Shedding Light on Human Rights in China

On February 19, 2019 the Penn Center for the Study of Contemporary China co-hosted a symposium with Penn’s Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS). Students, professors, and Philadelphia residents filled to Perry World House to hear about a pressing issue: the state of human rights in China today.

The panel, titled “Human Rights and Greater China”, covered a wide array of human rights topics in China. It featured Sophie Richardson, China Director from Human Rights Watch. She gave her insight on human rights policy and transmitted her local knowledge from China. The panel also featured three prominent lawyers, Jerome Cohen from NYU Law School, Michael Davis formerly from Hong Kong University, and Jacques deLisle from our very own CSCC and Penn Law. They all shed light on the statutory elements and violations of international human rights law in China. Bill Burke-White, Director of Perry World House, moderated the panel.

Starting with criminal justice issues, Jerome Cohen discussed Xi Jinping’s use of traditional Chinese ideology to execute his goals. Cohen mentioned how Xi uses the rhetoric of Legalism to convey the legitimacy of law. The principles of Legalism may prove more telling, however -- ancient Chinese Legalists used law as a tool of severe punishment.

Bill Burke-White then dove into the largest portion of the discussion: the nature of civil society in China. While civil society made remarkable progress in China after the “Reform and Opening Up”, it has regressed since Xi’s rise to power in 2013.

Sophie Richardson explained the specific ways in which Xi does not tolerate alternative organizing vehicles. Regarding feminism: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) locked up members of the “New Citizens Movement”, a group of women who held up signs on street corners calling for political officials to pay their taxes, and it arbitrarily detained feminists who raised awareness of sexual harassment on public transit. In terms of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the CCP also regulates foreign management law. Ms. Richardson noted that foreign NGOs must register with a government agency and must adhere to a set of strict regulations. While ostensibly given choice between a service provision track or an advocacy track, the NGOs know that they will face more government scrutiny if they follow the advocacy path. From her work, Richardson has seen how NGOs have been forced to conform to political agendas. She hopes that these groups will be able to survive and maintain contact with the outside world. In addition, private non-Chinese funders remain concerned that their support puts NGOs at risk. While some funders have tried to find other creative ways to invest, many have been forced to cut their funding.

After explaining the state of civil society in China right now, Sophie Richardson made a call to action. She told us that when we hear of, read about, or attend an international activist conference, we need to be asking ourselves: Are there activists from Mainland China here? Can these activists equally participate in these kinds of symposia? She then urged us to think how we can change the system if any of the answers to the questions above are “no.”

Turning to academia, the three legal scholars noted the increasing repression at universities and law schools in China and Hong Kong. As many already know, undergraduate and law school students and professors cannot engage in free discourse. Jerome Cohen shared anecdotes from his time in China. He explained that a famous constitutional law book has disappeared in China; that his legal colleagues fear CCP operatives in their classrooms; and that Ai Weiwei (famous contemporary artist and Chinese dissident) has been removed from a clip in the movie “Berlin, I Love You” in order to please the CCP. Michael Davis explained real stories from his time teaching at Hong Kong University. He explained that even in Hong Kong, the CCP keeps an eye on people who may cause “social unrest.” For example, the CCP arrested one his own female students who was part of the movement trying to educate men not to grope women on buses. According to Michael Cohen, this exhibited the CCP’s sophisticated surveillance, as the government arrested her in Shenzhen, fully knowing that she commuted from Shenzhen to Hong Kong for class. While these arrests are more overt, many in China are more covert. Jacques deLisle reminded us that “repression can be very subtle and still have a chilling effect.” He highlighted that the CCP often charges dissidents with “neutral” acts. For instance, the CCP, although threatened by Ai Weiwei’s public art on human rights abuses, actually nailed him for tax evasion. deLisle also shared a personal story. While many Chinese legal scholars conveyed to him that they supported human rights, none of them felt comfortable enough to co-author legal papers, out of fear.

Besides the issue of civil society, the guest speakers briefly touched on the topic of Hong Kong. They all agreed that, Hong Kong originally seemed ripe for democracy, with its respect for the rule of law, acknowledgement of human rights, and incorporation of a constitution. Michael Davis shared, however, that now “everything [in Hong Kong] is under threat.” He cited how South China Morning Post (SCMP), now owned by Alibaba, replaced its large Hong Kong section with a Mainland China section; how law professors face increasing pressure; and how certain people who support Hong Kong independence cannot run for political office.


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