Do Human Rights Restrictions At Home Undermine China’s Role At the UN?

By , March 30, 2020

Guest Author, Sara L.M. Davis

By Sara L.M. Davis*
This post is co-published on Meg Davis Consulting

A few weeks ago – it feels like longer, given the COVID-19 crisis – I sat in a studio at the UN in Geneva with BBC journalist Imogen Foulkes, Sarah Brooks (ISHR) and Daniel Warner for a great chat about China at the United Nations. You can hear the conversation here .

Foulkes asked the panel: After years of marginalization, China is exercising growing influence at the UN, increasing its UN spending and heading five UN agencies. But what does China’s commitment to multilateralism mean in practice?

The panelists disagreed about some things, but we agreed overall that China still seems to be finding its way at the UN. In speaking with friends inside UN agencies and serving on governance boards, China’s presence at the UN appears hesitant; Chinese representatives are formal, careful with protocol, and reluctant to speak off the script without authorization from Beijing. This impedes their ability to cut deals, influence others and build relationships in the UN that are key to exercising power. Such hesitancy may link to China’s restrictive human rights climate at home.

In 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a series of major speeches in defense of global governance, such as this one at the World Economic Forum. In line with his report to the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi pledged that China would show greater leadership in world affairs, and spoke of a shared destiny for humanity. Since then, Chinese directors have taken the helm at four UN agencies, and a Chinese delegation also chairs the Programme Coordinating Board of UNAIDS.

Current Chinese Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun

However, in my experience working in global health, in contrast to some other countries – such as India, France, the US or UK, for example – there are still relatively few Chinese technical experts working in the international organizations, academic institutes, private foundations and think-tanks that develop and advise on UN policy. China is rich in experts on development, social science, health, environment, law and economics. The fact that few of them staff technical roles at global health institutions means those policies rarely draw on research or policy experience from the world’s largest country.

Similarly, while NGOs play an important role in the UN – they share policy expertise and real-life experience, advocate for women and marginalized groups, and work together across national borders to promote accountability – there are very few Chinese NGOs engaged in UN policy discussions in Geneva. They are not to be seen organizing or speaking on side events, signing onto international coalitions, or speaking up in media discussions – and the one I participated in was an unfortunate case in point. Foulkes said she made an effort to recruit a Chinese panelist (I also suggested a couple of names), but everyone politely declined. Our podcast discussion would have been enriched by a Chinese perspective – we might not have agreed about everything, but it would have been a richer conversation.

The end result of these absences is that no one is sure what China’s agenda is at the UN, and everyone is walking on eggshells: UN agencies are afraid to say the wrong thing and risk angering a famously thin-skinned government; WHO has lavished praise on China’s COVID19 response, in part because it needs to win China’s cooperation in the global response. Similarly, Chinese representatives and academics are probably also afraid of getting into trouble at home, and are sticking closely to the approved script, or choosing to stay silent.

China Mission to Geneva

China Mission to Geneva

The reticence of China’s representatives in Geneva is likely a reflection of the chilling effect created at home by sweeping attacks on human rights groups, civil society groups, public interest lawyers, civil society leaders, other critics, and even family members of those critics under Xi Jingping’s regime. Fear of making a misstep may actually inhibit the kind of warm, informal personal relationships, off-the-cuff media remarks, deal-making, and intel-swapping over dinners, at bars and around the coffee urn that are usually – in normal days, when we can speak from closer than six feet apart – the currency in a political town like Geneva.

Weak and restricted civil society at home also deprives Chinese authorities of a crucial stream of intelligence and insight that would only advance their multilateral strategy. Civil society activists from many other prominent countries, including global North and global South, are actively engaged in UN advisory groups, civil society forums, coalitions and workshops in Geneva. As a result, these activists develop personal relationships with technical experts and managers of international organizations, as well as with diplomats from other countries, and get insights into how those agencies work in practice and what everyone’s agendas are. Activists then use that intel to inform and advise their own governments, pushing for policies while creating a feedback loop. But Chinese civil society leaders aren’t in those coalitions and advisory groups, for the most part, because they are not allowed to come to Geneva to speak critically about their own countries’ policies, and hobknob freely with their peers, the way an activist from Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia or Latin America might do. Chinese activists who speak up in Geneva, like Cao Shunli (who tried to come to Geneva for a human rights meeting, and later died in detention) face the risk of serious repercussions.

Activist Cao Shunli

In other words, human rights restrictions at home are undermining the multilateralism China has promoted as a national policy. Leadership at the UN is not just about having the title at the head of international organizations: leadership is also exercised through academics, NGOs, lawyers and others who are part of the UN community, who feel confident and free to express their opinions, and make experience- and evidence-based policy recommendations. Until China has a strong and free civil society, the country may have a difficult time fulfilling its ambitions of global leadership.

