Yang Jianli is founder and president of Initiatives for China. A former Tiananmen Square activist, he was imprisoned in China from 2002 to 2007 for attempting to observe labor unrest.
On March 14, 2014, Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights activist, died in a Chinese military hospital after five and a half months in detention, with her body showing clear signs of brutal physical mistreatment. She had been arrested in September 2013 at the airport while trying to leave China to head to Geneva for a training session. That June, she had organized a sit-in outside the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, demanding that citizens be allowed to participate in preparing China’s human rights report to the United Nations.
Today, I am writing in her spirit, as a citizen of China to voice the concerns of the Chinese people — concerns that should be heard by the international community, especially the U.N., because Chinese people are so misrepresented by their unelected government at the U.N. and other international forums.
Today, many of the world’s leading democracies are afraid of China’s economic power. So they make little or no effort to bilaterally press China on human rights issues. But the U.N. provides opportunities for them to come together to confront China on its human rights record collectively with a lawful international right and without being accused of unilaterally “interfering with another nation’s internal affairs.”
Such an opportunity will come up on Oct. 28, when the U.N. General Assembly will vote to choose new members on its Human Rights Council.
Candidates for the U.N. Human Rights Council, according to General Assembly Resolution 60/251, are supposed to be countries that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” China’s track record at home, as well as its prior service on the council, has been abysmal and renders it indisputably unqualified for reelection to the council.
By any stretch of the imagination, no reasonable person could really believe that China’s inclusion in the Human Rights Council would cause it to “behave” — that is, to meet its obligations to respect and protect human rights — not only under the several international treaties it has signed, but also under its own Constitution. The death of Cao Shunli took place just four months after the General Assembly reelected China to the council, with 176 of 193 votes in November 2013. Even in the months leading to that election, China brazenly intensified its suppression of online freedom of speech and of the new citizen movement.
During its current three-year term as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, China has committed thousands of human rights violations. The peaceful Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was arrested and later sentenced to life in 2014; Tibetan spiritual leader Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died of torture in China’s prison in 2015; the number of Tibetan self-immolators has climbed from 122 to 145. The Xi Jinping regime has waged a crackdown on China’s civil society on a scale and ferocity unseen in two decades; more than 320 human rights lawyers and activists have been harassed, arrested or disappeared. That includes my friend Hu Shigen, a peaceful human rights defender who already had been detained twice for a total of 17 years in the past 27 years and was sentenced last August to seven and a half years in prison. China’s offensive against civil society intensified further with passage of a new law a little more than a month ago imposing security controls on foreign nongovernmental organizations.
During the past three years, China has continued its repressive policies against Christians, Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, Falun Gong practitioners and Hong Kong democrats. It continued not only to deny any wrongdoing in the Tiananmen massacre but also to repress any individuals and groups who have dared to expose the truth or to commemorate the victims. During those three years, China repeatedly defied the worldwide demand to release Chinese democracy pioneer Wang Bingzhang and continued to imprison Liu Xiaobo, remaining the only country detaining a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Coming on the heels of these notorious abuses, but with the U.N. council election obviously in mind, China’s State Council Information Office two weeks ago released the white paper “National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2016-2020),” China’s third such phony plan on the protection of human rights. The white paper repeated China’s old false promises.
We know that any candidate needs 97 votes at the U.N. General Assembly to be elected. If each of the 125 world’s democracies says no, China’s chance for readmission would be zero. The upcoming vote will test any democratic country’s commitment to human rights. I urge the United States to take the lead to form a collective action among all democracies purporting to strongly support universal principles of human rights.
In sum, no reasonable person could possibly find any excuse to either overlook China’s recent horrific human rights record or to trust one more time China’s promises to be good in the future. By any sensible standard, voting to put China on the council again would be like picking the fox to guard the henhouse — while he was still wiping the feathers off his mouth from his last meal. Democracies around the world should openly cast a no vote on China.