China’s Poor Human Rights Record Highlights HRW Report

China’s human rights record took centre stage in the Human Rights Watch 2020 World Report and for all the wrong reasons. Find out why HRW says that China’s government views human rights as an existential threat.

Those of us who lived through part of the 20th century remember its remarkable progress. We also have to admit that we lived through some unimaginable horrors. Our families lost more than 100 million innocent people in two horrific world wars, and those weren’t the only armed conflicts we suffered through.

The Holocaust and other crimes led our governments to set up world courts in Nuremberg and Tokyo. These turned international law into something we could all understand. Those courts set precedents for what we now call war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity.

These horrors led our leaders to set up the United Nations and write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt carried on her late husband Franklin’s campaign for freedoms when she founded the United Nations Human Rights Commission. 


That commission settled on 30 principles that made it into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments use those principles to write their constitutions all over the world, including right here in Canada. As a matter of fact, a Canadian, John Peters Humphrey, wrote the draft for the commission.

During the Cold War, the two superpowers kept blocking human rights activities. In 1978, human rights defenders in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union got together and set up Helsinki Watch. It worked to hold human rights violators accountable in that part of the world, based on the Helsinki Accord.

In 1981, some other human rights defenders in Latin America started another group just like it called Americas Watch. It called out violations by the puppet dictators that ruled that part of the world in those days and by the US government under Ronald Reagan. Before long, some more groups called Asia Watch, Africa Watch and Middle East Watch sprang up.


These pro-democracy groups were really all branches of one big organization. So in 1988, they started using the same name, Human Rights Watch (HRW). Human Rights Watch won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its part in getting rid of land mines.

Human Rights Watch puts out an annual report on the state of human rights in about 100 countries. The 30th edition came out this week.

Their report singles out China for all the wrong reasons. In fact, the report’s keynote essay this year talks about China and nothing else. They say that the country’s leadership under President Xi Jinping is an urgent threat to the worldwide system we’ve managed to set up to protect our human rights.


The essay doesn’t mince words. It starts out with, “China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat.” The author, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth, shows us that the Chinese Communist Party thinks of freedom as a huge threat to its hold on power. It will defend that hold to the bitter end.

Because of this fear, China has built up what Roth calls an “Orwellian high-tech surveillance state.” China has also set up severe Internet censorship to watch out for and stamp out any kind of criticism of the leadership.

China’s dim view of human rights also finds its way into foreign affairs. Now that they’ve turned into an economic powerhouse overnight, China tosses its weight around on the world stage, hoping to shut down its critics. It also lets loose hostile attacks on the human rights establishment we’ve talked about.


Roth explains why China is so scared of human rights and the rule of law. It’s because they’ve been governing using what he calls rule by repression instead of popular consent. We have to give China credit. They’ve lifted hundreds of millions of people up out of poverty and turned them into a new middle class. 

The trouble is that now the ruling party is terrified of the open debate and freedom of association that goes along with this kind of prosperity everywhere else. The Communist Party doesn’t think it can stand up to the close scrutiny that an open, middle-class society would bring to Chinese politics. 

Lately, Chinese authorities have claimed they have a right to govern based on the “economic miracle” they’ve been able to pull off. The trouble with that is that Xi and his comrades have painted themselves into a corner.


China’s fantastic growth is slowing down these days. Many people question whether China’s industry can keep going without free speech to let people can have a say in planning the economy. They also think China needs to allow more free enterprise in the marketplace.

This has led Xi to crack down on human rights in ways we haven’t seen since the days of Chairman Mao. They’ve gotten rid of community groups as well as the free press. For example, back in July, a Chinese court sentenced human rights defender and journalist Huang Qi to 12 years in prison on trumped-up charges of sharing state secrets.

The Chinese government doesn’t tolerate any criticism on social media. They call that subversion of state power. All anyone says about politics in an online chatroom in China is that the dear leaders are doing a wonderful job for the people.


China persecutes its ethnic minorities, especially its religious groups. The freedoms they promised to Hong Kong after Britain gave it back to them are being chipped away.

Hong Kong is starting to lose its status as an autonomous region. That’s what’s causing all the protests we see there on the nightly news.

China’s a world leader in information technology. There’s a dark side to that. We’ve told readers about the horrific oppression in Xinjiang province in previous stories. That crackdown is fed by high tech electronic surveillance.


Let’s be honest. There’s a separatist movement in Xinjiang and some of its members have caused some small, violent incidents. Having said that, the surveillance system the Chinese government set up as a counter-terror reaction goes way beyond what’s called for.

Public security authorities have forced more than a million Muslims, mainly Uyghurs, into concentration camps. Nothing on this scale happens in any other country. 

At the same time, China has sent more than a million bureaucrats to Xinjiang. They go into people’s homes with no invitation and start judging each household’s party loyalty.


They’ve got video cameras everywhere, and they’re all linked to the latest facial-recognition apps. Reports flow in from government agents using their state of the art smartphones. There’s a digital checkpoint every few miles, screening and collecting data on motorists.

All of this information works its way into a gigantic central database, where the government’s advanced data analytics spit out who needs “re-education” in their vast web of camps.

Any other country like this would be called a rogue state. They’d slap trade sanctions on them and we’d be hearing condemnations from governments all over the place. That doesn’t happen to China.


China’s economy is just about the same size as the United States now. That makes them immune to criticism. Even Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got caught praising China because its “Basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime.” Lots of world leaders can’t hide the fact that they’d love to be able to run their own countries with China’s ruthlessness.

Countries in the European Union take a wide range of stances on human rights in China. Some of them, like Germany, Sweden and the UK have come out swinging against the way China thumbs its nose at democracy and the rule of law. Others, like Greece, Hungary and Italy practically condone China’s moves to stamp out human rights.

It goes further. China grooms some of the world’s poorer countries to be cheerleaders and help cover up its abuses. A lot of this stems from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which gives foreign aid to developing countries but then demands diplomatic support from them in return.


China gets a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. That means it can veto any resolutions it doesn’t like. China uses that veto to stop human rights norms from being enforced all the time. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s Syria, Myanmar, Yemen or Venezuela. The Chinese government turns a blind eye to human rights abuses wherever you look. The reason? China doesn’t want to have to live up to the same standards.

Roth’s essay covers a lot more ground than this. He closes with, “Unless we want to return to an era in which people are pawns to be manipulated or discarded according to the whims of their overlords, the Chinese government’s attack on the international human rights system must be resisted. “


Every year, the HRW World Report brings us news about how we’re doing in our journey toward universal human rights. It’s always a mixed bag with two steps forward and one step back. Having said that, this year’s different. The 2020 report gives the world a chance to find out about the deplorable actions of China both inside and outside its own borders.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Human Rights Watch
HRW World Report 2020
China’s Forgotten People: Xinjiang, Terror and the Chinese State
Human Rights Call to Action From UN Chief
Canada’s Genocide
China’s Secret Muslim Persecution
China Cables: Secret Muslim Persecution Exposed
Myanmar Genocide Facing World Court


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