*Sara L.M. Davis (known as Meg) is an anthropologist and human rights advocate. She is Special Advisor on Strategy and Partnerships at the Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre and teaches at the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH).  A former China researcher for Human Rights Watch and founding Executive director of Asia Catalyst, Davis is fluent in Mandarin.  Her forthcoming book, The Uncounted: Politics of Data in Global Health, is set to be published in June 2020

The Dangerous Historical Context of Trump’s ‘Chinese Virus’

By , March 27, 2020

Donna Chiu (front & center) at a housing rights protest

Donna Chiu has dedicated most of her life to fighting for vulnerable New Yorkers.  A petite, Chinese-American woman with a quick smile and contagious laugh, you would never think she would be able to take on some of New York City’s sleaziest landlords.  But within the dark, dingy halls of New York City’s housing courts, she transforms into a pit bull, aggressively fighting for her clients, low-income tenants, and holding landlords responsible for their illegal practices.

But Chiu has a new villain to fight – the anti-Asian sentiment that is on the rise in the United States as a result of Covid-19 and a President who seems to take sick pleasure in constantly referring to the pandemic as “the Chinese virus.”  Since Covid-19 has hit the shores of the United States, anti-bias crimes and incidents against Asian Americans have increased according to The World Journal, a Chinese language newspaper based in New York.  In fact, since March 18, when President Trump doubled down on his use of the term “Chinese virus,” The World Journal has published an article almost every single day on bias crimes and incidents against Asian Americans in New York City.  Perhaps even more telling are the wechat groups and Asian-American focused websites like Angry Asian Man that are awash in conversations about the increase in anti-Asian incidents and crimes.

“I have not been a target myself,” Chiu told me when I asked her about the impact of Trump’s constant reference to Covid-19 as the Chinese virus. But she was quick to tie Trump’s remarks to increasing xenophobia, explaining how it has changed her day-to-day life: “[It] has made me not go to certain places or enter certain stores because now I view it as a serious risk to my safety; I stay alert when I was still riding the train and try to avoid eye contact with strangers and walk swiftly – all ad hoc measure to avoid being a target.”

For Janelle Wong, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, blaming Chinese people for Covid-19 was no surprise.  When I asked Wong about her take on the increase of bias-related crimes against Asian Americans, she quickly put it in a historical perspective, going back to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, one of the United States’ most exclusionary laws.  “Part of the justification for the exclusion was the idea that the Chinese were vectors of disease” Wong told me, sharing a cartoon from the time period to prove her point.  In that cartoon – cover art for the May 1882 issue of the aptly-name magazine “The Wasp” – three skeleton-faced ghosts, one named malaria, one named smallpox and one named leprosy, ominously float over the city of San Francisco.  The source for these menacing zombies?  Chinatown as the cartoon makes clear in the lower right hand corner.  The message?  Exclusion of the Chinese is the only way to save the city.

“It’s long been a trope that is easily used . . . but it’s been a while since a national leader has drawn [upon it],” Wong went on.  “That is what is shocking.”

When questioned on his use of the term “Chinese virus,” Trump denies that it has any racial animus.  For Trump, simply because the virus comes from China, it should be called “the Chinese virus.”  He ignores the World Health Organization’s (WHO) repeated instructions to avoid using country names as the name of an infectious disease so as to prevent bias against groups of people.

Make no mistake, Covid-19 did come from China. And there are many aspects of the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak that put the world at greater peril.  It suppressed doctors from freely speaking about the virus which prevented the world from knowing earlier of the outbreak.  And, even though the Chinese government had to know that human-to-human transmission was occurring by the end of December, when almost every day it saw the number of Covid-19 patients double according to government data leaked to the South China Morning Post, it denied such transmission until January 20, 2020.

Prof. Janelle Wong

Would the Trump Administration have used that extra time to better prepare the country to fight Covid-19, say by preparing sufficient tests or ensuring that hospitals had sufficient protective gear to get them through a possible pandemic?  If current history is any guide, where we are all still anxiously awaiting widespread testing and our doctors and nurses are reusing face masks, likely not.

But still, Trump needs someone to blame for his gigantic missteps that are currently putting the lives of tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of Americans at risk.   For Wong, getting many Americans to follow the script of China bashing is easy. Which means, given our history, that Asian Americans will inevitably be targets.  Initially, Trump denied that his words would fuel anti-Asian crimes.  But on Monday night, after a plethora of Democratic politicians, civil rights groups and average Americans condemned Trump for using “Chinese virus,” Trump attempted to walk back some of his words, tweeting that Asian Americans are “amazing” people and that spreading the virus was not their fault.

But likely that tweet won’t be enough to put the racist genie back the bottle.  And, as Wong explained to me, this objectification yet again makes Asian Americans feel that they are forever the foreigner; that true belonging in the United States remains unattainable to non-whites, even those who may have achieved some modicum of economic success.  Those doubts were exactly what attorney Chiu was wrestling with when I talked to her.  “It doesn’t change a topic/issue that I’ve always struggled with  – which is what are Chinese-Americans place in America? Are we second class citizens just like the way we are treated?  And then with Covid-19. . . .I feel the climate is one where Chinese-Americans are not allowed to ‘feel bad’ for themselves because we are the cause of all this.”

Happy Year of the Metal Rat!

