China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In many instances few or no details were available. In an April 21 report, Amnesty International declared the country executed potentially thousands of individuals in 2020.
In Xinjiang there were reports of custodial deaths related to detentions in the internment camps. There were multiple reports from Uyghur family members who discovered their relatives had died while in internment camps or within weeks of their release. In January, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported the 82-year-old Uyghur poet Haji Mirzahid Kerimi died in prison while serving an 11-year sentence for writing books that were later blacklisted. According to RFA, Kerimi was arrested in 2017 as part of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) campaign to censor “dangerous” literature. RFA also reported Kurbanjan Abdukerim died in February shortly after his release from an internment camp. During the three years of his detainment, Abdukerim family reported he had lost more than 100 pounds and that the cause of his death was unknown.
Disappearances through multiple means continued at a nationwide, systemic scale.
The primary means by which authorities disappeared individuals for sustained periods of time is known as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL). RSDL codifies in law the longstanding practice of the detention and removal from the public eye of individuals the state deems a risk to national security or intends to use as hostages. The primary disappearance mechanism for public functionaries is known as liuzhi. Per numerous reports, individuals disappeared by RSDL and liuzhi were subject to numerous abuses including but not limited to physical and psychological abuse, humiliation, rape, torture, starvation, isolation, and forced confessions.
The government conducted mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim and ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alleged these detentions amounted to enforced disappearance, since families were often not provided information concerning the length or location of the detention.
Amnesty International reported in April that Ekpar Asat, also known as Aikebaier Aisaiti, a Uyghur journalist and entrepreneur, had been held in solitary confinement since 2019 in Aksu Prefecture. He was reportedly detained in Xinjiang in 2016 shortly after participating in a program in the United States and subsequently sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
In July officials at Tongji University in Shanghai confirmed that Uyghur research scientist Tursunjan Nurmamat had been detained after Nurmamat suddenly went silent on social media in April. Further details on Nurmamat’s case and whereabouts were unknown.
Professional tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared from public view for approximately three weeks after her November 2 accusation on social media that former Politburo Standing Committee member and vice premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her. Her reappearance, via what appeared to be tightly controlled and staged video clips, raised concerns that authorities were controlling her movement and speech (see section 6, Women).
Former lawyer Tang Jitian, a long-time advocate for Chinese citizens, has been held incommunicado since December 10, reportedly in connection with his plans to attend Human Rights Day events in Beijing. Subsequently there were reports that authorities had sent a video to his former wife telling his family to remain quiet.
In 2020, four citizen journalists disappeared from public view after authorities in Wuhan took them into custody. Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua (who was released after two months in April 2020), Zhang Zhan, and Fang Bin had interviewed health-care professionals and citizens and later publicized their accounts on social media during the initial COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown in Wuhan. Media reported November 24 that Fang Bin was in custody in Wuhan, the first news of his location since his arrest in February 2020. On September 30, Chen Qiushi appeared on social media but said he could not talk about what happened to him. In November according to reports from her family and lawyer in media, Zhang Zhan, who had been sentenced in December 2020 to four years’ imprisonment, remained in detention and has been on an intermittent hunger strike.
The government still had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Many activists who were involved in the 1989 demonstrations and their family members continued to suffer official harassment. The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such harassment.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits the physical abuse and mistreatment of detainees and forbids prison guards from coercing confessions, insulting prisoners’ dignity, and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners. The law excludes evidence obtained through illegal means, including coerced confessions, in certain categories of criminal cases. There were credible reports that authorities routinely ignored prohibitions against torture, especially in politically sensitive cases.
Numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, raped, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, deprived of sleep, force-fed, forced to take medication against their will, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Although prison authorities abused ordinary prisoners, they reportedly singled out political and religious dissidents for particularly harsh treatment.
Zhang Zhan, sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in December 2020 for her activities as a citizen journalist during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, was not allowed family visits by Shanghai prison authorities. When Zhang went on a hunger strike, prison officials force-fed her, tying and chaining her arms, torso, and feet.
In August after 21 months in detention, human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi was indicted. Ding was detained in 2019 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for participating in a meeting in Xiamen, Fujian Province, to organize civil society activities and peaceful resistance to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. Ding’s wife posted on Twitter that Ding was tortured in a detention center in Beijing, including being subjected to sleep deprivation tactics such as shining a spotlight on him 24 hours per day.
On March 22, Zhang Wuzhou was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison for “obstructing official duty, provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Following her arrest in June 2020, Zhang was tortured in the Qingxin District Detention Center in Qingyuan (Guangdong Province), according to her lawyer’s July 2020 account as reported by Radio Free Asia. Zhang said that detention center authorities handcuffed her, made her wear heavy foot shackles, and placed her in a cell where other inmates beat her. The Qingyuan Public Security Bureau detained Zhang on charges of “provoking quarrels and stirring up troubles” two days after she held banners at Guangzhou Baiyun Mountains to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
As of November human rights activist and lawyer Yu Wensheng remained in a Nanjing prison serving a four-year sentence. In April he was treated in a hospital for nerve damage from an unknown incident suffered in prison. He was convicted in June 2020 for “inciting subversion of state power” and was held incommunicado for 18 months before and after his conviction. Yu reported he was repeatedly sprayed with pepper spray and was forced into a stress position for an extended period.
