China tightens its stranglehold on civil society space, targeting the ‘messengers of human rights’


The second year under Xi Jinping’s rule saw increased aggressive assaults on fundamental freedoms in China as the government targeted human rights defenders.

By Renee Xia, International Director of the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders

While China promoted the ‘Chinese dream’ on the world stage at the 28th session of the Human Rights Council, the government’s persecution of human rights defenders in 2014 was as severe as it has been since the mid-1990s.

2014, the second year under Xi Jinping’s rule, was even more draconian than the first. We saw Xi’s strongman campaign to purge the value of democracy and human rights, and implement restrictive policies against dissent, especially organised dissent.

The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ 2014 Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China, Silencing the Messenger, documents the Chinese Government’s aggressive assaults on fundamental freedoms as it tightens its stranglehold on the rapidly shrinking civil society space, targeting human rights defenders, ‘the messengers of human rights’.

We urge the Human Rights Council to investigate the Chinese Government’s systematic and gross violations of human rights under Xi Jinping’s rule.   

Silencing the Messenger identified alarming statistics, for example in 2014 there were as many cases of arbitrary detention of human rights defenders as in the previous two years combined. This figure includes more than 200 defenders who were detained over two successive crackdowns around ‘politically sensitive’ periods. There were also more human rights lawyers criminally detained in 2014 than in any year since the early 2000s, with the detention of at least nine human rights lawyers. This figure included lawyers representing detained human rights lawyers.

There was also a disturbing rise in criminal and administrative detention of human rights defenders, as well as reprisals suffered by activists accessing United Nations human rights instruments. A clear example of this was the arrest of nine women human rights defenders, five of which remain in criminal detention, on 6 and 7 March 2015 to prevent a planned anti-sexual harassment campaign for International Women’s Day.

The government’s attempts to obstruct civil society from requesting the Human Rights Council to enquire into the death of activist Cao Shunli in police custody, who was previously intercepted en route to Geneva to participate in the Universal Periodic Review of China – are another clear reminder of the stark reality faced by defenders and civil society. In addition to this, authorities prevented several activists from travelling to attend treaty body reviews in 2014 by intimidating or seizing their passports. Ironically, China’s effort to restrict the voice of human rights defenders also demonstrates the importance and impact of civil society engagement at the United Nations.

We hope that the severity of the treatment of human rights defenders in 2014 will awaken the international community to the reality facing human rights defenders in China.

Democratic states play an integral role in promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law in China. In this regard we urge states to publically condemn restrictions on, and push for proper investigation and accountability for, reprisals suffered by human rights defenders in China. The political cost of committing reprisals needs to increase if there is any chance of decreasing the intensity and incidence of reprisals in China.

Along with the escalation of assault on freedom of association and assembly, 2014 also saw the systematic deprivation of due process rights of detained human rights defenders, including lawyers being turned away, in some cases with violence, prolonged pre-trial detention and deprivation of medical treatment.

Intimidation and repression of ethnic minorities and religious freedom was also intensified with systematic oppression of Uyghurs and Tibetans under the guise of China’s ‘war against terror’. As well as more stringent state control over the media and more sophisticated surveillance on the internet, with tightened restrictions on online communications and the imprisonment of more journalists 2014 than in any other country.

In publishing ‘Silencing the Messenger’ we not only seek to highlight the extremely severe persecution and reprisals suffered by human rights defenders in China in 2014, but urge the Chinese government to:

  • release all human rights defenders deprived of liberty for exercising their fundamental rights;
  • protect citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association;
  • ensure legal protections for human rights lawyers and detainees;
  • end impunity for officials who torture or mistreat human rights defenders in detention;
  • ensure that civil society members can participate in United Nations human rights activities free of harassment and reprisals;
  • end suppression and discriminatory policies against ethnic minorities; and
  • ensure that all Chinese citizens can exercise freedom of religion.

If the Chinese Government does not respond adequately to these calls, we urge the international community to speak out about, and demand proper investigation and accountability for, reprisals suffered by human rights defenders in China.

Follow Renee Xia at @ReneeXiaCHRD and Chinese Human Rights Defenders at @CHRDnet

Photo: Flickr - Chris Heuer


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