China unleashes 'extraordinary assault on human rights'

Friends of human rights activist Cao Shunli outside the intensive care unit in Beijing on March 1 2014. Shunli died in detention. (Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters)

Friends of human rights activist Cao Shunli outside the intensive care unit in Beijing on March 1 2014. Shunli died in detention. (Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters)

The ruling Communist Party has “unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years”, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its annual report.

The group added that recent developments in China are “an alarming sign given that the current leadership will likely remain in power through 2023”.

Since taking office as communist chief in 2012, China’s President Xi Jinping has overseen a campaign against government critics with hundreds detained or jailed.

“China remains an authoritarian state, one that systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion, when their exercise is perceived to threaten one-party rule,” the group said.

Xi’s much-publicised anti-corruption campaign, the group said, “has been conducted in ways that further undermine the rule of law, with accused officials held in an unlawful detention system, deprived of basic legal protections, and often coerced to confess”.

Activists and other rights defenders in China increasingly face retaliation, HRW said, citing a number of cases including that of dissident Cao Shunli, who died in detention last year.

Shunli had been detained in 2013 shortly before she was due to travel to Geneva to attend a UN session on China’s rights record.

China says that it safeguards its citizens’ rights, including freedom of assembly, expression, religion and the press.

The ruling party had made “positive steps in certain areas”, HRW said, such as the official abolition of re-education through labour camps and the reform of the “hukou” household registration system, which has barred China’s hundreds of millions of migrants from equal access to healthcare and other benefits.

But the HRW report also voiced concern about Beijing’s August 2014 decision “denying genuine democracy in Hong Kong”, which sparked a wave of pro-democracy protests in the former British colony.

The watchdog criticised the use of “excessive force” by Hong Kong police, including the use of pepper spray, as well as the erosion of press freedoms and physical attacks on independent journalists.

“Despite the waning of street protests, the underlying political issues remained unresolved and combustible at time of writing,” the group said. – AFP

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