As of November human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, who was reportedly tortured while in RSDL, was still in pretrial detention. Chang, known for his successful representation of HIV and AIDS discrimination cases, was detained in October 2020 after posting a video to YouTube detailing torture he suffered during a January 2020 round of RSDL.
In December 2020 Niu Tengyu was sentenced to a 14-year jail term by the Maonan District People’s Court in Guangdong for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” “violating others’ privacy,” and “running an illegal business” in a case that has been linked to the leak of the personal information of President Xi’s daughter. According to RFA, Niu’s lawyers alleged that prior to the trial, Niu was stripped, suspended from the ceiling, and his genitals burned with a lighter. They also alleged he was beaten so badly that he lost use of his right hand.
Members of the minority Uyghur ethnic group reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and officials working within the penal system and the internment camps. Survivors stated that authorities subjected individuals in custody to electric shock, waterboarding, beatings, rape, forced sterilization, forced prostitution, stress positions, forced administration of unknown medication, and cold cells (see section 6, Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination). In an October report on CNN, a former PRC police detective now living in Europe who had multiple tours of duty in Xinjiang confirmed many of these specific allegations in what he described as a systematic campaign of torture.
In March, Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy released a comprehensive assessment of the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang to examine “whether China bears State responsibility for breaches of Article II of the Genocide Convention, in particular, whether China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs as defined by Article II of the Convention.” The report included contributions of more than 30 scholars and researchers and found that the PRC has implemented a campaign designed to eliminate Uyghurs, in whole or in part. The report stated, “[h]igh-level officials gave orders to ‘round up everyone who should be rounded up,’ ‘wipe them out completely,’ ‘break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.’” The report noted the PRC has also pursued a “dual systematic campaign of forcibly sterilizing Uyghur women of childbearing age and interning Uyghur men of child-bearing years, preventing the regenerative capacity of the group.”
In June, Amnesty International released a report that documented the accounts of more than 50 former detainees regarding the torture, mistreatment, and violence inflicted on them in camps in Xinjiang. The report detailed the systematic use of detainment and “re-education” centers to target Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang. The report concluded, “according to the evidence Amnesty International has gathered, corroborated by other reliable sources, members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been subjected to an attack meeting all the contextual elements of crimes against humanity.” Further, it elaborated on violence and detention stating, “Amnesty International believes the evidence it has collected provides a factual basis for the conclusion that the Chinese government has committed at least the following crimes against humanity: imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; torture; and persecution.”
The treatment and abuse of detainees under the liuzhi detention system, which operates outside the judicial system as a legal tool for the government and the CCP to investigate corruption and other offenses, featured custodial treatment such as extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days, according to press reports.
The law states psychiatric treatment and hospitalization should be “on a voluntary basis,” but the law also allows authorities and family members to commit persons to psychiatric facilities against their will and fails to provide meaningful legal protections for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. The law does not provide for the right to a lawyer and restricts a person’s right to communicate with those outside the psychiatric institution.
Official media reported the Ministry of Public Security directly administered 23 psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane. While many of those committed to mental health facilities were convicted of murder and other violent crimes, there were also reports of activists, religious or spiritual adherents, and petitioners involuntarily subjected to psychiatric treatment for political reasons. Public security officials may commit individuals to psychiatric facilities and force treatment for “conditions” that have no basis in psychiatry.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, including the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice, which manages the prison system.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in penal institutions for both political prisoners and criminal offenders were generally harsh and often life threatening or degrading.
Physical Conditions: Authorities regularly held prisoners and detainees in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation. Food often was inadequate and of poor quality, and many detainees relied on supplemental food, medicines, and warm clothing provided by relatives when allowed to receive them. Prisoners often reported sleeping on the floor because there were no beds or bedding. In many cases provisions for sanitation, ventilation, heating, lighting, and access to potable water were inadequate.
The lack of adequate, timely medical care for prisoners remained a serious problem, despite official assurances prisoners have the right to prompt medical treatment. Prison authorities at times withheld medical treatment from political prisoners. Multiple NGOs and news agencies reported detainees at “re-education” centers or long-term extrajudicial detention centers became seriously ill or died.
Political prisoners were sometimes held with the general prison population and reported being beaten by other prisoners at the instigation of guards. Some reported being held in the same cells as death row inmates. In some cases authorities did not allow dissidents to receive supplemental food, medicine, and warm clothing from relatives.
