most suppressed Christian sect in China, but the continuing crackdown on other smaller and lesser-known Christian groups which are similarly considered “unorthodox” has not garnered the same level of scrutiny.

A few groups have survived the intense government suppression and even resurfaced recently after two decades of inactivity. One of them is the Mainland China Administrative Deacon Station (MCADS 中华大陆行政执事站). Dui Hua’s research into court judgments found that its founder Wang Yongmin (王永民) is serving his second jail term in Anhui for 10 years. The now-67-year-old was found guilty of “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law” on December 27, 2019 and is scheduled to complete his prison sentence on March 22, 2028. In 1995, Wang began a 20-year prison sentence for "disturbing social order" and "fraud," serving 17 years before being released early in February 2012.

MCADS was among the earliest doomsday Christian sects banned by the Chinese government in November 1995. Formerly a core member of the Shouters (呼喊派), founded by Li Changshou in the United States in 1962, Wang set up MCADS as an offshoot in Anhui 1994. According to Chinese government sources, Wang proclaimed himself to be the “one true deacon” to seize power from Satan and create the Kingdom of God.

A notice circulated in 2000 about banned religious organizations, including the Mainland China Administrative Deacon Station. This notice was recirculated in 2015 after a murder case involving Almighty God. Image credit: China Youth Network

Additionally, the Chinese government asserts that MCADS members “confront the CCP and government, rape women, and swindle money”—allegations that remain commonplace against many “cult organizations.” At its peak during the early 1990s, thousands of MCADS members distributed “reactionary propaganda” in 69 cities across 20 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. Wang was sentenced to 20 years in prison for fraud and disturbing social order in 1996, one year after MCADS was banned by the Chinese government.

Despite being convicted over two decades ago, Wang continues to be prominently featured in China’s anti-cult propaganda. His case is labeled one of the top ten cult cases in China by kaiwind.com, which Global Times describes as a non-governmental website devoted to “revealing facts about Falun Gong.” Also listed as the top ten cases were founders and leading members from other unorthodox Christian and Buddhist groups. Some of them were executed, including:

  1. Wu Yangming (吴扬明), founder of the now seemingly defunct Beili Wang, or Anointed King, was executed in December 1995 for rape;
  2. Liu Jiaguo (刘家国), leader of the Zhusheng Jiao, or the Lord God Sect was executed in October 1999 for Article 300, rape, and fraud;
  3. Xu Wenku (徐文库), who founded sanban furen, or the Three Grades of Servants, was found guilty of murder, fraud, and using a cult to cause death. His execution took place in November 2006.

Like MCADS, both Beili Wang and Zhusheng Jiao are offshoots of the Shouters.

A court judgment previously uploaded to China Judgements Online in September 2020—and since removed from the site—indicated that Anhui’s Xiao County People’s Court convicted Wang again on December 27, 2019, alongside four other MCADS leaders who were also accused of violating Article 300.

Source: China Judgements Online

The judgment stated that Wang resumed his role as the leader of MCADS upon his prison release in February 2012. After formulating the church’s agenda and programs with the four defendants in the same case, Wang set up service centers in Xiao County and re-established contacts with former members of MCADS. The judgment also stated that another defendant, Li Yuhong, printed 9,000 pamphlets for distribution in Anhui, Henan, Jiangsu, and Shandong. However, no information was given about how many people had rejoined the sect.

One noteworthy allegation against Wang is his effort to gain overseas recognition of MCADS as a religious group. Wang allegedly attempted to contact Living Stream Ministry via a professor at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. Living Stream Ministry is a Christian book publisher based in Anaheim, California. It was founded by Shouters’ founder Li Changshou. Wang and the other defendants were detained on March 16, 2018.

Article 300 mandates a minimum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment for “especially serious” or otherwise grave acts. The sentences given to Wang and Li can be considered severe. A major reason is that Wang reoffended. Although Li was a first-time offender, the 9,000 leaflets he printed were more than sufficient to render the circumstances “especially serious.” Effective since February 1, 2017, the joint interpretation of Article 300 states that a circumstance is considered “especially serious” when a defendant manufactures over 5,000 “cult” leaflets.

These cases reflect how the CCP’s campaign to control and restrict religious plurality extends to smaller, lesser-known Christian groups. However, some groups like the Mainland China Administrative Deacon Station continue to reemerge despite crackdowns even as hefty prison sentences face the leadership of any group that can be considered “unorthodox.”

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Chinese Asylum Seekers in Bangkok, Part II

At the Thailand-Laos crossing checkpoint at Sop Ruak, people queue to travel between Thailand and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. Image credit: Slleong / CCO via Wikimedia Commons

This is the second installment in a two-part series. Read Part I here.