By , January 23, 2020

Are you ready for Year of the Rat?

For the Western world, a rat is not a good thing.  “Rat race,” “I smell a rat,” “pack rat,” “who gives a rat’s ***,” usually do not connote positive vibes. But in Asia, the rat is more respected.  For the rat isn’t just any animal on the lunar year zodiac, it’s the first of the 12-year cycle.  So on Saturday, when the world welcomes the Year of the Metal Rat, it will also be celebrating the start of a new lunar cycle!

It was the rat’s ingenuity and quick-thinking that caused it to be first among all twelve of the animals in the zodiac.  According to legend, the Jade Emperor called all the animals of the world together and announced that he was going to choose 12 to be part of the zodiac.  How would those 12 be chosen?  Through a race, and the order of the animals in the zodiac would be determined by the order in which they finished the race.  The rat, realizing it was one of the smallest animals, knew it didn’t stand a chance to be first let alone one of the 12.  So he asked his friend the ox if he could bum a ride on his back to get to the finish line.  The ox, being an honest, dependable soul and a good friend, agreed.  But just as the ox was about to cross the finish line first, the rat hopped off of his back and beat him to it, making the rat the first among the 12 animals.

With the rat year the first in the zodiac cycle, some feng shui experts say that 2020 will be a year of new beginnings, a perfect time to finish long-term projects and to make some money.  But some note a more ominous future.  Previous rat years have brought on wars and other calamities: 1840, a rat year, saw the start of the Opium Wars in China; and 1960, the start of the Vietnam War.  For those who remember the last rat year – 2008 – will also remember the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

What does the rat year mean for you?  All of that depends on how your sign interacts with the rat sign (to figure out your sign, click here).  For more details on what is in store for you, check out feng shui expert Theirry Chow’s predictions here.

But regardless of what 2020 may hold for you, the Lunar New Year – which lasts 15 days until the Lantern Festival on February 8 – is an important time to celebrate with cherished family and friends.  And to all our readers who celebrate the Lunar New Year, we wish you a healthy and prosperous Year of the Metal Rat!

Book Review – Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China

By , January 19, 2020

Freelance Journalist, Huang Xueqin

Huang Xueqin, a 30-something freelance journalist in the southern Chinese city of Guangdong, doesn’t look like a hardened criminal.  With a playful smile and wearing an Annie Hall-style hat, Huang seems like a friendly sort, with maybe a mischievous side.  But make no mistake, Huang is a fierce advocate for women’s rights, being one of the public figures behind China’s nascent #MeToo movement after coming out in 2017 about her own workplace sexual assault.  She’s written extensively on other women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted and, in 2018, conducted an online survey of female Chinese journalists finding that almost 85% had experienced sexual harassment on the job, with almost 60% of those remaining silent.

It was that activism that landed Huang in a Chinese detention center.  And on Friday, after holding her for three months under suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” a crime under China’s criminal law that has been used almost exclusively to silence peaceful critics of the Chinese government, Guangdong police finally freed Huang.  In a country where its founding leader once said that “women hold up half the sky,” it seems odd that a women’s rights activist would be considered a pariah, someone that the Chinese government has to deal with criminally.

But Leta Hong Fincher,[1] in her recent book, Title: Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, explains precisely why the Chinese leadership trembles at the idea of women calling for their rights. Identifying China’s current leadership as “patriarchal authoritarianism,” Fincher, in her well-researched and insightful book, shows that unlike other social movements in China, these feminist activists are not just seeking a more open society or looking to fulfill the promises of equality under Chinese law.  As Fincher shows, if you take this feminist movement to its logical conclusion, only by overturning the current political and cultural order can these women achieve equality in China.

Fincher comes to this damning, powerful conclusion largely through the stories of five feminist activists who were detained for 37 days in 2015 and became known as the Feminist Five.  This choice – to tell the history of China’s feminist movement and forecast where it is headed through these women’s personal narratives – is what makes this read an engaging page-turner.  Not surprisingly, Fincher was previously a  China-based journalist and she brings that reporter’s eye for detail and desire to understand the characters behind the story.  And this is necessary because what caused the Feminist Five to end up in detention – also on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” – seems completely ordinary, and defies logic that this would be something that would scare any government, let alone China’s: they were just going to give out leaflets and stickers on public buses calling for the end of groping and provide women with information on how to report such an incident.

But for the Chinese government, this was a serious offense and the women needed to be broken.  Through in-depth interviews, Fincher retells, for the first time, these Feminist Five’s harrowing experiences during 37 days of detention.  They were subjected to physical and psychological torture: the police took away the women’s glasses, making them unable to see; interrogation was constant to the point that one woman needed medical attention; intense light, only a few inches from their faces, shown brightly in their eyes; medications were denied; and each was told about the threats made against their parents or children.  These women talk about the emotional toll that these interrogations had on them, making each question whether it was worth it.  But in the end, each remains committed to the cause, finding strength in the support of other Chinese feminists and inspiration from women activists abroad.