Conditions in administrative detention facilities were similar to those in prisons. Deaths from beatings occurred in administrative detention facilities. Detainees reported beatings, sexual assaults, lack of proper food, and limited or no access to medical care.
In Xinjiang authorities expanded internment camps for Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims. Buzzfeed reported in July that the map of detention centers “neatly fits the geography of counties and prefectures across Xinjiang, with a camp and detention center in most counties and a prison or two per prefecture.” The report estimated that the government had built enough detention space to hold up to 1.01 million individuals. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Xinjiang Data Project satellite analysis indicated that Xinjiang has 385 detention centers. In some cases authorities used repurposed schools, factories, and prisons to hold detainees. The Associated Press reported in October that authorities have closed or repurposed the makeshift detention centers found in cities, but in their place have built larger detention centers outside the cities. According to Human Rights Watch, these camps focused on “military-style discipline and pervasive political indoctrination of the detainees.” Detainees reported pervasive physical abuse and torture in the camps and overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
In July the Associated Press estimated one detention center in Dabancheng, Xinjiang could hold 10,000 persons. Associated Press reported that during a tour of the facility it observed detainees “in uniform rows with their legs crossed in lotus position and their backs ramrod straight” where they watched videos of CCP propaganda. In October, CNN interviewed a former Chinese police officer who served multiple tours in Xinjiang and was directly involved in the severe physical mistreatment and violence undertaken against Uyghurs and other ethnic minority communities. The officer stated, “We took (them) all forcibly overnight. If there were hundreds of people in one county in this area, then you had to arrest these hundreds of people.” During interrogations, police officers would “kick them, beat them (until they’re) bruised and swollen, … Until they kneel on the floor crying.” “Interrogation” methods included shackling persons to a metal or wooden “tiger chair” (rendering them immobile), sexual violence against men and women, electrocutions, and waterboarding. The source said inmates were forced to stay awake for days and denied food and water. The former police officer stated that 150,000 police officers had been recruited to participate in the province-wide “strike hard” campaign and that there were arrest quotas they had to meet. Authorities accused detainees of terror offenses, but the source said he believed “none” of the hundreds of prisoners he was involved in arresting had committed a crime.
Administration: The law states letters from a prisoner to higher authorities of the prison or to the judicial organs shall be free from examination; it was unclear to what extent the law was observed. While authorities occasionally investigated credible allegations of inhuman conditions, their results were not documented in a publicly accessible manner. Authorities denied many prisoners and detainees reasonable access to visitors and correspondence with family members. Some family members did not know the whereabouts of their relatives in custody. Authorities also prevented many prisoners and detainees from engaging in religious practices or gaining access to religious materials.
Independent Monitoring: Authorities considered information about prisons and various other types of administrative and extralegal detention facilities to be a state secret, and the government did not permit independent monitoring.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained systemic. The law grants public security officers broad administrative detention powers and the ability to detain individuals for extended periods without formal arrest or criminal charges. Lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, religious leaders and adherents, and former political prisoners and their family members continued to be targeted for arbitrary detention or arrest. (See section 1.b., Disappearance, for a description of RSDL and liuzhi.)
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement.
There were allegations of detainee abuse and torture in the official detention system, known as liuzhi, of the National Supervisory Commission-Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (NSC-CCDI; see section 4). Liuzhi detainees are held incommunicado and have no recourse to appeal their detention. While detainee abuse is proscribed by the law, the mechanism for detainees to report abuse was unclear.
On March 14, Li Qiaochu was arrested for her human rights advocacy and involvement with fellow activists involved in the nationwide crackdown of lawyers and activists who participated in 2019 meetings in Xiamen, Fujian. Her first visit with her lawyer was on August 27, who reported that her mental health had deteriorated. At year’s end she was still detained in Shandong Province on suspicion of “subverting state power.”
On October 1, more than 170 Uyghurs in Hotan, Xinjiang, were detained by the National Security Agency of Hotan on the country’s national day, according to Radio Free Asia. They were accused of displaying feelings of resistance to the country during flag-raising activities. Among those detained were at least 40 women and 19 minors.
On September 19, journalist Sophia Huang and activist Wang Jianbing were detained in Guangzhou, according to the rights group Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network). Huang had planned to leave China via Hong Kong on September 20 for the United Kingdom, where she intended to pursue graduate studies. Media reported that both were being held incommunicado under RSDL on suspicion of “incitement to subvert state power.” As of year’s end they remained detained in Guangzhou, and no one was allowed to see the pair.
In September, PRC authorities released Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from detention in China and allowed them to return to Canada, shortly following the release by Canadian authorities of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou. Kovrig and Spavor had been detained since December 2018, after the arrest in Canada of Meng. For months the two Canadian citizens were held in RSDL before being charged with a crime and were denied access to lawyers and consular services. Another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, remained in detention as his sentence was reviewed. After Meng’s arrest, Schellenberg’s sentence for drug-smuggling crimes was increased from 15 years’ imprisonment to a death sentence.