Thailand does not recognize the status of refugees because it has not acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Refugees who overstay their visas or enter Thailand without proper documents are regarded as illegal immigrants. They have no legal right to work or adequate access to health care; nor can their children attend local schools. They are dependent on charitable groups, religious organizations, other refugees in their community, or they simply subsist on meagre savings. Because of budget cuts and a global tightening of national immigration policies, the UNHCR has reportedly axed financial aid for refugees. 

Consequently, many Chinese asylum seekers and refugees enter Bangkok’s labor black market to make a living. Once arrested, they are typically held in immigration detention centers, many of which are “severely overcrowded, provide inadequate food, have poor ventilation and lack medical service and other basic necessities,” according to Human Rights Watch.  

In January 2015, Uyghur refugees also complained to a visiting Istanbul-based journalist about health problems in the detention facilities in Thailand. Prior to this incident, three Uyghurs died despite efforts of charitable groups to provide relief. In September 2018, a Chinese observer claimed that dozens of refugees and asylum seekers of different nationalities were crammed into an area of approximately 12 square meters of floor space. 

Because of the cramped and unhygienic conditions at the immigration centers, seven Uyghurs made a failed attempt at a jail break in February 2019. A Thai NGO, which has worked to assist these Uyghurs since their detention, is compiling evidence about the alleged reports of physical abuse by Thai police officers.   

The long wait time for resettlement is another major source of frustration among refugees. Zhang Shufeng (张淑凤), who obtained refugee status in 2017, said the UNHCR prioritizes applications of refugees from armed conflicts such as Syrians and Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims over Chinese applicants. In 2016, another asylum seeker Cai Yuliang (蔡欲亮) was finally accepted for resettlement in the United States after spending a total of 17 years in Thailand. Cai fled China in 1999, seven years after he completed his 20 years’ imprisonment for the now-defunct criminal offense of counterrevolution. 

No Safe Haven

Jiang Yefei holds a placard with a criminal charge at a Thai immigration detention center prior to repatriation in 2015. Image credit: Apple Daily (Taiwan) 

Since the coup of 2014, the Thai military regime has been tilting away from the United States toward China. Refugees or asylum seekers are believed to be facing imminent risk of repatriation at the behest of China — Thailand’s largest trade partner and major country of origin for tourists. 

Repatriation

Four months after over 100 Uyghurs were repatriated to China, Thailand deported Dong Guangping (董广平) and Jiang Yefei (姜野飞) in November 2015, allegedly for breaking immigration rules. A political cartoonist, Jiang left China in 2008 after he was detained and allegedly tortured over his work critical of the government’s handling of the Sichuan earthquake. Dong fled to Thailand in 2015, having served a three-year jail term for subversion from 2001-2004 and “disappeared” for eight months in secret detention in 2014.  

Following their repatriation, Jiang and Dong were sentenced in Chongqing to 78-month and 42-month imprisonment sentences, respectively, for subversion and illegal border crossing in July 2018. Thailand’s decision to repatriate the duo drew condemnation from the UN, United States, and others because both men had been awaiting resettlement in Canada after they obtained their refugee status. Dong completed his prison sentence on August 2, 2019, whereas Jiang still has one year to serve before release in August 2022. 

Cross-Border Law Enforcement

The disappearance of Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minghai in Pattaya in October 2015 raised fear of cross-border operations of Chinese security forces. A similar case that did not garner much attention concerns former editor of the Southern Metropolitan Daily Li Xin (李新). In November 2015, Li fled to New Delhi after he was coerced by Chinese state security to work as an informant. He disappeared while riding a Laos-bound train in north Thailand in January 2016 in a bid to renew his Thai visa. A month later, Li reappeared in China claiming that he had returned to China “voluntarily” to assist with a police investigation. When asked about the case by The New York Times, the Thai Foreign Ministry responded that there was no “record as yet as to whether he has left the country.” Li’s wife and supporters speculated that Li had been abducted by Chinese security forces and clandestinely transported across the border.  

Turning a Blind Eye

Xing Jian (邢鉴) arrived in New Zealand as a refugee in January 2020, more than three years after the UNHCR recognized his refugee status in the summer of 2016. Xing criticized the Thai government for providing insufficient care and protection for UN-recognized refugees. While in Thailand, Chinese public security officers apprehended him alongside Bangkok police because he overstayed his visa on November 25.  