While the Feminist Five, and other Chinese Feminists’ stories makes the book a lively read, Fincher doesn’t shy away from more academic arguments to further support her argument of the Chinese government’s “patriarchal authoritarianism.”  She examines societal institutions: the lack of any women in positions of power in government; the prevalence of domestic violence in China; the failure to enforce the Domestic Violence Law; the pressure on women to marry and the shaming of single women (this was the focus of Fincher’s ground-breaking book, Leftover Women); the lack of career options for most women; nationalist rhetoric filled with misogyny; and seeing women solely as reproductive vessels.

 

Chinese feminists march at NYC’s Women’s March

Betraying Big Brother is a necessary read to understand the role of women in Chinese society and why the feminist movement may be one of the few social movements to overcome the Chinese government’s persecution.  Make no mistake, Fincher is not a neutral observer; she admits as much in the Introduction stating that she is a convert to the cause and friends with many of the women she writes about.  But this doesn’t hinder her scholarship; she finds sufficient evidence to support her arguments.  Fincher believes that China’s feminist movement will achieve its goals: there is broad discontent among women in China that crosses class lines and the creativity of these activists give them the uncanny ability to constantly influence public opinion even in light of the government’s crackdown.  But while Betraying Big Brother is full of hope, Fincher is not naïve.  She knows that the Chinese government will not give up without a fight and that things are going to get a lot worse for these activists before they get better.  Huang Xueqin is a recent case in point.

Rating: ★★★★½

Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, by Leta Hong Fincher (Verso 2018), 205 pages

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[1] In the interest of full disclosure, Fincher is a colleague and friend .

When Journalism Is not Journalism: The Grayzone’s Faulty Analysis of What is Happening in Xinjiang

By , January 5, 2020

When I started seeing the Grayzone, a website that describes itself as “dedicated to original investigative journalism,” touted in various Chinese media reports (see here and here) for a study that allegedly debunked the estimate of one million Uighurs detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, I felt like I had to read it. But to call the Grayzone piece an analysis – or even objective journalism – would be a serious overstatement.  Instead, Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal, the authors of “China detaining millions of Uyghurs?  Serious problems with claims by US-backed NGO and far-right researcher ‘led by God’ against Beijing,” largely dedicate their piece to the character assassination of the two organizations/people who first estimated the one million figure: the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) and Adrian Zenz, a social scientist at the European School of Culture & Theology and now a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

By focusing almost exclusively on ad hominem attacks, Singh and Blumenthal conveniently ignore that subsequent data sources have confirmed a one million number as credible.  And most absurdly, after portraying the CHRD and Zenz’s admissions that their numbers are merely estimates as a fatal flaw, Singh and Blumenthal completely fail to acknowledge why we can only estimate the number detained.  The keeper of the exact numbers – the Chinese government – refuses to publish any numbers let alone permit international monitors to enter Xinjiang and conduct their own, independent, on-the-ground analysis.

Protest to free one million Uighurs, held in Geneva in 2018

But regardless of the uselessness of the Grayzone article, it is good to periodically question our assumptions and re-review where exactly the the one million number comes from.  About a year ago, Jessica Batke, a senior editor at Asia Society’s ChinaFile and a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of State, did just that, meticulously explaining why the one million estimate is likely not off the mark.  This post largely summarizes Batke’s piece in the context of the Grayzone article.

Singh and Blumethal begin their piece by questioning the CHRD study which was based upon interviews with eight ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang.  For Singh and Blumethal, drawing a conclusion of one million detained from just talking to eight people is preposterous.   But the two choose to ignore the reasons why CHRD extrapolated one million detainees from its eight interviews.  As Batke points out in her analysis, each of these eight Uighurs were from a different village in southern Xinjiang.  Each person gave their estimate of the number of people who have gone missing in their village.  Based upon that number, CHRD formulated a detention rate for each village which ranged between 8% and 20%.  From those rates, CHRD chose a rather conservative estimate of a 10% Uighur detention rate province-wide, or, given that there are approximately 10 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, a one million detention number.

A prison camp in Xinjiang

Certainly there are things to question on CHRD’s numbers: how did each of these eight people know the number of people missing? Are they interned or did they just move?  But Singh and Blumenthal do not ask these questions.  Instead, for them, the death knell for the reliability of the CHRD estimate is the fact that CHRD receives funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). But they never explain why this link matters or provide any evidence that this funding somehow undermines the reliability of CHRD’s estimate.

Similarly, Singh and Blumenthal’s review of Adrian Zenz’s study is more focused on his religious and political viewpoints, and his current source of funding, rather than on the data itself.  In the little attention the two give to Zenz’s data, they completely mischaracterize it.  Singh and Blumenthal state that Zenz’s one million estimate was based upon numbers reported by Istiqlal TV, a Uigher television station based in Turkey that often features interviews with suspected terrorists, which Singh and Blumethal believe reflect Istiqlal’s inherent unreliability.  But they conveniently leave out the fact that it was a Chinese public security official that leaked this data to Istiqlal TV, a fact later reported in Newsweek Japan.  Batke also noted this fact in her careful analysis of Zenz’s one million estimate, highlighting that the Chinese-leaked data listed around 892,000 individuals in 68 different counties in Xinjiang as detained.  However, as Zenz pointed out, the data was missing key population centers.  But instead of simply assuming that the same detention rate applies to the missing population centers, a method that would produce much more than one million detained, Zenz did a deep dive on the missing population centers, taking into account important difference, and according to Batke, comes up with a conservative – and plausible – estimate of one million detained.

