China | 19th Party Congress: ‘New era’ means more insecurity for human rights defenders


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On the opening day of the 19th Party Congress, the 3-hour speech of Xi Jinping sent a strong signal: the current trend of ‘rule of law’ in order to ensure national security will continue until 2022. As a result, the development of human rights work and the protection of human rights defenders will continue to face enormous pressure and challenges, both in mainland China and overseas.


Just a few weeks ago, the Chinese Communist Party concluded its 19th Party Congress (PC), which is considered to be one of the most crucial events in China. On its opening day, President and Party Chairman Xi Jinping delivered a three-and-a-half hour – 30’000 characters – speech, outlining for the international community China’s past successes and future priorities in the areas of politics, economics and society. In his first five years of presidency, Xi used a dual strategy to secure his unequivocal power from the top down, through his anti-corruption campaign, and from the bottom up, through his effort to stifle democracy and dissent.

Today, we can see the severe repression of human rights activists, the near-obsessive control of ideology, information and the internet, and the efforts to co-opt civil society as the natural result of that effort, which thinly disguise a touch of authoritarianism. Scratching beneath the surface of Xi’s speech, there is no reason to doubt that this downward spiral will continue for the next five years with dire consequences for human rights defenders.

‘Human rights’, the great absentee

In the 30’000 words of Xi’s speech, the term ‘human rights’ appears once. As we all know, human rights remain a sensitive issue in Chinese discourse. When describing the core elements of socialist values, Xi did refer to concepts such as democracy, freedom and the ‘rule of law’. However, once caveated by the standard ‘with Chinese characteristics’, or ‘socialist characteristics’, these terms take on a very different meaning. The ‘rule of law’, for instance, was used as a framework for governance not only of the country, but also of the government and for society (and presented, of course, as a fait accompli).

In other words, this phrase is better understood to mean the submission of the country, the government and the society to the ‘law’, that is to the will of the Chinese Communist Party. In recent years, the Chinese government has shown increasing enthusiasm for law-making, and continues to adopt laws and regulations that govern all aspects of people’s daily lives. In January 2017, the Chief Justice of the Supreme People’s Court, Zhou Qiang, publicly said that China should ‘resolutely resist’ Western concepts such as constitutional democracy, the separation of powers, and other wrongheaded influences, and instead promote active ‘ideology work’. From Zhou’s point of view, the struggle against criticism of Communist Party leadership and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ prevents China from falling into the trap of the faulty Western belief of ‘judicial independence’.

The fact that Zhou can publicly and shamelessly issue that kind of statement clearly demonstrates that the Chinese rule of law is another animal altogether from the accepted understanding. Rather than being underpinned by an independent judiciary, limited powers of the government, legal justice and protection for citizens, Xi Jinping’s version of the rule of law uses its ‘Chinese characteristics’ to excuse its inability – and unwillingness – to accept universal human rights.

Just as the PC was opening, five independent experts – who comprised the Working Group of Arbitrary Detention – sent a strong message to China when they expressed their concern about the handling of the cases of human rights activists and lawyers Hu Shigen, Zhou Shifeng and Xie Yang – all of whom were caught up in a targeted anti-activist campaign begun on 9 July 2015 known as the ‘709’ crackdown. The experts assessed that the ‘crimes’ they were prosecuted on (namely, their work to promote human rights) were unfounded and that they were trial and process irregularities. As a result, the Working Group called on the Chinese government to immediately release the three activists and to provide them with adequate compensation.

The response?

The Chinese government regularly disdains such criticism by the international community for violations of human rights and refuses to provide meaningful responses. In the more than two years since the 709 crackdown, the brutal repression of Chinese human rights defenders, including arbitrary detention and judicial harassment, has continued unabated and with far more serious consequences than previous efforts to stamp out rights activism. As a result, the voices of those willing to speak out are fewer and further between.

Freedom of information and freedom of expression

The struggle between citizens and the government over space for free expression online intensely continues. Strengthened internet controls are another tactic of the government to suppress civil society. As Xi announced in his speech, ‘strengthening the development of internet content and establishing a coherent internet governance system will lead to a new and improved internet space’. This goes hand in hand with ideological control – an area where the government has already had some wins.

In 2016, China adopted the Internet Security Law. Before the 19th Party Congress, the China Internet Information Office published a series of new regulations (Service and Management of Internet Group Information Act), which are supplemented by additional policies requiring real-name registration, shutting down VPN services, turning a blind eye to cyberattacks on social media services that have not opened themselves up to ‘supervision’ – i.e. WhatsApp, and increasing barriers to overcoming the Great Firewall. Therefore, the Chinese internet has become the world’s largest ‘local area network’ – shutting out and shutting down values such as the free flow of information and freedom of expression. To illustrate the latter, take the example of a case in a local court in Shandong. On 22 September, the court ruled that lawyer Zhu Shengwu had ‘published ideas that harmed national security’ on Weibo. As a sanction, they withdrew his license to practice law.

Ironically, while the PC was taking place, the official news centre convened two press conferences highlighting national pride in Chinese culture and its development since the last Party Congress. Moreover, at the end of the PC, ‘Xi Jinping’s thought’ was enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party constitution, strengthening the influence Xi wields over the Chinese ideology.