Before fleeing China, Xing volunteered for prominent dissident Huang Qi (黄琦) and was accused of “rumour-mongering” for exposing corruption in his home county in Jiangsu. His father Xing Wangli (邢望力), who remains in China, was sentenced to two years and three months’ imprisonment in October 2018 for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Xing Wangli was re-arrested in June 2021 for defamation after visiting prominent rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong

Wu Yuhua and Yang Chong (see part 1) were originally scheduled to depart for Canada from Bangkok on June 25, 2019. However, they were barred from leaving Thailand. Yang may be required to complete his one-year suspended sentence there for overstaying, according to a Chinese activist familiar with Thai laws. However, another Radio Free Asia report cited the Chinese embassy as saying that the Thai authorities “do not rule out the possibility of repatriating the duo to China.” 

Fleeing Again

Risky Voyage

In view of a potentially indefinite waiting period for resettlement, the threat of repatriation, and abduction by Chinese security forces overseas, some asylum seekers and refugees are determined to flee once more. Prior to the scheduled interview with the UNHCR in 2017, Falun Gong practitioner Dong Junming (董俊明) undertook a risky voyage to New Zealand, some 6,000 miles away from Pattaya, on February 29, 2016. Dong was joined by six like-minded asylum seekers and two children.  

In early March, a few days into their voyage, the yacht capsized off the Thai coast. In an interview with overseas media, Dong said that “[i]t’s highly risky out there on the ocean, but we are so fearful here in Thailand that I thought I should take the risk.” All travellers who boarded the yacht, including China Democracy Party member Li Xiaolong (黎小龙), were returned to Thailand after the failed escape. Some were placed in immigration detention centers while at least one of them stood trial for illegal entry into Thailand in January 2017. 

To Taiwan

In a bid to evade the extending reach of China in Thailand, some dissidents have chosen to flee once more to Taiwan. Huang Yan (黄燕)  fled to Thailand in 2016 after years of harassment, repeated incarceration, and alleged torture for speaking out in support of Gao Zhisheng. In May 2018, she flew to Jakarta, then to Taiwan, where she was granted temporary leave to remain until the United States granted her political asylum in January 2019. 

Following in Huang’s footsteps, China Democracy Party members Yan Bojun (颜伯钧) and Liu Xinglian (刘兴联) left Bangkok four months after Huang’s arrival in Taiwan. They were granted entry in February 2019 on the basis of “professional exchanges” after 125 days at Taipei Taoyuan airport. At the time of writing, both men have been granted asylum protection in Canada. 

On September 29, 2016, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chiu Chui-cheng expresses concerns over the situation in Hong Kong but says Taiwan will not intervene. Image credit: Voice of America via Wikimedia Commons 

It would be a mistake to assume that Taiwan welcomes individuals fleeing violence and persecution in China. While the island has promised assistance to Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) maintained that Taiwan policy toward mainland asylum seekers remained unchanged. Should Taiwan openly admit mainland asylum seekers and refugees, it will likely trigger a flood of applications and further antagonize China, putting hundreds of thousands of China-based Taiwanese residents, workers, and investors at risk of arbitrary detention. Additionally, Taiwan fears what it calls “infiltration” from mainland agents. There have been recent arrivals of mainland Chinese who managed to cross the Taiwan Straits despite it being one of the world’s most heavily policed waterways. 

Taiwan is not a member of the UN and does not have legislation to protect refugees. The island only vows to deal with applications from mainland Chinese on a case-by-case basis, according to the MAC.  

Non-Refoulement

It must be noted that around the globe, not all Chinese asylum applicants are found to have a legitimate fear for persecution. In Australia, for instance, the number of Chinese nationals applying for refugee asylum rose by 311 percent in just one year from 2017. Despite this surge, the Australian Department of Home Affairs only recognized 10 percent of such claims as being genuine. Most claims found to be bogus have been used by applicants to overstay their visas. The United States has also cracked down on “asylum mills,” which have helped thousands of Chinese immigrants to fraudulently win asylum status. Over 13,500 immigrants, mostly Chinese, who were granted asylum status are reportedly facing possible deportation.

A poster from the Australian government’s 2013 "No Way" campaign aimed at dissuading attempts by non-citizens to enter Australia. Image credit: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service / CC BY-SA 3.0  

However, many of those in Bangkok have been determined by the UNHCR to have a well-founded fear for persecution, a fear not imaginary but very much real, as being detained, arrested, and sentenced should they be returned to China. The fact that Thailand is not a signatory state of the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol does not absolve the country from its duty to protect refugees inside its borders. The UNHCR has also called on all states, including non-signatory states, to observe non-refoulement, an international principle that prevents all countries from expelling or returning an individual to a country where he or she is at genuine risk of persecution. 

