Covering events from January - December 2003
Despite a few positive steps, no attempt was made to
introduce the fundamental legal and institutional reforms necessary
to bring an end to serious human rights violations. Tens of
thousands of people continued to be detained or imprisoned in
violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association,
and were at serious risk of torture or ill-treatment. Thousands of
people were sentenced to death or executed. Restrictions increased
on the cultural and religious rights of the mainly Muslim Uighur
community in Xinjiang, where thousands of people have been detained
or imprisoned for so-called "separatist" or "terrorist" offences.
In Tibet and other ethnic Tibetan areas, freedom of expression and
religion continued to be severely restricted. China continued to
use the international "war against terrorism" as a pretext for
cracking down on peaceful dissent.
A new administration headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen
Jiabao took office in March and introduced a few positive reforms,
including the abolition of the "custody and repatriation" system of
administrative detention (see below). However, no significant
attempt was made to address underlying legal and institutional
weaknesses that allow human rights violations to be perpetrated
The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in
February became the first major test for the new leadership. After
months of attempting to conceal vital information about the spread
of the disease, the authorities eventually began to respond to
international pressure for greater accountability and transparency.
The World Health Organization announced that the outbreak was under
control in June.
In July, a senior Chinese leader, Luo Gan, called for a
continuation of the "strike hard" campaign against crime, which led
to a rapid rise in the number of death sentences and executions
after its initiation in April 2001, raising fears that this would
continue to result in curtailed trial procedures, the use of
torture and ill-treatment to obtain "confessions" and imposition of
the death penalty without due process.
In August delegates to the Ninth National Women's Congress
reportedly discussed a survey that showed that domestic violence
had occurred in a third of all Chinese families. Increased media
reporting on this issue appeared to indicate a growing willingness
to tackle this entrenched and widespread abuse.
China strengthened its ties with neighbouring countries, including
Central Asian countries under the auspices of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization, as well as India, Nepal and Pakistan. One
motive appeared to be the forcible return of Chinese nationals,
particularly Uighur asylum-seekers and refugees branded as
"separatists" or "terrorists" by the Chinese authorities.
There were concerns that the international community was taking a
"softer" line on China by confining its human rights concerns to
private dialogue sessions rather than public scrutiny. These were
borne out when for the second year running the UN Commission on
Human Rights failed to propose a motion criticizing China's human
rights record. Nevertheless, the UN Special Rapporteur on education
delivered a highly critical assessment of China's education
policies following her visit to Beijing in September.
Violations in the context of economic reform
The authorities took an increasingly hard line against people
protesting against house demolitions and evictions, particularly in
large cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, where demolitions of old
homes were accelerated by Beijing's preparations for hosting the
Olympics in 2008. Scores of peaceful protesters were detained and
lawyers assisting in such cases were at risk of arrest or
The rights of freedom of expression and association of workers'
representatives continued to be severely curtailed and independent
trade unions remained illegal. Many of those involved in protests
against mass lay-offs, low wages, corrupt management and other
issues were detained or imprisoned.
In October, Zheng Enchong, a defence lawyer in Shanghai, was
sentenced to three years in prison after he had assisted hundreds
of displaced families to contest their evictions through the
courts. He was convicted of the vaguely defined offence of
"illegally providing state secrets to entities outside China"
following a prosecution which appeared to be politically
In May workers' representatives Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang were
sentenced to seven and four years in prison respectively after
participating in protests in Liaoyang in northeast China where
state-owned companies had laid off millions of men and women. They
were transferred in October to Lingyuan Prison, notorious for its
poor conditions and brutal regime, despite concerns that they were
suffering from serious health problems.
Violations in the context of the spread of
Increasing openness on health issues after the outbreak of SARS
appeared to result in greater official concern for those affected
by HIV/AIDS, but the authorities failed to meet demands for full
transparency and accountability in the context of the spread of the
virus. Official figures of 840,000 people infected with HIV and
80,000 AIDS patients were considered to be serious
The authorities continued to resist calls from non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) and others to conduct an independent inquiry
into the operation of state-sanctioned blood collection stations in
Henan and other central provinces which reportedly resulted in up
to one million HIV infections. Vaguely defined "state secrets"
legislation continued to be used to detain those suspected of
publicizing statistics about the spread of the disease. Medical
specialists and others who attempted to raise public awareness of
the issue were arrested or intimidated.