We can clearly see that on the one hand, there is an indiscriminate amount of support for free ideological and cultural production by the Party and officials; and on the other hand, there is strict controls over civic voices and an absolute refusal to accept opinions ‘influenced’ by Western values – in line with Zhou Qiang’s proclamation cited above.

It was only 30 years ago that China began its opening reforms, and since then all kinds of ideas and cultures have been deeply blended into peoples’ daily lives. The current emphasis on ideological control of cultural expression, online and off, has meant that the ‘new normal’ is the cause of significant tensions, which demonstrates that this new wave of official ideological discourse is on a crash course with the desire of citizens to have space to raise their voices.

Civil society and freedom of association

In his speech, Xi emphasised the usefulness of social organisations in the sense that they can help manage communities, and they can disseminate the decisions and the priorities of the Party. In order to achieve the kind of ideological development mentioned above, President Xi argues that the Party itself must develop, including by supporting the political capacity of social organisations with a view to maximise their ability to contribute to Party goals, whether in the area of discourse or human resources.

This concept is based on the premise that social organisations are the Party’s ‘servants’ or ‘partners’; that they will ‘walk with and listen to ’the Party, and that they will assume some of its stability maintenance role. Does this sound anything like the criteria for a true ‘civil society’? Hardly!

Instead, it means that cooperation with the Party and the government is a prerequisite for civil society organisations (CSOs) to register, and thus to exist as a legal entity. This in turn affects the ability of CSOs to operate – both the Charity Law and the Overseas NGO Management Law clearly limit the ability of domestic organisations to seek funds, and have shut out a whole range of partnerships which once existed between independent Chinese NGOs and international NGOs and foundations.

A large number of the most affected organisations work on issues considered as ‘sensitive’ by Chinese officials. In this way, by a kind of unnatural selection, the traces of an independent and active civil society are being gradually erased. Those organisations which are willing to have official status and to seek public or private funds must submit to the yoke of annual reviews by the government, resulting in the complete undermining of their independence.

When faced with this choice, many NGOs have abandoned all hope of independence and instead choose to survive by adopting the official Party line and by showing willingness to promote their political agenda.

The description of the role of organisations given by Xi Jinping in his speech is simply shorthand for the kind of officially-mandated, surveilled and controlled civil society that remains after continuous crackdowns by the government. The step-by-step approach to law-making and the ‘rule of law’ has trampled much of the fledgling civil society in the country, and in its place is a mutant strain of Party and GONGOs (government-organised non-governmental organisations) that over the next five years risk fundamentally redefining what ‘civil society’ means in China.

National security

As opposed to the one mention of human rights, Xi referred to ‘national security’ 55 separate times during his opening speech and it should come as no surprise that civil society has taken this to mean that they are facing a life-and-death situation. This implies that over the next five years, he will use all levers at his disposal to perfect the security apparatus until all of Chinese society is effectively under his control.

Xi Jinping differs from his predecessor, Hu Jintao. In effect, rather than prioritising an economic agenda, Xi has placed his political one at the centre. His concept of ‘national security’ encompasses any action that might lead to a loss of his authority. Whether we look at corruption, human rights defenders or freedom of expression, all can be considered as factors that are affecting national security.

The rigid discourse of national security also means that the flexibility that activists could sometimes use to negotiate or even merely interact with the authorities has nearly disappeared. Compounded with a willingness to use harsher techniques to suppress threatening ideas and individuals, the tension between the government and civic freedoms is close to the boiling point.

In handling problems of national security, Xi’s vision of the rule of law dovetails nicely. As of January 2017, the Anti-Espionage Law (2014), the National Security Law (2015) and the implementation of the Overseas NGO Management Law are only the most worrying of a suite of laws that use national security as a fig leaf for criminalisation of human rights defenders and their work. They also expand police authorities, creating an effective police state in many parts of the country. The consistent touting of confidence in his direction, in his discourse and in the system he has created is directly contradicted by the insecurities of a national security approach that silences all dissent. In other words, there is a contradiction between the Party’s propaganda and its actions.


The curtain has already lowered on the 19th Party Congress, leaving Xi Jinping without a doubt the herald of a ‘new era’ of socialism. The political and ideological trajectory of the country is set for the next five years, and perhaps even longer.

Under this ‘new authoritarian’ system, the divisions in the Chinese society will become more severe. No matter whether it is through the promotion of ideology, or the restrictions on ordinary citizen’s daily lives, it is unavoidable that there will be a struggle between the rights of the Party, and the ones of the people. As China’s role in the international community becomes more important, and as more of the domestic fetters on the Party are thrown off, its approach to criticism of its human rights is bound to be increasingly intolerant and dismissive.

President Xi will have achieved what Mao Zedong did not – a position as ‘responsible global leader’ grounded in the model of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Perhaps he has reason to be proud – he will also be the greatest threat that the human rights movement in China, and globally, has ever known.

Photo: Remko Tanis



  • Asia
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • NGOs
  • China