Thai officials have reiterated their commitment to protecting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. They have also vowed to adopt anti-torture legislation to strengthen implementation of the principle of non-refoulement. However, insufficient protection for asylum seekers and refugees has left them stranded in Thailand, vulnerable to detention, arrest, and repatriation. Some of them have even been compelled to flee Thailand as well to evade arrests, deportation, and Chinese security forces overseas. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Chinese Asylum Seekers in Bangkok, Part I

 

The United Nations building in Bangkok, Thailand. Image credit: dsin_travel / CC BY 2.0 

China has consistently ranked among the top 20 refugee producing countries every year since 2003, according to statistics published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The latest statistics published in June 2021 indicated that China was 18th on the UNHCR’s list at the end of 2020. The number of UNHCR-registered refugees originally from China reached 175,585. Additionally, there were 107,864 Chinese asylum seekers around the globe with pending claims. The number of asylum seekers increased nine-fold from just 11,375 in 2011, the year before paramount leader Xi Jinping assumed power.  

Table 1. UNHCR's Forced Displacement Statistics (Country of Origin: China)

Source: UNHCR, Refugee Data Finder, 2003-2020 

Many UNHCR-recognized refugees from China consider the West a destination of choice for resettlement. After taking the first step in the long journey to asylum, many refugees from China sojourn in Thailand where they await refugee status determination. It is an administrative process by which the Bangkok-based regional office of UNHCR for Southeast Asia determines whether a person seeking protection qualifies as a refugee under international law. Bangkok is home to an estimated 8,000 urban refugees—hailing from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.  

Dui Hua is not aware of any official statistics about Chinese asylum seekers in Thailand. However, Bei Ling, founder of “Home of Refugees” in Thailand in 2015, estimated that more than 300 Chinese asylum seekers were in the country as of October 2018.  

This is the first entry in a two-part series examining issues facing Chinese asylum seekers in Thailand. This entry explores who they are and why they have fled China. The second entry will look at how and why Thailand falls short of being a safe haven. Prospective refugees with or without valid passports risk criminal detention for overstaying in Thailand. Their predicaments also include indefinite wait times for third country resettlement. The fact that Thailand fails to abide by the principle of non-refoulement also places a heightened risk of repatriation for those seeking protection from persecution at home. 

Why Thailand?

Thailand started to become a popular place of transit for Chinese refugees about two decades ago. Prior to that, those with a well-founded fear of persecution decamped to colonial Hong Kong to flee political persecution thanks to the lax border controls at the time. Since China resumed sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997, Hong Kong has ceased to be a popular destination for asylum protection.  

For decades, Hong Kong has been a magnet for refugees. It is troubling to see a spiked increase in asylum seekers from Hong Kong since civil unrest triggered first by the now-rescinded extradition bill, and then by the sweeping arrests made under the National Security Law. The law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. At the end of 2020, there were 487 registered asylum seekers from Hong Kong, up from 22 in 2018 before mass protests erupted in June 2019. 

While a portion of those who fled China could be considered “economic migrants” in search of sustenance and a livelihood, China’s much-lauded economic success has fallen short of stopping people from fleeing abroad. Critics of one-party rule, adherents of banned religious groups, civil rights activists, petitioners, and ethnic minority groups are continuing to seek asylum protection abroad via Thailand.  

Chinese nationals find entry to Thailand easier than other neighboring countries or regions including South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, mainly because they benefit from the 15-day visas on arrival available to them (Thailand has suspended this arrangement due to the outbreak of coronavirus). Entry to elsewhere requires obtaining a pre-arranged visa. 

The Thailand-Laos overland crossing checkpoint at Sop Ruak. Image credit: Slleong / CC0 via Wikimedia Commons 

Because of geographical proximity, those without proper legal documents can resort to traveling illicitly overland from Yunnan with the help of smugglers. Chiang Mai, for instance, is reachable by land transport from Yunnan’s border in nine hours. From Chiang Mai, it is another half-day journey to Bangkok, where asylum seekers file their refugee claims at the UNHCR office. 

Why Flee?

Political Prisoners

Geng He (耿和), wife of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, is arguably the most notable example of a family member of a Chinese political prisoner fleeing political persecution via Thailand. She left for Bangkok with her children in January 2009 while her husband was serving his suspended sentence for inciting subversion. Gao’s entire family faced reprisal because Gao took on controversial cases and publicly called for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong. While in China, Gao’s children were prevented from attending school. Geng and her children stayed in Bangkok for two months before resettling in the United States. However, it must be noted that such speedy granting of asylum by the United States was only expedited by international attention. As will be discussed in Part II, the wait time for third country resettlement is often indefinite. Today, Gao remains under house arrest even after his sentence expired in August 2014. 

