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Spotlight on the UPR 17th Session: China – Crackdown on Freedom of Expression ahead of the UN UPR

Tuesday 15 October 2013 - 12:28pm

On 22 and 23 October 2013 the human rights records of China, Nigeria and Mexico will come under review for the second time under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the United Nations (UN). Last April, PEN International submitted reports on the freedom of expression situation of each of these countries. As the human rights reviews of these countries take place in Geneva, PEN International and our partners will be in the room to monitor the process and conduct advocacy to protect on freedom of expression online and offline with governments.

In the first of these instalments, we look at PEN’s UPR submission on China. With just two weeks to go to the UPR there have been reports of an increased crackdown on human rights activists including the disappearance of human rights activists Cao Shunli in Beijing Airport who was on her way to Geneva for a human rights training programme ahead of the Chinese UPR. Her whereabouts remain unknown and there are fears she is criminally detained. The last two months have also seen the increased repression of digital freedom online by the authorities.

Below is a summary of PEN’s China UPR submission with recommendations for the authorities. For further information on the situation of freedom of expression in China, please see the PEN Resolutions on China and Tibet and PEN’s 2013 China Report.

PEN International’s 2013 UPR submission on the right to freedom of expression in China.

Since the 2009 UPR, China has mostly failed to comply with recommendations it accepted including those to strengthen and enhance protections for the cultural expression rights of ethnic minorities.

1. Repressive laws threatening freedom of expression

China has not yet ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). While the Constitution recognises the freedom to engage in scientific research, literary and artistic creation and other cultural pursuits (Article 47), this is limited by what the States determines as ‘conducive to the interests of the people’. Similarly, the promotion of the development of literature and art (Article 22) is limited to those that ‘serve the people and socialism’.

• Immediately ratify the ICCPR;
• Review all laws affecting freedom of expression for compliance with the Constitution and international standards and repeal or amend those that fail to meet these standards;
• Amend Articles 22 and 47 of the Constitution that restrict protections for creative expression including art and literature.

2. Repression of Writers

The Chinese government has continued to jail writers, journalists, and bloggers for their writings, and the sentences it has imposed on them have remained consistently harsh. Authorities have also carried out a series of crackdowns aimed at silencing critical voices that have included not just arrests and prosecutions but also beatings, forced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions.

• Former Independent Chinese PEN Center President Liu Xiaobo was arrested in December 2008 and held incommunicado until June 2009 when he was charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” He was sentenced on 25 December 2009 to 11 years in prison, the verdict citing seven phrases he penned in six essays he published on the Internet and for Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights and an end to one-party rule in China.
• In addition to Liu Xiaobo, two other Independent Chinese PEN Center members are currently in prison: Yang Tongyan, arrested in 2005 and serving a 12-year sentence for “subversion of state power”; and Zhu Yufu, arrested in 2011 and serving a seven-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”
PEN is also following the cases of at least 30 other Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, and Mongolian writers currently in prison for their work.

• Immediately and unconditionally release all writers, journalists, and bloggers who are currently imprisoned or detained for the legitimate expression of their views and conduct full and fair investigations into the disappearances of such individuals;
• End all forms of surveillance and harassment of writers, journalists, and bloggers in China;
• Refrain from arresting writers, artists, political activists and human rights defenders for reasons connected to the legitimate expression of their views.

3. Internet Censorship

The Chinese authorities continue to carry out a comprehensive Internet censorship and surveillance regime. PEN is deeply concerned that this program violates the human rights of writers, journalists, and activists—and indeed all China’s citizens—to “seek, receive, and impart information through any media regardless of frontiers.”

• The Great Firewall, the government team dedicated to spotting and removing unacceptable material on the Internet, is the government’s main censorship tool. There are now reportedly between 20,000 and 50,000 employees of this “Internet police” working to “maintain stability” by flagging content and removing it from the public sphere, and monitoring who is posting material offensive to the government.
• Since 2004, authorities have also hired undercover, pro-party “commentators” to troll the Internet and sway public opinion by commenting positively on government stories or negatively on “sensitive” topics.

• End all forms of censorship and allow all citizens the right to seek, impart, and receive information through digital media.

4. Linguistic Rights

Of serious concern to PEN is the deterioration of linguistic rights for China’s minority groups in recent years, specifically in Tibet, Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu Provinces, and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities within a state “shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

• Protect the fundamental right of ethnic minorities and all who are living in so-called “sensitive regions” to full freedom of expression by supporting linguistic diversity and the right to education in their native tongue.