There were no statistics available for the number of individuals in the liuzhi detention system nationwide. Several provinces, however, publicized these numbers, including Heilongjiang with 376 and Jilin with 275 detained, both in 2020. One provincial official heading the liuzhi detention system stated suspects averaged 42.5 days in detention before being transferred into the criminal justice system.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Criminal detention beyond 37 days requires approval of a formal arrest by the procuratorate, but in cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism, and major bribery,” the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without formal arrest. After formally arresting a suspect, public security authorities are authorized to detain a suspect for up to an additional seven months while the case is investigated.
After the completion of an investigation, the procuratorate may detain a suspect an additional 45 days while determining whether to file criminal charges. If charges are filed, authorities may detain a suspect for an additional 45 days before beginning judicial proceedings. Public security officials sometimes detained persons beyond the period allowed by law, and pretrial detention periods of a year or longer were common.
The law stipulates detainees be allowed to meet with defense counsel before criminal charges are filed, although lengthy detention without access to lawyers before charges were filed were common. The criminal procedure law requires a court to provide a lawyer to a defendant who has not already retained one; is blind, deaf, mute, or mentally ill; is a minor; or faces a life sentence or the death penalty. This law applies whether or not the defendant is indigent. Courts may also provide lawyers to other criminal defendants who cannot afford them, although courts often did not do so. Lawyers reported significant difficulties meeting their clients in detention centers, especially in cases considered politically sensitive. According to the South China Morning Post, a new legal aid law introduced in August that will enter into force in 2022 stipulates that legal consultation, the drafting of legal documents, representation in cases, labor arbitration and mediation will be paid for by legal aid centers set up central and local government.
Criminal defendants are entitled to apply for bail (also translated as “a guarantor pending trial”) while awaiting trial, but the system did not operate effectively, and authorities released few suspects on bail.
The law requires notification of family members within 24 hours of detention, but authorities often held individuals without providing such notification for significantly longer periods, especially in politically sensitive cases. In some cases notification did not occur. Under a sweeping exception, officials are not required to provide notification if doing so would “hinder the investigation” of a case. The criminal procedure law limits this exception to cases involving state security or terrorism, but public security officials have broad discretion to interpret these provisions.
Under certain circumstances the law allows for residential surveillance in the detainee’s home, rather than detention in a formal facility. With the approval of the next-higher-level authorities, officials also may place a suspect under “residential surveillance at a designated location” for up to six months when they suspect crimes of endangering state security, terrorism, or serious bribery and believe surveillance at the suspect’s home would impede the investigation. Authorities may also prevent defense lawyers from meeting with suspects in these categories of cases. Human rights organizations and detainees reported the practice of residential surveillance at a designated location left detainees at a high risk for torture, since being neither at home nor in a monitored detention facility reduced opportunities for oversight of detainee treatment and mechanisms for appeal.
Authorities used administrative detention to intimidate political and religious advocates and to prevent public demonstrations. Forms of administrative detention included compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment (for drug users), “custody and training” (for minor criminal offenders), and “legal education” centers for political activists and religious adherents, particularly Falun Gong practitioners. The maximum stay in compulsory drug rehabilitation centers is two years, including commonly a six-month stay in a detoxification center. The government maintained similar rehabilitation centers for those charged with prostitution or with soliciting prostitution.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained or arrested persons on allegations of revealing state secrets, subversion, and other crimes as a means to suppress political dissent and public advocacy. These charges, as well as what constitutes a state secret, remained poorly defined and any piece of information could be retroactively designated a state secret. Authorities also used the vaguely worded charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” broadly against many civil rights advocates. It was unclear what this term means. Authorities also detained citizens and foreigners under broad and ambiguous state secret laws for, among other actions, disclosing information on criminal trials, commercial activity, and government activity. A counterespionage law grants authorities the power to require individuals and organizations to cease any activities deemed a threat to national security. Failure to comply could result in seizure of property and assets.
There were multiple reports authorities arrested or detained lawyers, religious leaders or adherents, petitioners, and other rights advocates for lengthy periods, only to have the charges later dismissed for lack of evidence. Authorities subjected many of these citizens to extralegal house arrest, denial of travel rights, or administrative detention in different types of extralegal detention facilities, including “black jails.” In some cases public security officials put pressure on schools not to allow the children of prominent political detainees to enroll. Conditions faced by those under house arrest varied but sometimes included isolation in their homes under guard by security agents. Security officials were frequently stationed inside the homes. Authorities placed many citizens under house arrest during sensitive times, such as during the visits of senior foreign government officials, annual plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and sensitive anniversaries in Tibetan areas and Xinjiang. Security agents took some of those not placed under house arrest to remote areas on so-called vacations.