Another asylum application involved Hua Yong (华涌), who arrived in Canada in April 2021. Hua is a well-known painter from Beijing who posted videos documenting forced evictions and demolitions in poor neighborhoods. He was placed under residential surveillance at a designated location for three months after meeting with the father of Dong Yaoqiong, a girl who was admitted to a psychiatric facility after she live-streamed a video of herself accusing the Chinese Communist Party of “thought control.” Hua escaped to Thailand in September 2019. 

Dui Hua previously assisted former political prisoner Li Huangming (李焕明) with verifying his claim for political asylum. Before being granted political asylum in Finland in May 2013, Li fled to Bangkok after he completed his nine years’ sentence for inciting subversion in September 2010. The conviction stemmed from him distributing or planning to distribute tens of thousands of “reactionary” flyers in Shenzhen. While awaiting refugee resettlement, Li wrote stories about other Chinese asylum seekers in Bangkok for Boxun and other NGOs. In an article published by Human Rights in China in November 2012, Li wrote that Bangkok’s UNHCR office had a special team of interpreters and officials to handle the surge of applications from Chinese dissidents.  

Li wrote about changing demographics of Chinese asylum seekers. A significant number of applications were submitted by petitioners contrary to the popular belief that most Chinese refugees are supporters of China’s democracy movement, violators of the one-child policy, and adherents of banned religious groups such as Falun Gong and house churches. 

Petitioners

Li’s observation is in line with what has been reported in unofficial news sources in recent years. Petitioners fled to Bangkok because they face reprisal in China after lodging futile complaints about land expropriation or forced demolition in their home cities.  

Petitioner Zhang Shufeng protests at UNHCR’s Bangkok office while holding a bilingual slogan that says “Request UNHCR help.” Image credit: Mirror Media 

Zhang Shufeng (张淑凤), a native of Beijing, fled to Bangkok in 2014 and obtained refugee status three years later. Taiwan-based Mirror Media reported that Zhang’s family was subjected to house arrest, beatings, and constant surveillance by government-hired thugs in China. Surveillance intensified during the “Two Sessions” (the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) and other political events. In Bangkok, Zhang protested at the UNHCR office while holding a bilingual slogan saying “Request UNHCR help,” in the hope that the UNHCR would expedite her resettlement process.  

In January 2017, unofficial news media reported that Beijing evictee Wang Ling (王玲) joined her son who had arrived in Bangkok in December 2016 to maximize the chance of them both getting through Chinese immigration checks. Wang claimed that she had received death threats from police after pursuing complaints about the forced demolition of her home. In 2008, she was sentenced to 15 months of re-education through labor and had been detained a total of 11 times. The news of abnormal deaths in police custody made Wang fear for her life.

Religious Persecution

Falun Gong practitioners still make up a large portion of asylum seekers in Bangkok. Many of them have fled persecution after the suppression of the spiritual sect began in 1999. One widely publicized case concerns Song Zhiyu (宋志宇), who escaped to Thailand in early 2014 via Myanmar after completing his three-and-a-half-year sentence for “organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” In a Reuters interview in 2016, Song recounted how he “was spirited across a river into Thailand and hidden in the luggage hold of a Bangkok-bound bus.” Song claimed that Thailand had about 160 Falun Gong refugees and asylum seekers. The Thai authorities have taken an interest in them owing to the close bond between the military junta and Chinese government since 2014. More than 29 practitioners had been arrested on immigration charges under the military junta, said Song. 

Members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu have also made their escapes via Thailand and joined the ranks of asylum seekers before pastor Wang Yi (王怡) was sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion and illegal business activity in December 2019. The crackdown on this prominent house church prompted Liao Qiang (廖强) to travel to Thailand with five of his family members in July 2019. They stayed in Thailand only for three days before transiting to Taiwan. However, their stay in Taiwan was only temporary because Taiwan does not have a refugee law. Liao and his family left for the United States on June 29, 2021 after receiving political asylum there. 

Civil Activism

New groups of asylum seekers have emerged following Xi Jinping’s sweeping crackdown on civil society since he took power in 2012. Some were participants of the “Southern Street Movement,” a series of small-scale street banner protests that occurred in southern cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen from 2012-2013. The movement called for democratic reform and government officials to disclose assets.  

Among the “Southern Street Movement” asylum seekers were Wu Yuhua (吴玉华) and her husband Yang Chong (杨崇). They fled China in early 2015 after being targeted by police for supporting the protests in Guangzhou. Two years later, the couple was granted refugee status in Bangkok.  