People living with HIV/AIDS continued to suffer because of a lack
of specialized medical treatment and some were detained and beaten
after participating in protests relating to lack of access to
In September Gao Yaojie, a gynaecologist in her seventies, was
tried for libel in connection with her accusation that untrained
Henan "folk doctors" had made false claims about their AIDS
remedies to make huge profits. She was aquitted in November. There
were serious concerns that the case had been brought for political
reasons to disrupt her work. Gao Yaojie had reportedly been placed
under surveillance by local police and warned against speaking to
journalists since she began to draw attention to the spread of
HIV/AIDS in Henan in the mid-1990s.
Repression of spiritual and religious groups
Members of unofficial spiritual or religious groups, including some
Qi Gong groups and unregistered Christian groups,
continued to be arbitrarily detained, tortured and
Rhetoric intensified in the official media against the Falun
Gong spiritual movement, which was banned as a "heretical
organization" in July 1999, apparently exacerbating the climate of
violence and intolerance against the Falun Gong. Detained
Falun Gong practitioners, including large numbers of
women, were at risk of torture, including sexual abuse,
particularly if they refused to renounce their beliefs. According
to overseas Falun Gong sources, more than 800 people
detained in connection with the Falun Gong had died since
1999, mostly as a result of torture or ill-treatment.
Deng Shiying reportedly died on 19 July, the day after her
release from Jilin Women's Prison in Changchun City, Jilin
Province, where she was serving a seven-year prison sentence in
connection with producing and distributing information describing
human rights violations against Falun Gong practitioners
in China. According to Falun Gong sources, she was beaten
by other inmates, apparently prompted by prison officials, shortly
before her release.
Political activists and Internet users
Political activists and Internet users continued to be arrested
after peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression
and association. Many were imprisoned after unfair trials, often on
vaguely defined charges relating to "state secrets" or
"subversion". One dissident, Wang Bingzhang, was sentenced to life
imprisonment on "terrorist" charges (see below).
By the end of the year, at least 50 people had been detained or
imprisoned after accessing or circulating politically sensitive
information on the Internet. Sentences ranged from two to 12 years.
Over 100 others were detained for "spreading rumours" or "false
information" by Internet and text message about the outbreak of
SARS in March. It was unclear how many were still detained at the
end of the year.
In May, Huang Qi, a computer engineer from Sichuan province, was
sentenced to five years' imprisonment for "inciting subversion of
the state" after he published articles on his website about human
rights and political issues. Huang Qi had been detained without
access to his family for almost three years before his sentence was
announced. His sentence was upheld on appeal in August. In
November, Liu Di, a psychology student from Beijing, who had
appealed for the release of Huang Qi in an Internet chatroom under
the pseudonym "Stainless Steel Mouse", was released on bail after
being detained for over a year. In December it was announced that
she would not face formal indictment.
Torture, administrative detention and unfair
Torture and ill-treatment remained widespread in many state
institutions. Common methods included kicking, beating, electric
shocks, suspension by the arms, shackling in painful positions, and
sleep and food deprivation. Women in detention were vulnerable to
rape and sexual abuse.
"Custody and repatriation", a system of administrative detention
which had allowed for the arbitrary detention and abuse of millions
of migrant workers, vagrants, homeless children and others in urban
areas, was formally abolished when new rules for dealing with
vagrancy came into effect in August. Its abolition was prompted by
a public outcry about the brutal murder of migrant worker Sun
Zhigang in March while he was being held unlawfully in a "custody
and repatriation" centre in Guangzhou city.
However, another system, "re-education through labour", continued
to allow for the detention of hundreds of thousands of people for
up to three years without charge or trial. In September the
Ministry of Public Security announced new regulations aimed at
preventing the police from using torture in administrative cases,
but it remained unclear how well they would be enforced in
People accused of both political and criminal offences continued to
be denied due process. Detainees' access to lawyers and family
members continued to be severely restricted. Political trials fell
far short of international fair trial standards. Those charged with
offences related to "state secrets" or "terrorism" had their legal
rights restricted and were tried in camera.
In February US-based dissident Wang Bingzhang became the first
democracy activist known to have been convicted of "terrorist"
offences. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with
various charges, including passing military secrets to Taiwan and
leading a "terrorist" group. There were serious violations of
Chinese and international law during his trial and pre-trial
detention. In May the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled
that his arrest and detention were arbitrary and called on the
authorities to remedy the situation.
The death penalty continued to be used extensively and arbitrarily
as a result of political interference. People were executed for
non-violent crimes such as tax fraud and pimping as well as drug
offences and violent crimes. The authorities continued to keep
national statistics on death sentences and executions secret. By
the end of the year, with the limited records available, AI had
recorded 1,639 death sentences and 726 executions, although the
true figures were believed to be much higher.