In March activist Chen Jianfang, detained in Shanghai since 2019, was tried for “inciting subversion of state power.” A verdict was not announced following the trial, and Chen remained in detention. After Chen fired her court-appointed lawyer, she was not allowed to meet with a replacement lawyer.
In May, Wang Aizhong, a leader of the “Southern Street Movement” which advocates for the freedom of political expression, was detained by Guangzhou police under suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and then formally arrested in July. According to the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders, authorities told Wang’s wife he was arrested for his social media posts and for giving foreign media interviews.
On June 4, Gao Heng was arrested by Guangzhou police for posting on social media a picture of himself holding a sign commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. Gao last met with a lawyer in prison in July pending his trial. No details of what he has been charged with or his current status have been publicly released.
Pretrial Detention: Pretrial detention could last longer than one year. Defendants in “sensitive cases” reported being subjected to prolonged pretrial detention. From 2015 to 2018, authorities held many of the “709” detainees (referring to the government crackdown on human rights lawyers that began on July 9, 2015) and their defense attorneys in pretrial detention for more than a year without access to their families or their lawyers. Statistics were not published or made publicly available, but lengthy pretrial detentions were especially common in cases of political prisoners.
At year’s end Beijing-based lawyer Li Yuhan, who defended human rights lawyers during the “709” crackdown, remained in detention at the Shenyang Detention Center; she has been held since 2017 and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” On July 12, Li met with her lawyer who reported that Li was urged to confess to her “crimes”; she refused. On October 21, her case went to trial, but no verdict was rendered. Due to Li’s poor health, her attorney submitted multiple requests to Shenyang authorities to release Li on medical parole, but the request was repeatedly denied.
As of September 8, the Ganjingzi District Court in Dalian City had not tried Ren Haifei, a Falun Gong practitioner held without trial and without charges since June 2020. Ren was arrested without a warrant, hospitalized for severe injuries suffered after his initial arrest, and remanded to the Dalian Yaojia detention center after release from the hospital where he has remained. Ren Haifei was previously incarcerated from 2001 to 2008 for his Falun Gong beliefs and for participating in peaceful protests related to the government’s treatment of other Falun Gong practitioners. Ren’s trial was first scheduled for July; however, authorities postponed the trial, citing COVID-19 concerns.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law states the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission have the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began. In some cases these confessions were likely a precondition for release. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
In February, United Kingdom media regulator Ofcom cancelled the broadcast license of China Global Television Network, the international news channel of China Central Television, for having insufficient editorial independence from the PRC government and the CCP. In July 2020 Ofcom found in its formal investigation that China Global Television Network broadcast in 2013 and 2014 a confession forced from a British private investigator imprisoned in China. “Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions, and it failed to provide sufficient avenues for review. Remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the Supreme People’s Court required trials to be open to the public, except in cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or – if requested by a party to the proceedings – commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold a defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations stipulate that foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but in practice foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending several trials. In some instances authorities reclassified trials as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed them to the public.
Regulations require the release of court judgments online and stipulate court officials should release judgments, except those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. Courts did not post all judgments. They had wide discretion not to post if they found posting the judgment could be considered “inappropriate.” Many political cases did not have judgments posted.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants are eligible for legal assistance, but the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All-China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or annual renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
Despite the government’s stated efforts to improve lawyers’ access to their clients, in 2017 the head of the All-China Lawyers Association told China Youth Daily that defense attorneys had taken part in less than 30 percent of criminal cases. In particular, human rights lawyers reported authorities did not permit them to defend certain clients or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. On November 21, China Change reported that more than 40 lawyers lost their license due to their human rights work since 2016. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. In some instances authorities prevented defendant-selected attorneys from taking the case and instead appointed their own attorney.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of numerous lawyers who took on sensitive cases such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All-China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. In October the association issued new guidelines that banned lawyers from speaking about cases publicly, including organizing press conferences and petitions, publishing open letters, or engaging in any public advocacy work.
Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detention, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment, physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients.
On February 2, media reported that Ren Quanniu, a human rights lawyer based in Zhengzhou who represented activists and journalists, learned the Henan Provincial Judicial Department had revoked his license. In March judicial authorities in Zhengzhou informed the Henan Guidao Law Firm where Ren worked that it must shut down. Media further reported that in early July municipal authorities had blacklisted Ren and prohibited him from starting his own legal consultancy business.
In October the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice revoked Lin Qilei’s legal license on the basis that the law firm to which Lin belonged had been deregistered, despite multiple attempts by Lin to apply for registration. Lin’s firm, Beijing Ruikai Law Firm, had handled many cases on behalf of religious adherents and prodemocracy supporters.
On December 16, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice revoked Liang Xiaojun’s legal license, citing his social media posts that were critical of Marxism and referred to the Falun Gong as a religion. Liang represented many human rights defenders, activists, and other disbarred lawyers during his legal career.