Satellite images show the rapid construction of camps in Xinjiang

Batke also highlights corroborating evidence: the satellite images and Chinese government documents that also point to an equally large number of Uighurs being detained.  In October 2018, the BBC had experts review satellite images of the camps.  That group of experts concluded that 44 of the camps had a high or very high likelihood of being security facilities and a separate team architects determined that in examining one of these facilities, it could hold anywhere from 11,000 people, if each inmate has his or her own room, to 130,000 people, assuming these are dormitories.  Camp survivors have stated that they lived in cells with as many as 40 people.  Batke noted that if we took the higher number of people detained – which seems to be credible given survivors’ accounts – there would only need to be 10 similarly-sized camps to get to the one million mark.  Finally, as Batke points out, the Chinese government’s own documents – both its procurement documents and budget and spending reports –suggest that a very large number of people are being detained.

The one million estimate as the number of Uighurs detained is Xinjiang is not coming out of thin air.  Four different sources – CHRD, Zenz, satellite images, government documents – all come to the same conclusion.  Media outlets like ChinaFile and Quartz have also re-reviewed the data and found the one million estimate credible.  These outlets actively engage the data, unlike But Singh and Blumenthal whose focus is more character assassination.  Ultimately the only purpose that Singh and Blumenthal’s article serves is as a perfect example of the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.

A Christmas Story for Our Readers

By , December 23, 2019

Don’t forget to think of others this holiday season!

While this blog is almost exclusively about China, I hope that you will grant me one indulgence and permit me to publish an essay not about China.  This essay is about a Christmas Eve when I was a legal services attorney at Mobilization for Justice.  I feel very fortunate that I had the privilege to work with such selfless attorneys who gave daily so much of themselves to help those that society too often leaves behind.  This essay was picked up by the New York Daily News and you can read the slightly abridged version at their website here.  The unedited version is below. 

I hope that, in this season of giving, you think of your local legal services organizations. 

May all my readers have a very happy holiday and healthy New Year, and see you after January 1, with more hard-hitting China-related pieces!

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Lights of Encouragement

By Elizabeth M. Lynch; originally published in the New York Daily News
To protect attorney-client privilege, all names have been changed

It was three o’clock on Christmas eve day.  The normally bustling office of Mobilization for Justice (or MFJ as most people call it) was quiet with the 2 p.m. early closing.  The waiting room, ordinarily filled with clients desperate for a free lawyer, was empty.  The phones, usually ringing non-stop with the problems of the poor, did not utter a buzz.  Any client that did come to our office saw the signs the front desk staff had taped up – in English and Spanish – saying we would reopen on the 26th.   The few remaining people in the office were a couple of lawyers who needed the uninterrupted solitude  – a luxury rarely afforded a legal services attorney  – to catch up on work.

But as I sat in my office, hoping to leave by 4, I heard faint tapping on our waiting room window.  I ignored it, hoping that the person would see the signs hanging up in between the faded holiday decorations.  But the tapping persisted.  I stopped my work and, somewhat annoyed, walked to the front desk.  There, on the other side of the glass partition, was a petite woman, around 30 years old.  I could tell that she had dressed up for the visit, red lipstick freshly applied, hoping that presenting the best version of herself would garner the free help that so many New Yorkers seek when they come to MFJ.  As I slid the glass window open to tell her that we were closed, I saw in her trembling, small hand a marshal’s notice of eviction.

For low-income tenants in New York City, Christmas time is the one time of year that the system shows them any form of generosity; a sort of noblesse oblige given to today’s serfs.  During that time, most landlords cease eviction proceedings, most marshals offer a reprieve, and housing court essentially shuts down.  The eviction machine doesn’t roar back to life again until about a week after the New Year.  But this woman wasn’t so fortunate; her landlord evidently wasn’t participating in this unofficial Christmas amnesty.  As I looked up from the notice to the woman, the stain line of tears still evident, I could see in her frightened face the ruined Christmas that had befallen her.  The happiness of the lit Christmas tree in her apartment, the joy of seeing her kids open their presents, the warmth of being surrounded by her family for Christmas dinner, so easily snatched and exchanged for the weight of telling her family that they would soon be homeless.  My annoyance quickly dissipated, knowing the powerlessness this woman must have felt.