Execution was by shooting and increasingly by lethal injection. In
March it was reported that the authorities in Yunnan province had
purchased 18 mobile execution chambers for execution by lethal
injection to improve the "efficiency" and "cost-effectiveness" of
Judicial interpretations issued by the Supreme Court in May and
September respectively extended the potential application of the
death penalty to people suffering from SARS who deliberately spread
the disease, and to those involved in the illegal production, trade
and storage of defined quantities of toxic chemicals.
In January Lobsang Dhondup, a Tibetan from Sichuan province, was
executed after being convicted after an unfair trial of "causing
explosions" and other offences. The authorities stated that his
trial was held in secret because it involved "state secrets"
without providing further clarification. He was executed hours
after his sentence was passed, without his case being referred to
the Supreme Court for review as required under Chinese law, and
despite official assurances to the USA and the EU that his case
would receive a "lengthy" review.
North Korean asylum-seekers
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of North Korean asylum-seekers in
northeast China were arrested and forcibly returned during the
year. China continued to deny North Koreans access to any refugee
determination procedures despite evidence that many had a genuine
claim to asylum and in breach of the UN Refugee Convention to which
China is a state party. Reports suggested that the majority of
those crossing the border were women who were at risk of being sold
as brides or forced into prostitution. In August China reportedly
increased its military presence along the border in an apparent
attempt to curb the flow of North Koreans into China.
The crack-down extended to people suspected of helping North
Koreans, including members of foreign aid and religious
organizations, ethnic Korean Chinese nationals, and journalists
attempting to raise awareness of their plight, many of whom were
detained for interrogation.
In May, Seok Jae-hyun, a South Korean journalist, was sentenced
to two years in prison for "trafficking in human beings" after he
photographed a group of refugees boarding boats bound for South
Korea and Japan. It was not known what became of the several dozen
North Koreans boarding the boats who were detained at the same
Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region
The authorities continued to use the international "war against
terrorism" to justify harsh repression in Xinjiang, which continued
to result in serious human rights violations against the ethnic
Uighur community. The authorities continued to make little
distinction between acts of violence and acts of passive
resistance. Repression was often manifested through assaults on
Uighur culture, such as the closure of several mosques,
restrictions on the use of the Uighur language and the banning of
certain Uighur books and journals.
The crack-down against suspected "separatists, terrorists and
religious extremists" intensified following the start of a renewed
100-day security crack-down in October. Arrests continued and
thousands of political prisoners, including prisoners of
conscience, remained in prison. Concerns increased that China was
putting pressure on neighbouring countries to forcibly return
Uighurs suspected of "separatist" activities, including
asylum-seekers and refugees.
Officials confirmed in October that Shaheer Ali, who had been
forcibly returned to China from Nepal in 2002, had been executed
after being found guilty of "terrorist" offences in a closed trial.
He had been recognized as a refugee by the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees in Nepal. Shaheer Ali had secretly left behind a detailed
testimony in which he described being beaten, given electric shocks
and kicked unconscious during a previous period of detention in
Tibet Autonomous Region and other ethnic Tibetan
A series of releases of high-profile Tibetan prisoners of
conscience during 2002 was not maintained in 2003, and freedom of
religion, association and expression continued to be severely
restricted. Contacts between the Chinese authorities and
representatives of the Tibetan government in exile apparently
failed to result in any significant policy changes. Over 100
Tibetans, mainly Buddhist monks and nuns, continued to be
imprisoned in violation of their fundamental human rights, and
arbitrary arrests and unfair trials continued.
Choedar Dargye, Gedun Thogphel and Jampa Choephel, three monks
from Khangmar monastery, Ngaba prefecture, Sichuan province, were
tried in August. They had been arrested for distributing material
calling for independence for Tibet, painting a Tibetan flag and
possessing photographs of the Dalai Lama. They were sentenced to 12
years in prison. Three others were arrested in connection with the
same case. Some sources indicated that they had been sentenced to
between one and eight years in prison. One of the three, Jamyang
Oezer, was reported to be seriously ill in hospital.
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
In the wake of protests involving half a million people in July,
the Hong Kong authorities eventually withdrew proposed legislation
under Article 23 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that Hong Kong
is to enact its own laws to prohibit acts of treason, secession,
sedition and subversion. There were serious concerns that such
legislation could be used to suppress rights to freedom of
expression and association as well as legitimate activities of NGOs
and the media. The authorities promised further public consultation
on revised proposals, but made no commitment on a timescale for
AI country visits
In December, an AI delegate attended an EU-China experts' seminar
in Venice, Italy, on judicial guarantees of human rights and
capacity-building of NGOs.