Yang Chong holding up a banner calling for human rights and elections in 2015. Image credit: Bnn.co

Supporters of the New Citizens’ Movement have also sought political asylum. The movement was promoted by prominent legal scholar and civil rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who was formally arrested for subversion in January 2021 after calling on Xi Jinping to step down. Sharing similar aspirations with Xu, Yan Bojun (颜伯钧) arrived in Bangkok in early 2015 after several futile attempts to leave China. In 2016, Yan published a book in Japan recounting the suppression he faced after helping Xu provide legal assistance to victims of social injustice. He had been placed under criminal detention several times in China; the longest one lasted 30 days. 

Liu Xinglian (刘兴联), another UNHCR-recognized refugee, was arrested in Hubei for inciting subversion in June 2015 due to his involvement in Qin Yongmin’s “China Human Rights Watch.” The group promoted the idea of a peaceful transformation to a democracy and circulated Qin’s articles about the inevitable demise of China’s autocratic rule. After Liu was released on bail in April 2016, he managed to escape to Bangkok in 2017.  

Uyghurs & Kazakhs

Pakistan, which borders Xinjiang, was once a popular escape route for Uyghurs seeking to escape Chinese state repression, but its growing economic reliance on China has made Uyghurs fear for their future. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said as recently as July 2021 that, “What they [China] say about the programs in Xinjiang, we accept it.”  In the mid-2010s, a large group of Uyghurs made a long detour south to Bangkok before human rights abuses associated with the “re-education camps” made international headlines. However, Uyghurs are typically not interested in registering in Thailand as asylum seekers, according to a UNHCR statement in 2015. They were only looking for ways to get to Turkey, a destination of choice with an estimated 50,000 Uyghur residents.  

Thai authorities have confirmed a staggering number of Uyghur escapees in Thailand. In 2014, a group of 424 Uyghurs were detained in Thailand. In July 2015, over 170 Uyghurs were released to start new lives in Turkey, but a week later the Thai government repatriated 109 refugees to China. In July 2017, Thai immigration police said about 60 Uyghurs remained in detention centers across the country. As recently as 2020, their number was down to about 50. They were remnants of the Uyghurs who fled to Thailand in 2014. 

Evidence also suggests that ethnic Kazakhs have fled Xinjiang’s massive surveillance and detention campaign. A recent case involved Qalymbek Shahman, who Uzbek authorities sent back to Thailand after being denied entry to Kazakhstan in January 2019. He was subjected to intense racial profiling in China, making it impossible for him to make a living. “I would have my ID checked every 50 to 100 meters when I was in Xinjiang…Whether it was getting on a plane, on a train or other public transportation, they would spend half an hour checking me out every time.” His clients became concerned as to why he was routinely monitored and consequently stopped doing businesses with him. 

Chinese asylum seekers in Thailand face a number of problems beyond finding safe haven, including the lack of legal recognition. The second instalment will explore why and how Thailand falls short in protecting asylum seekers, and the challenges asylum seekers encounter once in Thailand. 

Read Part II here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Dueling Statements, and Visions, at UN Human Rights Council

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet makes remarks during the annual high-level panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming at the 46th session of the Human Rights Council on February 22, 2021. Image credit: UN photo by Violaine Martin

The United Nations Human Rights Council is an ideological battleground between China and its allies and the United States and its allies. Its 47th regular session (hereafter HRC 47) took place from June 21 to July 14, 2021 in Geneva. At the start of the session, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations (UN) in Geneva Leslie E. Norton delivered the Joint Statement on the Human Rights Situation in Xinjiang on behalf of 44 countries. In response, Belarus delivered a joint statement from 69 countries refuting criticisms against China and urging non-interference.

In recent years, HRCs and other UN sessions have seen dueling statements expressing concern over China’s human rights record on the one hand and lauding it on the other. Two blocs have emerged since a joint letter at HRC 41 in 2019. While each of the UN’s 193 member states has its own motivations, some factors offer insights into how countries are negotiating the US-China relationship and the current human rights climate.

Dueling Statements

The Canada statement at HRC 47 expressed concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) citing “credible reports” of rights abuses including widespread arbitrary detention, surveillance, restrictions on fundamental freedoms, torture, and gender-based violence by authorities. It urges China to allow “immediate, meaningful, and unfettered access” to the region and to implement the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

The signatories to the Canadian statement are predominantly developed democracies in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. European states make up the majority. Most of the signatories have been outspoken against China’s human rights record and, as with Asia-Pacific signatories, have geopolitical concerns about China. Ukraine allegedly backed out of signing the statement when China threatened to halt sending vaccines. Israel was reportedly pressured to join by the United States

All of the G7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States – signed the Canadian statement. In 2020, the G7 countries made up at least a third of China’s foreign trade revenue. Except for Japan and the United States, the G7 countries are also members of the China-launched Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The countries that signed the Canadian statement likely account for at least 50 percent of China’s export revenue. Trade between the United States and China, meanwhile, has surged to record levels, with some reports writing that it is “as if the protracted tariff war and pandemic never happened.” 