I am not a housing attorney I told her and, since our office was closed, I was not sure if anyone was around to help, I said.  I asked her to wait while I checked, taking her eviction notice with me.  But as I walked the quiet halls of MFJ, empty office followed empty office.  I began to get the sinking feeling that this woman would be getting advice from me, a consumer attorney who had only dabbled in housing court.  Finally, I saw the light from an office seeping out into the dark hallway.  I walked over to the lit office and there, finishing up his work for the day, was Jose, one of MFJ’s housing attorneys.  Jose looked up at me, “Hey, what’s up Liz?  You’re still here too?” he asked with a smile.  I dispensed with niceties and blurted out “There is a woman in the waiting room who received an eviction notice this morning.”  Jose’s smile vanished; a look of disbelief crossed his face. I handed him the eviction notice.  “But it’s Christmas,” Jose said more to himself than to me, “this shouldn’t be happening.”  After a long pause, Jose stopped his work, got up and walked down the dark hallway to the waiting room; I followed. He opened the door, letting the little bit of office light flood the dim waiting room.  He turned to Ms. Garcia and gently said “Ms. Garcia, let me see what we can do.”  A small smile passed over Ms. Garcia’s face as she walked into our office, likely hearing the first hopeful words of the day.  Jose didn’t leave before seven that Christmas Eve night.

Ms. Garcia became one of the 11,000 clients that MFJ’s attorneys serve annually in New York City, and because of MFJ, her eviction was successfully avoided.   But, in finding a free lawyer, Ms. Garcia was one of the lucky ones.  In 2017, 230,071 eviction proceedings were filed in New York City and in 2018, 100,186 debt collection cases – cases that often result in the garnishment of wages and can lead to a cascading effect in low-income families –  were filed.  New York City has made significant inroads in providing more free, civil legal services.  It’s Right To Counsel project – guaranteeing an attorney to certain tenants in housing court – is one such initiative.  But as of 2018, there were only approximately 1,531 legal services attorneys in New York City according to New York State’s IOLA Fund, 82 of which work for MFJ.  While    MFJ’s 11,000 clients a year seems impressive, it is only 3% of New York City’s total eviction and debt collection cases.  A drop in the bucket.

For Ms. Garcia though, Jose was likely more than just a lawyer.  By giving up his time that Christmas Eve to listen to her story, he gave her hope that maybe she had a chance at justice.  Winning the case isn’t always the most important part of a legal services attorney’s job; sometimes restoring a person’s faith in a system that all too often is stacked against the poor is just as significant.  Lights of encouragement my friend calls them.  But for too many of New York City’s most vulnerable – the poor, seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence  –  who are fighting for the basic necessities of life, those lights never shine.

 

 

 

Putting One’s Life on the Line: Criminal Liability for Xinjiang Documents Leak

By , November 26, 2019

A prison camp in Xinjiang

Last October, after denying the existence of internment camps in Xinjiang for over a year, the Chinese government finally admitted to their existence but claimed that they were nothing more than “vocational education and training centers.” Places where “students” – over one million of them and almost all Uighur and other Turkic Muslims – could rid themselves of Islamic extremism while simultaneously upgrading their job skills.  But camp survivors’ stories paint an entirely different, and much darker picture.  In story after story, former detainees talked about the prison-like conditions, of being held for months to years without access to the outside world, of physiological and physical abuse, and punishment solely for practicing their faith.  Women have consistently spoken of rape, forced sterilization and forced abortion.  Unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s refusal to allow outside monitors unfettered access to the camps, these survivors’ stories could not be corroborated.

Until now.  In the past two weeks, both The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) have published two different troves of confidential Chinese government documents (the “Xinjiang Papers” and the “China Cables,” respectively) that confirm the unlawfully detention of Uighurs in what are essentially prisons.  According to the Xinjiang Papers, any direct inquiry by relatives as to whether their detained family member has committed a crime, officials are to answer no but immediately follow it up with the assertion that the their family member still needs  “education” to rid themselves of “unhealthy thoughts,” likening Islam to a disease.

Inside a Xinjiang Camp – looking more like a prison than a job skills class

ICIJ’s China Cables provide even more detail into the everyday operations of the prison camps.  Detainees are kept in “double-locked” rooms at all times and are constantly watched, even in the bathroom. Preventing escapes is paramount and there must not be any “blind spots” in the video surveillance of the detainees.  Guards are trained in “combat exercises” to ensure their immediate response if “something happens.”  Detainees are forbidden from having cell phones and family visits are never in person; only periodic phone calls and occasional video chats are permitted. Detainees are forced to remain in the center for at least a year.  And while the government documents refer to the camps as “vocational skills training centers,” it is apparent from the guidance provided to the camp administrators that the focus is to Sinicize the Uighurs and stamp out their religion.  In fact it is only after a year of ideological indoctrination do some – not all – detainees continue on for a three to six month “skills improvement” training, a training that is more responsive to future employers’ needs than to the individual’s.

In no way did the Chinese government ever want these documents released.  And the people who leaked these documents to the New York Times and to ICIJ put their lives on the line to stop the mass atrocities in Xinjiang.  According to Margaret K. Lewis, a professor of Chinese law at Seton Hall University, at least some of these documents would be considered state secrets.  “What is a state secret is very vague, can be defined retroactively and doesn’t need to be stamped ‘state secret’ to be considered a state secret,” Lewis told me when I asked her about the leak of the Xinjiang documents. Under China’s Criminal Law (“CL”), leaking state secrets is a serious offense, carrying a sentence anywhere from 10 years to life where the circumstances are especially serious (CL, Art. 111), which one would think is present here.  A death sentence is possible if the leak causes particularly grave harm (CL, Art. 113).

