Sophie Richardson: Human Rights in China’s COVID Crisis

The CCP’s human rights record is already dubious, but the current COVID-19 crisis has both created new opportunities for draconian human rights abuses and increased the visibility of ongoing issues. Sophie Richardson, the China Director for the Human Rights Watch, recently gave a talk detailing the CCP’s pre- and post-COVID human rights record and raised questions regarding the uncertain future of human rights in China.

Despite the hope of liberal reforms before Xi Jinping’s rise, the CCP has moved decisively to restrict the rights of its citizens in the past decade. Before the pandemic, human rights issues in China have revolved around freedom of speech and attempts to silence activists. The Party has aggressively used house arrests, residential surveillance programs, and exit bans on lawyers, journalists, and whistleblowers to stamp out dissension. Meanwhile, human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang are occurring on “a scale and scope that warrants an international response,” according to Richardson. There, the Party has implemented extreme surveillance and infamous “reeducation camps” to punish dissident minorities in the name of national unity. The biggest obstacle to reform is the resistance by the CCP to intervention.

The Party has made efforts to change the norms of frameworks of human rights issues internationally. By using their geopolitical sway in institutions like the UN, the Party has blocked civil society groups from attaining international accreditation because they mention Taiwan in documents. The Party has also used its position on the UN Security Council to pigeonhole discussions of human rights issues; for example, blocking the discussion of Rohingya Muslims in New York and demanding discussion must take place in Geneva.

During the COVID crisis, human rights issues have centered on not only improper health-related surveillance and movement restrictions, but also around the Party blocking intervention and investigation. The CCP has enforced a policy of shirking responsibility for its role in the crisis. It has silenced or punished whistleblower doctors, scrubbed social media posts, and blocked WHO investigations into the origins of the virus. Propaganda organs have kicked into overdrive, praising the strong Party response to the pandemic. The Party has even gone so far as to send diplomats to the Wisconsin State Senate to ask for a resolution praising the CCP’s response.

The virus has drawn attention to human rights abuses in China and has created greater animus towards the CCP among nations, but there is still little international support for organizations like the Human Rights Watch. The pandemic's effects are far from clear, and Richardson raised some critical questions regarding its impact on human rights institutions. Is there hope for restrengthening international organizations and frameworks? Is there hope for China accepting international investigations and repercussions? Is there optimism for recognition of human rights violations in China and lending support to multilateral organizations who can deal with it? Only time will tell.

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