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China crackdown to come under scrutiny at UN rights review

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping

China's human rights record under President Xi Jinping will come under formal international scrutiny on Tuesday for the first time since he took power, with the main U.N. rights forum set to hear accusations that the government is expanding a crackdown on dissent.

The United Nations Human Rights Council, which reviews all U.N. members every four years, will give concerned countries a chance to challenge the administration of Xi, who some experts had thought would be less hard line than his predecessors.

(Read more: Chinese dissident Chen to join conservative US think tank)

Instead, critics say Xi has presided over a clampdown that has moved beyond the targeting of dissidents calling for political change. For example, authorities have detained at least 16 activists who have demanded officials publicly disclose their wealth as well as scores of people accused of online "rumor-mongering."

"Xi Jinping has definitely taken the country backwards on human rights," prominent rights lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters.

"Look at the number of people who are being locked up and the measures that are being taken to lock them up."

China will make a presentation at the start of the debate in Geneva, during which diplomats will speak. Non-governmental organisations are not allowed to address the council but can submit reports, often echoed in country statements.

(Watch now: Tiananmen Square: China's Open Wound)

The council has no binding powers. Its rotating membership of 47 states does not include China, although Beijing is expected to run for a spot in about a month. The hearing will be the second time China has been assessed under a process that began in 2008.

Diplomats are likely to raise questions over China's crackdown on dissent, the death penalty and the use of torture among other topics, said Maya Wang, an Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Of special concern, Wang said, is the arrest in August of prominent activist Xu Zhiyong, who had called for officials to reveal their wealth. Wang also cited the September disappearance of Cao Shunli, who had helped stage a sit-in this year outside the Foreign Ministry to press for the public to be allowed to contribute to a national human rights report.

China had sent a large delegation to Geneva to engage in dialogue with an "open and frank attitude", Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news conference on Monday.

"If there are some criticisms, some constructive criticisms, the Chinese government will listen with an open mind and accept them and will give them serious consideration," she said.

"As for malicious, deliberate criticisms, of course we will uphold our own path and our own correct judgments."

In 2009, China rejected calls from Western and some Latin American nations to end the death penalty but agreed to suggestions from Cuba that it take firm action against "self-styled human rights defenders working against the Chinese state and people".


Crackdown spreading

The ascendancy of Xi as Communist Party chief in a once-in-a-decade generational leadership transition last November gave many Chinese hope for political reform, spurring citizens to push officials to disclose their wealth in several movements throughout the country.

But the detention of activists making those calls is a strong indication the party will not tolerate any open challenge to its rule, even as it claims more transparency. The activists face trial on the charge of illegal assembly.

Hundreds of microbloggers, people who post short comments online, have also been detained since August in a campaign against "rumour-mongering", according to Chinese media and rights groups. Most have been released, but some are still being held on criminal charges.

(Read more: China arrests pro-human rights businessman)

On Sunday, Chinese police arrested Wang Gongquan, a well-known venture capitalist, Wang's lawyer, Chen Youxi, said on his microblog. Wang had helped lead a campaign for the release of another activist. Chen did not answer calls to his mobile phone.

"Before, officials used a selective form of suppression, which is to say, they mainly suppressed rights lawyers and dissidents," said Huang Qi, a veteran rights activist.

"But in the past few months what the government used to allow some people to say online - things that violated or exceeded the official view - has now been suppressed."

Li Fangping, a prominent rights lawyer, said China would likely win a seat on the council given its international influence.

"I don't believe that China is ready for that," Li said. "There are still a huge number of citizens for whom a lack of human rights is a growing problem."

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