The law governing the legal profession criminalizes attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The law also criminalizes disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations also stipulate detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients, had limited time to review evidence, and were not allowed to communicate with defendants during trials. In contravention of the law, criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Observers noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese, even in non-Mandarin-speaking areas, with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
Under the law lawyers are assigned to convicted prisoners on death row who cannot afford one during the review of their sentences.
In December 2020 the Shenzhen Yantian District People’s Court sentenced 10 Hong Kong activists to prison terms between seven months and three years for illegal border crossing. After the activists were captured by PRC authorities in August 2020, they were held incommunicado. Lawyers hired by their families were barred from meeting with the activists; the court only allowed state-appointed lawyers to be present during the closed-door trial.
In July, three members of the antidiscrimination NGO Changsha Funeng – Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, also known as the “Changsha Three” – were sentenced in a secret trial to two to five years in prison. Despite a legal requirement to do so, the sentences were not made public, and the families were informed through informal channels. Changsha Funeng had assisted in litigating cases to end discrimination against persons with disabilities and carriers of HIV and hepatitis B. Cheng Yuan had also worked on antitorture programs, litigation to end the country’s one-child policy, and reform for household registration laws.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Government officials continued to deny holding any political prisoners, asserting persons were detained not for their political or religious views but because they had violated the law. Authorities, however, continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion. Human rights organizations estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention. The government did not grant international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners. Government security forces continued to harass and intimidate former political prisoners and their family members.
In January media reported that family members of detained lawyer Chang Weiping experienced harassment. After the family protested in front of the Gaoxin branch of the Baoji Municipal Public Security Bureau, Chang’s parents were summoned for multiple rounds of interrogation. They found a closed-circuit television camera installed outside their home and had their mobile phones confiscated. Chang’s wife, Chen Zijuan, was visited by authorities multiple times, during which authorities warned her not to conduct public advocacy for her husband and pressured her to delete her social media posts regarding her husband.
On August 25, the South China Morning Post reported on the broad use of the crime “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” against journalists, activists, lawyers, and ordinary citizens to suppress free speech. In August, two activists, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, were convicted of the crime after archiving censored internet materials related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Authorities granted political prisoners early release at lower rates than other prisoners. Thousands of persons were serving sentences for political and religious offenses, including for “endangering state security” and carrying out “cult activities.” The government neither reviewed the cases of those charged before 1997 with counterrevolution and hooliganism nor released persons imprisoned for nonviolent offenses under repealed provisions.
Many political prisoners remained either in prison or under other forms of detention after release at year’s end, including writer Yang Maodong (pen name: Guo Feixiong); Uyghur scholars Ilham Tohti, Rahile Dawut, and Hushtar Isa, brother of Uyghur World Congress president Dolkun Isa; Tibetan Dorje Tashi; activists Wang Bingzhang, Chen Jianfang, and Huang Qi; Taiwan prodemocracy activist Lee Ming-Che; pastors Zhang Shaojie and Wang Yi; Falun Gong practitioner Bian Lichao; Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai Thaddeus Ma Daqin; rights lawyers Xia Lin, Gao Zhisheng, Xu Zhiyong, Li Yuhan, and Yu Wensheng; blogger Wu Gan; citizen journalist Zhang Zhan; Shanghai labor activist Jiang Cunde; and others.
Criminal punishments included “deprivation of political rights” for a fixed period after release from prison, during which an individual could be denied rights of free speech, association, and publication. Former prisoners reported their ability to find employment, travel, obtain residence permits and passports, rent residences, and access social services was severely restricted.
Authorities frequently subjected former political prisoners and their families to surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment or threats. For example, security personnel followed the family members of detained or imprisoned rights activists to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urged the family members to remain silent regarding the cases of their relatives. Authorities barred certain members of the rights community from meeting with visiting dignitaries.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: Reports continued throughout the year regarding PRC pressure on Xinjiang-based relatives of persons located outside China who spoke publicly about the detentions and abusive policies underway inside Xinjiang. In June 2020 Kazakhstan media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained Aqiqat Qaliolla and Zhenis Zarqyn for their protests in front of the PRC embassy regarding lost family members in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. In February, RFA reported based on official sources that Bakihaji Helil was sentenced in 2017 to nine years in prison after returning early from his religion studies at al-Azhar University in Egypt following Xinjiang authorities’ harassment of his family.
PRC media and authorities continued to harass and defame women who spoke about rape and sexual abuse in Xinjiang internment camps. Qelbinur Sedik, a Xinjiang camp teacher who fled China and now lives abroad, was repeatedly targeted by PRC media and received direct video messages from local Xinjiang police threatening reprisal against her family members still in Xinjiang. The BBC reported that Xinjiang police used social media to threaten Uyghurs living in Europe.
PRC state media also released videos of Xinjiang-based ethnic and religious minorities to discredit their overseas relatives’ accounts to foreign media. The persons in the videos urged their foreign-based family members to stop “spreading rumors” about Xinjiang. The overseas relatives said they had lost communication with their Xinjiang relatives until the videos were released.
