As in previous years, the period between Christmas and New Year saw human rights violations against religious communities, activists and lawyers in China. There were also several developments outside China which could impact the human rights situation in the country.
On Christmas Day, China Aid reported that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had banned all Christmas activities organised by Christians with the exceptions of attending government-sanctioned Three-self churches, and Christian gatherings among family members in their own homes. In the following days China Aid reported that groups of ‘Pro-Mao’ citizens had marched through the streets proclaiming anti-Christmas messages, and that some universities had prohibited students from celebrating Christmas and banned them from attending off-campus events.
China Aid and other sources also reported numerous raids on Christian meetings by the police over the Christmas period. On 24 December, Pray for Early Rain Facebook page reported that two members of Early Rain Church had been harassed and threatened by police, while others were facing threats of eviction owing to police pressure on landlords.
On Christmas Day, the family of Uyghur doctor Gulshan Abbas learned that she had been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for terrorism-related offenses in March 2019. Dr Abbas’ sister and daughter believe she is being punished because they called for her release after she disappeared, saying she was ‘a prisoner without a crime’, as well as speaking out about the human rights violations currently taking place in the Uyghur region.
As has been widely reported, over one million Uyghurs and members of other ethnic groups in the Uyghur Region have been arbitrarily detained in a network of so-called ‘political re-education’ camps. Recently, Uyghurs overseas have also expressed alarm about an extradition treaty between China and Turkey which, if adopted, puts Uyghurs fleeing persecution at risk of forcible return to China from Turkey.
On New Year’s Day, news emerged of the alleged suicide of the sister of Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. In a tweet, Gao’s wife Geng He said that Gao’s sister had become depressed and lost sleep, as she was worried about her brother’s suffering, and committed suicide in May 2020. Gao Zhisheng is a prominent lawyer and activist who has been detained and tortured numerous times for his peaceful defence of human rights and religious minorities. He disappeared in August 2017. His whereabouts are unknown but he is believed to be in some form of detention.
There were also reports of increasing pressure on certain religious communities in Hong Kong. A Reuters Special Report filed on 30 December detailed the arrest in May 2020 of two Catholic nuns who work at an ‘unofficial diplomatic mission’ in the city operated by the Vatican. According to the report, the two nuns were detained for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. The nuns are reportedly banned from returning to Hong Kong.
In a separate development, ten of the 12 Hong Kong activists arrested at sea as they tried to flee to Taiwan were sentenced to between seven months and three years in jail on 30 December. Two minors among those initially arrested were not charged, and have been returned to Hong Kong. Activists have condemned the sentences, highlighting the fact that the 12 had no access to their families or lawyers of their choosing prior to the trial.
In August 2020, CSW published a briefing on Hong Kong’s new national security law and its potential impact on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), warning that its broad provisions could have a ‘chilling effect’ on civil society and religion or belief communities. Catholics, Protestants and Falun Gong practitioners have all expressed concern about the future of FoRB in the city.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW is deeply saddened, if unsurprised, to learn that the Chinese Communist Party’s severe crackdown on human rights including freedom of religion or belief continued over the Christmas period. We resolutely condemn the authorities’ myriad efforts to restrict these fundamental rights, including by preventing and raiding church meetings, as well as the outrageous arbitrary sentencing of Dr Gulshan Abbas. We also condemn the forced disappearance of lawyer Gao Zhisheng and the devastating impact on his family. We stand in solidarity with activists, members of civil society, and religious adherents across China and internationally in calling on the international community to take swift and concrete action to hold the Chinese government to account for its actions, and in praying for an end to China’s ongoing human rights crisis.”
In a welcome development, on 27 December US President Donald Trump signed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act into law. The Bill was welcomed by Tibetan activists and organisations, as well as by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. International Campaign for Tibet had previously said that the Bill, which had bipartisan support, would “dramatically upgrade US support for Tibetans in key areas, including by sanctioning Chinese officials if they try to appoint the next Dalai Lama.”
Most recently, on 1 January, the China Human Rights Lawyers Group released a new year statement highlighting the suppression of free speech and press freedom and its impact on the spread of the COVID 19 pandemic. The statement praises citizen-journalists like Zhang Zhan, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua for their efforts to report on the virus, and condemns the authorities’ suppression of these individuals. The Group also describes the worsening ‘digital totalitarianism’, increasing violations against human rights lawyers, and ongoing human rights abuses against ethnic minorities and in Hong Kong.
The statement concludes with a rallying cry: “Then, let’s raise our eyes upward, look up to the stars while planting our feet on the ground. On the first day of 2021, let’s shout out from the heart: we will never be walking corpses. We will continue to concern ourselves with all the sufferings and injustices, until the day that constitutionalism, rule of law, human rights and democracy come to China.”