Belarus’ counter statement emphasized the importance of “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of states and non-interference in internal affairs.” It implies that the Canadian statement is politically motivated and based on disinformation and double standards. The statement originally had 65 signatories with four nations joining later, and has broad support among the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Twenty-three of the OIC’s 57 members did not sign the Belarus statement, nor did most of China’s major trading partners.

Table 1. HRC 47 Statement Signatories

There were notable omissions. Both Turkey and Kazakhstan have not signed either statement despite cultural links to persecuted groups in China. Multiple ASEAN nations, particularly those that are Muslim-majority and/or have concerns about the South China Sea, have not aligned with either bloc. Several of the world’s largest economies have also been absent, including India and Brazil. South Korea, which enjoys strong economic ties with both but is politically aligned with the United States, refrained from signing, as did Singapore. Finally, four members of the EU have not signed either statement: Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Malta.
 
As mentioned, HRC 47 was not the first instance of dueling statements on China’s human rights record. At HRC 41 in 2019, 25 nations signed a letter criticizing China while a counter letter garnered 50 signatories. At HRC 44, the UK issued a joint statement signed by 27 nations; in turn, two statements supported China—one on Xinjiang issued by Belarus signed by 53 states and another on Hong Kong issued by Cuba signed by 46 states. At HRC 46, Belarus and Cuba switched: Belarus offered a statement on Hong Kong for 69 states while Cuba’s statement on Xinjiang garnered 64 signatories. There was no joint measure critical of China; instead, 21 member states made 34 separate remarks criticizing China’s human rights record. 

Similarly, in the 74th session of the General Assembly, the UK issued a statement on behalf of 23 states, which was met by a counter statement from 54 member states. In the 75th session, Germany issued a joint statement on behalf of 39 states. Cuba supported Xinjiang policy on behalf of 45 states and Pakistan supported Hong Kong policy on behalf of 55 states.  

Statements critical of China have been issued by the UK, Germany, and Canada while joint actions supporting China have been issued by Belarus, Cuba, and Pakistan. Both Belarus and Cuba are among the last communist dictatorships in their regions, and both have faced political turmoil and threat of regime change in recent months. Should political instability in Cuba result in the fall of the regime, China could lose one of its key supporters. 

Table 2. Selected Actions at the UN

The joint statements have consistent messaging. Statements critical of China have expressed concern over human rights, noted China’s obligations under international law, recommended that China implement the CERD observations, and urged China to allow meaningful, unfettered access to independent observers. Statements in support of China consistently accuse the other bloc of being politically motivated, commend China’s actions in Xinjiang as human rights achievements through the right to development and, because there have been no terrorist attacks in Xinjiang in three consecutive years, the right to life. 

Regions Beyond the Rhetoric

The most obvious bloc is that of the developed democratic economies of North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific that express concern over human rights in China. Canada’s HRC 47 statement was the most supported statement yet: 44 states signed on, 23 from the EU and 32 in Europe. This corresponds to recent polling in which publics in 17 advanced economies said China does not respect the personal freedoms of its citizens. Of the nations surveyed—all in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific—13 signed the HRC 47 statement. Several of these nations have designated China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide in their domestic political bodies. Of the remainder, South Korea, Greece, and Singapore have not signed any statement; the latter two reported favorable views of China, and Singapore was the only public to prefer close economic ties with China and to express confidence in Xi Jinping. However, the United States induces uncertainty. Of the 16 other nations, a third said that the United States considered their foreign policy interests. While most described the United States as a “somewhat reliable partner,” most believe that it is no longer a good model of democracy. 

Much has been made of the Islamic world’s support for China’s actions in Xinjiang. Belarus’ HRC 47 statement was signed by 13 MENA countries and the majority of OIC countries. Only one OIC member, Albania, signed Canada’s statement. Muslim populations’ support for alleged genocide against a Muslim population has been explained as a byproduct of strong-man rule because many MENA, OIC, and Central Asian nations have authoritarian features. However, polling has found consistently positive views of China and Xi Jinping even when support for the United States increased among seven MENA countries. Arab publics consistently view the United States as a larger economic threat than China. Across 13 Arab countries, 58 percent viewed US policy towards the region negatively while a majority held positive views on China’s foreign policy. These views persist even though respondents view China as a less desirable employer and a source of inferior goods, and they express broad support for democracy, which suggests that China’s argument for sovereignty is attractive. Dismissing the Muslim world’s support of China as a product of illiberalism may validate China’s narrative that human rights are individualistic western ideals used to infiltrate and subjugate otherwise sovereign states. 