In February, Hong Kong Free Press reported the PRC used “proof-of-life” videos to dispute or undermine claims of several foreign citizens about the disappearance and treatment of their relatives in China. For example the PRC published a video of Memet Tohti Atawulla’s brother who had disappeared during the PRC’s crackdown in Xinjiang. The PRC filmed the family of Sayragul Sauytbay, who since leaving China in 2018 has publicly criticized the PRC’s treatment of Kazakh persons and other Muslims in China, accusing Sayragul of “theft, deception, child abuse, and sexual immorality.” Similarly, Hong Kong Free Press reported “Kuzzat Altay’s father disowns him on camera” and “Zumrat Dawut’s brother suggests that her father’s death was due to her political activism.”
In March, Reuters reported PRC officials used press conferences to attack women abroad who provided eyewitness accounts of their experiences in Xinjiang internment camps. The report quoted a Xinjiang official publicly claiming, “Everyone knows about her inferior character. She’s lazy and likes comfort, her private life is chaotic, her neighbors say that she committed adultery while in China.” In May, Reuters reported PRC officials routinely harassed young Uyghur activists living abroad. Uyghurs faced threats from PRC hackers, intimidating phone calls, and bullying on social media.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports the PRC attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On July 20, according to the Associated Press, Moroccan authorities arrested Uyghur activist Yidiresi Aishan in Casablanca based on an Interpol red notice (a request from a government for a person’s arrest). The South China Morning Post reported on August 2 that Interpol had rescinded the red notice for Aishan after advocacy groups raised concerns that the red notice system was being used to repatriate Uyghur dissidents back to China. Aishan had previously lived in Turkey where he was an active member of the Uyghur diaspora and an outspoken critic of the PRC. Aishan was still detained in Morocco at year’s end.
The NSC-CCDI led the PRC’s transnational fugitive recovery efforts, Operations Fox Hunt and Sky Net. Although these efforts ostensibly targeted economic crimes, media reported they were sometimes politically motivated and targeted dissidents who lived overseas. On February 24, state-sponsored CGTN reported that through “Sky Net 2021,” a total of 1,421 fugitives, including 28 red notice fugitives, were brought back to China in 2020.
Efforts to Control Mobility: The government pressured foreign countries to repatriate or deny visas to Uyghurs who had left China. COVID-19 measures, such as checkpoints, health-app restrictions, and COVID-19-related lockdowns restricted individuals’ freedom of movement.
In November lawyer Xie Yang attempted to visit imprisoned citizen journalist Zhang Zhan’s family but was warned by two police officers to not go. Shortly after, his COVID-19 health verification mobile phone app went from green to red, which effectively restricted his movement.
Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that for politically motivated purposes the PRC attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having those countries take adverse action against specific individuals. In Kazakhstan, media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained at least 10 protesters at the PRC embassy who were demanding the release of family members being held in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. In February a court in Kazakhstan sentenced Baibolat Kunbolatuly to 10 days in jail for staging protests outside the Chinese consulate to demand answers about his brother’s detention in Xinjiang. According to RFA on October 1 (the PRC’s national day), Kazakh police detained eight ethnic Kazakh protesters in Nur-Sultan who were demanding the release of relatives being held in Xinjiang.
On June 30, the Chinese Embassy in France sent a letter to the editorial office of French youth newspaper Mon Quotidien condemning its article regarding forced labor in Xinjiang. According to Radio Free Asia, the Chinese Embassy also circulated a petition calling for the withdrawal of the article.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law states the “freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens are protected by law,” but authorities often did not respect the privacy of citizens. A new civil code entered into force on January 1, introducing articles on the right to privacy and personal information protection. Although the law requires warrants before officers can search premises, officials frequently ignored this requirement. The Public Security Bureau and prosecutors are authorized to issue search warrants on their own authority without judicial review. There continued to be reports of cases of forced entry by police officers.
Authorities routinely monitored telephone calls, text messages, faxes, email, instant messaging, social media apps, and other digital communications intended to remain private, particularly of political activists. Authorities also opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. Foreign journalists leaving the country found some of their personal belongings searched. In some cases, when material deemed politically sensitive was uncovered, the journalists had to sign a statement stating they would “voluntarily” leave these documents in the country.
According to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a website focusing on human rights in China, Lin Xiaohua began appealing the bribery conviction of his older brother Lin Xiaonan, the former mayor of Fu’an City, Fujian Province, who in April was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison. In June 2020 Xiaohua tried to send petition letters and case files to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Supreme People’s Court, and the National Commission of Supervision-CCP Central Discipline Inspection Commission, but the post office opened all the letters then refused to deliver them. In July 2020 the Xiamen Culture and Tourism Administration confiscated the letters and files, stating they were “illegal publications.”
