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China under Xi Jinping is a ‘dystopian digital surveillance state’: rights group

CCTV in Tianeman Sq. (Victoria Reay/WikiCommons)
February 13, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese president Xi Jinping is building a “dystopian digital surveillance state” to promote his brand of totalitarian rule, according to a recent report by a human rights group.

“Pushing for his vision of a dystopian digital surveillance state, Xi wielded his largely unfettered powers to suppress those aspiring for and promoting a vision of China with respect for universal human rights,” the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in its annual report.

It said 2019 saw enhanced government efforts to step up online censorship, blocking any content deemed “subversive” by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

“Authorities expanded the use of artificial intelligence, including facial recognition, DNA collection technologies and big data algorithms, to monitor and target critics and suppress ethnic Tibetans and Uyghurs,” the group said in a statement on its website.

CHRD said human rights defenders in China had tried to stand up to the increasingly powerful regime by reporting rights violations, criticizing abusive laws and policies, organizing protests, and fighting abuses of power in court.

“In retaliation, authorities subjected many defenders to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture, administrative penalties, collective punishment against their families, and targeted surveillance,” CHRD said.

Police issue warnings

The report came as Chinese police issued warnings to a group of activists who signed an open letter to the government calling for an official, public apology to late Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who was questioned by police for “rumor-mongering” after trying to alert the authorities to the coronavirus outbreak in its early stages.

Guangdong-based lawyer Liu Zhengqing, who signed the letter, said he had since received a visit from local officials.

“It was because I signed the letter on behalf of Dr. Li,” Liu said, but appeared to be under surveillance or threat, because he was reluctant to speak further. “They just warned me and told me not to sign anything like that in future.”

“It’s really inconvenient for me right now,” he said, in wording that activists sometimes use to indicate surveillance or fear of retaliation by the authorities.

The letter, penned by retired Sun Yat-sen University professor Ai Xiaoming, garnered hundreds of signatures. Li, who was accused of “rumor-mongering” along with seven other medical workers in Wuhan, later caught the COVID-19 virus himself and died.

RFA contacted a total of 13 people who signed it. Most appeared reluctant to pick up the phone. One said it was “inconvenient” to talk.

Beijing behind Hong Kong abuses

CHRD said Beijing had also been behind human rights abuses in Hong Kong during months of anti-extradition and pro-democracy protests in the city which drew strong criticism over police use of violence to suppress largely peaceful demonstrators.

“Calls for Hong Kong police to be held accountable for excessive use of force against protestors on June 12 and repeatedly afterwards were dismissed,” CHRD said.

Instead, Beijing had engaged in disinformation campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube against the Hong Kong protests, as well as seeking to influence the outcome of Taiwan’s general election, it said.

The group said it knew of 1,016 documented cases of people behind bars for expressing their views peacefully or defending the rights of others by the end of 2019, not including at least one million Uyghur and other ethnic groups who have been forced into internment camps for “re-education.”

“Many Tibetans are in jail or under strict monitoring,” it said.

It said those taken to police stations are now subjected to standard biometric data collection, including being fingerprinted, and having DNA and blood samples taken and biometric photographs taken.

Forced biometric data collection was routine at police check points in Xinjiang, the report said.

Extending influence abroad

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has been keen to exert influence in international agencies and far beyond its borders, the report said.

“At the United Nations, China has since 2017 pushed with unprecedented aggressiveness to replace universal human rights with its own alternative vision,” CHRD said.

“The human rights crisis in mainland China, its peripheral regions, and its threat to people in other countries … demands a serious international response,” it said, warning that Beijing has been exporting rights abuses along with its strings-attached loans and infrastructure projects under its “Belt and Road” program.

“The international community must face up to the urgency of guarding democracy, human rights, and rule of law against China’s aggressive campaign,” it said.

The report said that charges of “endangering state security” and “subversion” are typically used to jail people who stand up for their rights or those of others.

It cited the detentions on Dec. 26 of Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, Li Yingjun, and debarred lawyer Ding Jiaxi, as well as the convictions of rights website founder Liu Feiyue and Protestant pastor Wang Yi on such charges.

Forced disappearances

Detainees accused of crimes relating to “national security” are routinely denied access to lawyers, and are held under “residential surveillance” at an unknown location for six months, during which time they are at risk of torture and other abuses.

U.N. human rights experts have called on Beijing to end the practice, which they say is “tantamount to enforced disappearance.”

CHRD said it knew of 17 documented cases of individuals disappeared under the “residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL)” system at the close of 2019.

“Guangzhou police disappeared journalist and feminist activist Sophia Huang into RSDL for three months after she wrote about the protests [in Hong Kong],” CHRD said.

It said police in Shenzhen had also placed three labor rights activists who edited the iLabour online publication into RSDL for reporting on migrant workers’ campaigns seeking compensation for pneumoconiosis.

“Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment remained rampant in China in 2019,” the report found, including the deprivation of medical treatment for nine gravely ill detainees or prisoners of conscience in detention centers, jails, or extrajudicial detention camps.

In July 2019, citizen journalist and NGO director Huang Qi, who has suffered from a terminal kidney disease, was sentenced to 12-years in prison, and was subsequently denied adequate medical care while in prison.

It added that several detained Uyghurs had reportedly died in Xinjiang’s extrajudicial detention facilities, while there were also reports of Tibetans dying following torture in prison.

Families, children punished

It said the authorities are increasingly using retaliation against the families and children of activists they wish to silence.

“Beijing police forced jailed rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s six-year-old son out of school four days after he started first grade,” the report said.

It cited the case of Pu Wenqing, the 87-year-old mother of Huang Qi, who was disappeared into police custody for weeks and has remained under round-the-clock surveillance after campaigning for her son.

In Xinjiang, some Uyghurs were detained in internment camps or punished simply because their overseas family members campaigned or spoke out about mass detention, or because their family members had travelled abroad or had been detained themselves in camps, the report said.

Police knocked on doors or summoned people who used virtual private networks (VPNs) to get onto overseas social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and forced them to delete their posts or accounts, CHRD said.

One Hui Muslim student was sent to an internment camp in Xinjiang for using a VPN, which police said was “terrorist software,” it said.

Virus warnings suppressed

Authorities in the central Chinese city of Wuhan “did not acknowledge the severity of the virus’ rapid spread through human-to-human transmission” in the early weeks of the coronavirus epidemic, the report said.

“Government censors deleted millions of posts online and issued strict guidelines to web censors after the February 2020 death of Dr. Li Wenliang, who had been punished for trying to send an early warning and died from the virus,” it said.

Meanwhile, some Chinese universities removed clauses on “freedom of thought” from their charters, and professors faced censorship, suspension, and investigation, or imprisonment for classroom speech or publications.

Police also detained at least two Chinese who returned to China for family visits over their social media comments posted while they were overseas, it said.

The group called on China to end the arbitrary detention of rights activists, abolish political crimes like “subversion,” close the Xinjiang camps, and end cultural genocide against Tibetans and Uyghurs.

It also said Beijing should “end censorship, dismantle the digital surveillance police state, including the Great Firewall.”