Among ASEAN countries, seven of its 10 members did not sign either statement. The Philippines stopped supporting China after HRC 41. While sharing the Philippines’ concerns over the South China Sea, Indonesia and Malaysia are also facing pressure, both external and internal, over the situation of the Uyghurs in their country. A 2021 survey of government and civil society experts in ASEAN nations found that support for the United States has increased in recent years. A 2020 poll found 79 percent identified China as the most influential power in the region, with 72 percent expressing wariness over this: “China’s economic influence is deeply felt but not very well received in the country.” Still, China is favored in many ASEAN countries with the United States being the overwhelming preference in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Africa has been a consistent source of support for China at the UN, even as some of the continent’s largest economies avoid statements. (In a surprise development, Côte d’Ivoire issued a statement expressing concern over actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet despite not signing either statement.) A survey of 18 African countries found that while the United States is still the preferred development model, in countries where China had invested mainly in infrastructure, perceptions have held steady or improved. Less than half of those polled said they were aware of Chinese loans or financial assistance to their country but among those who were, 77 percent were concerned about loan repayment and a majority (58 percent) said that their governments had overborrowed. This might indicate that narratives about debt traps and asset seizures are having an effect. 

Like Africa, the region consisting of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has seen hefty Chinese investment. According to the Congressional Research Service, 19 LAC countries have Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the region and total trade between China and the region reached $316 billion in 2019. Accumulated loans from 2005 to 2020 totaled $137 billion, with top recipients being Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina—only one of which signed the Cuba statement. Public polling in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico suggests that people have more positive views of China than negative, and these ratings have improved since 2014; these publics were more likely to name the United States as the top threat but say that they have good economic relations with both countries.

Trading Onwards

A look at China’s top trading partners suggests that any battle for hearts and minds is occurring separate from trade deals. China’s top 10 countries for imports and exports are dominated by Canada statement signatories—the United States, Germany—and non-signers—Brazil, South Korea. While supporters like Russia and the odd MENA state factor in at lower levels, China’s economy is still supported by the countries it accuses of weaponizing human rights. Amongst ongoing calls for decoupling and an economic reality that suggests the opposite, there are several issues to consider moving forward.

Investment and attention seem to matter. In public polls, countries that receive investments tend to have more favorable opinions of a country, which sometimes translates into UN support or at least the absence of opposition. The United States and Europe have recently announced initiatives to compete with China’s BRI, and vaccine diplomacy, as seen by the Ukraine case, remains a crucial issue for international engagement.

Narratives can create opportunities. Narratives on predatory investment may have sway in regions lacking a power monopoly; China-led narratives about sovereignty at the very least provide effective cover for post-colonial societies, some of whom may be truly weary of invasion. Similarly, China’s human rights whataboutism can deflect attention from criticism. It has highlighted the United States’ history of genocide and aggression in the MENA region. At the same time that Canada issued its statement, reports of mass graves at its relocation schools revealed its own human rights abuses. China even issued its own joint statement expressing “deep concerns” on human rights in the United Kingdom largely due to severe systemic racism.

China’s accusations of political bias might seem contrived to western audiences, but the United States has at times taken a similar approach. The Bush administration declined to join the HRC in 2006 when the HRC replaced the Human Rights Commission, which was widely seen as ineffective and even counterproductive. The Bush presidency also cited anti-Israel bias as a reason for non-involvement, and the United States was one of four nations—with Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—to vote against the HRC’s formation. Belarus, Iran, and Venezuela abstained. During the Obama administration, the United States joined and was elected to the HRC. In 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the HRC, again citing anti-Israel bias as the reason.

On June 19, 2018, then-Ambassador to the United Nations announced the US withdrawal from the HRC. Image credit: C-Span

Similarly, China has used the US-led war on terror to justify its actions. Many Western countries have expressed indignation at China’s actions without acknowledging parallels to US programs of extraordinary rendition, extrajudicial drone killings, and the “off-shoring” of refugees by developed democracy economies. This helps reinforce China’s narrative that human rights are culturally biased, politicized devices. Ignoring these aspects may reinforce China’s notion that the choice between the US and China-led narratives on human rights is a political one, as opposed to one rooted in international law and morality. 

The Biden administration seems to be progressing on some of these fronts. The administration’s statement on key outputs from HRC 47 listed achievements such as co-sponsoring resolutions in human rights in Syria and the human rights of migrants, leading events on Hong Kong’s National Security Law and business and human rights, and cooperating on a new mechanism to combat systemic racism. It also confirmed that the United States will seek election to the HRC leadership for 2022-2024.