According to Freedom House, rapid advances in surveillance technology – including artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and intrusive surveillance apps – coupled with growing police access to user data helped facilitate the prosecution of prominent dissidents as well as ordinary users. A Carnegie Endowment report in 2019 noted the country was a major worldwide supplier of artificial-intelligence surveillance technology, such as facial recognition systems, surveillance cameras, and smart policing technology.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Public Security used tens of millions of surveillance cameras throughout the country to monitor the general public. Human rights groups stated authorities increasingly relied on the cameras and other forms of surveillance to monitor and intimidate political dissidents, religious leaders and adherents, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. These included facial recognition and “gait recognition” video surveillance, allowing police not only to monitor a situation but also to quickly identify individuals in crowds. In May the BBC reported Chinese technology companies had developed artificial intelligence, surveillance, and other technological capabilities to help police identify members of ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs. The media sources cited public-facing websites, company documents, and programming language from firms such as Huawei, Megvii, and Hikvision related to their development of a “Uyghur alarm” that could alert police automatically. Huawei denied its products were designed to identify ethnic groups. The monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas. The government installed surveillance cameras in monasteries in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR (see Special Annex, Tibet). The law allows security agencies to cut communication networks during “major security incidents.” Government entities collected genetic data from residents in Xinjiang with unclear protections for sensitive health data.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of State Security partnered with information technology firms to operate a “mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system,” similar to ones already in use in Xinjiang and Anhui, to help solve criminal cases. According to one company involved, the system monitored Mandarin Chinese and certain minority languages, including Tibetan and Uyghur. In many cases other biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA profiles were being stored as well. This database included information obtained not just from criminals and criminal suspects but also from entire populations of migrant workers and all Uyghurs applying for passports. Some Xinjiang internment camp survivors reported that they were subjected to coerced comprehensive health screenings including blood and DNA testing upon entering the internment camps. There were also reports from former detainees that authorities forced Uyghur detainees to undergo medical examinations of thoracic and abdominal organs.
Forced relocation because of urban development continued in some locations. Protests over relocation terms or compensation were common, and authorities prosecuted some protest leaders. In rural areas, infrastructure and commercial development projects resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of persons.
Property-related disputes between citizens and government authorities sometimes turned violent. These disputes frequently stemmed from local officials’ collusion with property developers to pay little or no compensation to displaced residents, a lack of effective government oversight or media scrutiny of local officials’ involvement in property transactions, and a lack of legal remedies or other dispute resolution mechanisms for displaced residents. The problem persisted despite central government claims it had imposed stronger controls over illegal land seizures and taken steps to standardize compensation.
Government authorities also could interfere in families’ living arrangements when a family member was involved in perceived sensitive political activities.
The government at various levels and jurisdictions continued to implement two distinct types of social credit systems. The first, the corporate social credit system, is intended to track and prevent corporate malfeasance. The second, the personal social credit system, is implemented differently depending on geographic location.
Although the government’s goal was to create a unified government social credit system, there continued to be dozens of disparate social credit systems, operated distinctly at the local, provincial, and the national government levels, as well as separate “private” social credit systems operated by several technology companies. These systems collected vast amounts of data from companies and individuals in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce corruption. These agencies often collected information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics. For example, there were reports individuals were not allowed to ride public transportation for periods of time because they allegedly had not paid for train tickets.
Industry and business experts commented that in its present state, the social credit system was not used to target companies or individuals for their political or religious beliefs, noting the country already possessed other tools outside the social credit system to target companies and individuals. The collection of vast amounts of personal data combined with the prospect of a future universal and unified social credit system, however, could allow authorities to control further the population’s behaviors.
In a separate use of social media for censorship, human rights activists reported authorities questioned them regarding their participation in human rights-related chat groups, including on WeChat and WhatsApp. Authorities monitored the groups to identify activists, which led to users’ increased self-censorship on WeChat as well as several separate arrests of chat group administrators.
The government continued to use the “double-linked household” system in Xinjiang developed through many years of use in Tibet. This system divides towns and neighborhoods into units of 10 households each, with the households in each unit instructed to watch over each other and report on “security issues” and poverty problems to the government, thus turning average citizens into informers. In Xinjiang the government also continued to require Uyghur families to accept government “home stays,” in which officials or volunteers forcibly lived in Uyghurs’ homes and monitored families’ observance of religion for signs of “extremism.” Those who exhibited behaviors the government considered to be signs of “extremism,” such as praying, possessing religious texts, or abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, could be detained in “re-education camps.”
The government restricted the right to have children (see section 6, Women).
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Some activists and organizations accused the government of forcibly harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, including religious and spiritual adherents such as Falun Gong practitioners and Muslim detainees in Xinjiang. In June several UN experts issued a statement expressing alarm concerning allegations of organ harvesting “targeting minorities, including Falun Gong practitioners, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Muslims and Christians, in detention in China.”