“They could also be charged with subverting state power,” Lewis told me.  “It’s not just what the documents were but also why they were giving these to foreigners” Lewis continued.  Like state secrets, subverting state power (CL, Art. 105) can carry up to a life sentence and if the person colluded with foreigners in the subversion, arguably what the whistleblowers did here, then the law requires that the punishment be severe (CL, Art. 106).  But, unlike state secrets, subverting state power is not subject to the death penalty.  In pressing Lewis further on what she thought the whistleblowers would be charged with and what type of sentence they would get, Lewis was clear: “This is less of a legal question and more of a political one.”  To Lewis, it will come down to what is best for President Xi Jinping: is it better to make an example of the whistleblowers, or are the whistle blowers high enough officials that publicly identifying who they are could be an embarrassment to the Chinese government, and thus their prosecution may never be public.  Under Article 183 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law, state secrets trials are closed to the public.

“The one thing that is certain,” Lewis told me “is, if the whistleblowers are caught, they will experience long-term detention and suffering.” And their families. “You’re not just putting yourself at risk, but also your loved ones,” Lewis said. “Whoever this person is, I am grateful for the risks taken to bring the documents to light.”

Protest in Brussels Calling on the EU to Speak Up Against the Internment of Uighurs

These whistleblowers must have known the high costs associated with leaking the documents.  But still they determined that it was worth it; that the world must know precisely what is happening in the Xinjiang prison camps; that Uighurs are unnecessarily suffering at the hands of the Chinese government; and that it must be stopped.  But since the release of the China Cables on Sunday, only the United Kingdom and Germany have demanded that China provide unfettered access to United Nations human rights observers.  But where is everyone else?  Where is the United Nations’ response?  Will Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary General who has stayed mum for the last two years about China’s treatment of Uighurs, finally condemn China’s actions?  And while the United States issued a strong statement, it could do more. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act is just sitting in the House; the State Department has yet to call call for the UN to be given unfettered access to Xinjiang; and Treasury makes no mention of  Maginsky Act sanctions against some of the high-level officials named in the Xinjiang papers.  And what about Australia, Japan, Canada, or any of the Arab nations?  Finally, where is the International Olympic Committee?  Do we really want Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to be a replay of Nazi Germany’s 1936 Games?

I can only hope that in the next few days I can add more countries to this post as ones that spoke out. But more than anything, I hope that these countries and organizations unite to take action to stop the crimes against humanity currently occurring in Xinjiang.  Individuals in China have put their lives on the line.  It’s time the rest of the world follow suit and have the courage to act.

 

Why What We Are Seeing in Xinjiang Is Crimes Against Humanity

By , October 27, 2019

Uighur protester outside of China with a mask with the flag of East Turkestan and a Chinese flag covering her mouth

Last week, the Washington Post published my op-ed where I argued that what is being perpetrated against Uighur and other Turkic Muslim women – rapes, forced sterilization, forced abortion – are all crimes against humanity.  Since publishing that piece, many have asked why I decided to describe these acts as crimes against humanity?  Why am I not calling it genocide?  Or at least cultural genocide?

In the past few months, many have stated that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang are akin to cultural genocide.  The government’s widespread razing of mosques; its destruction of Muslim burial grounds; its prohibition against certain religious baby names; its mass internment of 1.5 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims for no crime other than being Muslim; all of these reflect a Chinese government intent on destroying the Uighur culture and “Sinicize” them, making it cultural genocide.  But cultural genocide is not a crime under international law and thus, brings with it no legal duty for the world to stop it nor any punishment for the perpetrators.  In fact, the drafters of the Genocide Convention intentionally rejected the concept.  Instead, genocide under the Convention is limited to the biological or physical destruction of the group coupled with an intent to destroy.  When I spoke with Deborah Mayersen, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy and an expert in the field of genocide studies, she was clear that she didn’t think that the situation in Xinjiang was genocide. “I do think there are warning signs, but at the moment [China] is not heading toward genocide” she told me.  “There would need to be some sort of disruption – an economic disruption perhaps that can be blamed on the Uighurs – for [China] to be on the trajectory toward genocide.”

“But we do have a fairly clear case of crimes against humanity” Mayersen emphasized.  Unlike genocide, crimes against humanity is not governed by a specific treaty.  Instead, it has developed through international customary law, with its use at Nuremberg, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda among other instances. Crimes against humanity include acts that attack the very soul of a people and its culture: murder, extermination, torture, arbitrary detention, forcible transfer of a population, rape, sexual violence, forced sterilizations, apartheid.  It might sounds a lot like genocide, but unlike genocide, these crimes do not require an intent to biologically destroy, an element we don’t yet have in Xinjiang.  Instead, acts that constitute crimes against humanity merely need to be part of a widespread or systemic attack directed at a group, with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her acts are part of this larger attack.

Because crimes against humanity is a legally recognized doctrine, it “brings with it the responsibility to protect” Mayersen told me, citing to a 2005 U.N. Resolution, signed by all 193 UN member states.  Under that Resolution, the international community is required to take quick and decisive action to protect the targeted group.

Protest in Brussels Calling on the EU to Speak Up Against the Internment of Uighurs

The unlawful internment of 1.5 million Uighurs and the removal of Uighur children from their families alone constitute crimes against humanity.  And rape and forced sterilization have been considered crimes against humanity for decades.  Sexual violence against women was a basis for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) for the Former Yugoslavia and of the ICT for Rwanda.  In 2013, the U.N. Human Rights Council, in its inquiry report on North Korea and after conducting a number of victim interviews, found sufficient evidence for a charge of crimes against humanity for the rape, forced abortions and sexual violence perpetrated against women.

Because there is more than sufficient evidence that what is happening in Xinjiang is crimes against humanity, activists, journalists and others must refer to it as such.  Only then is the world required to act.   To call it anything less gives the world a free pass and permits the Chinese government to continue to engage in its destruction of the Uighur people and their culture.

China’s Attacks on Uighur Women are Crimes Against Humanity

By , October 21, 2019

Originally posted in the Washington Post

Mihrigul Tursun (L), testifying at the CECC hearing

Sitting in a hearing room in Congress, in a gray plaid hijab, her dark blond hair poking out, Mihrigul Tursun begins to cry. She is there to share the plight of her fellow Uighurs in Xinjiang. Her translator reads aloud Tursun’s prepared statement about her three separate detentions by the Chinese government in Xinjiang’s internment camps. As the translator recounts Tursun’s first detention — upon her release, she learned that one of her 4-month-old triplets had died — Tursun struggles to hold back tears. Click here to read the entire op-ed

Crossroads: The PRC At 70

By , September 30, 2019
October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declares the founding of the PRC

October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declares the founding of the PRC

This October 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) and to all our friends in China, China Law & Policy wishes you a happy birthday!

On Tuesday Chinese flags will be everywhere, flying outside of most homes across the Mainland.  And make no mistake, flying these flags come from a place of pride for most Chinese.  Seventy years ago, Mao Zedong, standing atop the gate at Tiananmen in Beijing, didn’t just declare the founding of the People’s Republic of China.  He also declared the end to China’s “century of humiliation.”  Starting with the 1842 Treaty of Nanking between the British and the decaying Qing dynasty, China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties – treaties that gave up their land and sovereignty to foreign powers and that opened them to the ravages of the opium trade all to the economic benefit of these foreign powers.  In 1931, Japan did physically what the Western countries were essentially doing on paper: invade China, taking full control of the northeastern provinces in Manchuria and setting up a puppet government that solely served the Japanese.  This invasion would mark Japan’s start of a murderous march through the rest of China, eventually extending its control down to Hong Kong and brutally ruling China for more than a decade.

In the seventy years since the founding of the People’s Republic, and after multiple setbacks by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) – think the Great Leap Forward, Hundred Flowers Bloom, the Cultural Revolution – China has become a the second largest economy in the world, a global superpower with ability to influence other countries, and more than 850 Chinese people have lifted themselves out of poverty.

As National Day nears, protests in Hong Kong continue

As National Day nears, protests in Hong Kong continue

But this year’s celebration finds China at a crossroads, where the government is discovering that its influence – and the model that will celebrate on Tuesday – is not necessarily welcomed in other parts of the world let alone in its own backyard.  The Chinese government’s massive human rights violations in Xinjiang – with the unlawful internment of 1.5 million Muslim Uyghurs – has subjected it to fervent criticism from Western governments and Japan.  The semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong has been roiled with protests for the last four months, with most Hong Kongers rejecting Beijing’s model and increasing encroachment on their rights.  And Taiwan remains a thorn in Beijing’s side, with Beijing trying to further isolate Taiwan from the global community, only to further alienate the Taiwanese people from ever wanting reunification with the Mainland.   And even on the Mainland there continues to be demands for reform, even with the Chinese government’s constant assault on human rights lawyers and activists.

Tuesday morning, the CCP will put on a spectacular show – thousands of soldiers marching perfectly in unison; some of Beijing’s newest military toys will be shown off; and the Chinese people will be there, celebrating their spectacular rise.  But birthdays are more than just a chance to celebrate how far we have come; they are also a time to contemplate where we want to go.  And hopefully, for the Chinese people and for continued peace in this world, the CCP will take the time to think about who it wants to be .

Want to read more about China’s National Day?  Here are some new pieces/shows that have come out for National Day that are worth your time. 

Yangyang Chang, A Birthday Letter to the People’s Republic, ChinaFile (Sept. 28, 2019)

Jerome A. Cohen, Communist China’s Painful Human Rights Story, Council on Foreign Relations Blog (Sept. 26, 2019)

PBS Newshour, China: Power and Prosperity, PBS Newshour Series (Sept. 25 – Oct. 5, 2019)

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