China is global threat to individual freedoms, says new Human Rights Watch report

Jodi Xu Klein

The Chinese government fears “people’s desire for democracy” and its repression of human rights is “an existential threat to the world”, the investigative and advocacy group Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday at the launch of its World Report 2020 in New York.

The release of the annual report had already made headlines when immigration officials at the Hong Kong airport turned away the group’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, without explanation on Sunday. He had been scheduled to unveil the report in the city on Wednesday.

“We’d hoped to hold this event in Hong Kong, but Chinese government had a different idea,” Roth said on Tuesday at the United Nations headquarters.

“Beijing claimed the report had instigated the Hong Kong people’s movement for democracy,” Roth said. “The stance by Beijing is insulting to Hong Kong. It shows Chinese government’s fear of people’s desire for democracy.”

This year’s report, a 652-page review of human rights practices in nearly 100 countries, focused on the Chinese government’s role in the world.

The global system for protecting human rights is under threat from China under President Xi Jinping, the group said.

“It seems the Chinese government sees human rights as an existential threat. But their stance against human rights is an existential threat to the world,” Roth said.

The report cited China’s continued forced detention of some 1 million Uygurs and other Muslims in the far western autonomous region of Xinjiang.

Pompeo stresses Hong Kong autonomy, urges slamming China over Uygur abuse

The Chinese authorities have further expanded their assault on freedom of expression, including arresting journalists and prosecuting activists, Roth said.

He also said that without proper defences, the world could be threatened by “a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors”.

China has embarked on a global promotional campaign to blunt criticism of its human rights record and has received the support of governments in Russia, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, Belarus and Saudi Arabia.

More concerning, said the report, is that “several important governments have been missing in action”.

“That included the US and the European Union, which has been diverted by Brexit, and find it difficult to find a common voice in human rights.”

“Others, like Pakistan, are simply bought off. When the prime minister of Pakistan visited Beijing, he had nothing to say regarding Xinjiang.”

“The Trump administration has at times stood up to China, including imposing sanctions against China in October,” said Roth. “But more often, [US President Donald] Trump has praised Xi Jinping.”

China is also silencing business communities by threatening their access to the massive Chinese market, which accounts for about 16 per cent of the global GDP, Roth said.

The government has also targeted academic freedom worldwide, the report said. In Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, pro-Beijing students have sought to shut down controversial debates about China.

Why China’s crackdown on academic freedom will backfire

Tuesday’s news conference at the United Nations Correspondents Association was interrupted by a Chinese official who told Roth “the report is full of prejudices and has ignored facts”.

“I completely reject the content in the report,” said Xing Jisheng, a Chinese mission representative at the UN. “Any report talking about Chinese human rights fails to be balanced and neutral.”

Roth asked for specifics about what the report got wrong.

Xing said China was a great success story because it had freed its people from poverty, to which Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, responded: “The Chinese people got themselves out of poverty after the government took the boot off of their neck.”

Beijing has made the UN a primary target as it has routinely worked against proposed measures and the global human rights framework, the report said.

“The Chinese government’s attacks on human rights systems must be stopped,” Roth said. “The ascent of a global threat to rights is not unstoppable. The governments should band together.”

Roth, an American citizen, returned to the United States after being barred from entering Hong Kong at the city’s international airport on Sunday.

On December 2, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the government would impose sanctions against Human Rights Watch and four other US-based non-profit groups that “played an egregious role” in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Those remarks came after Trump signed into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which could pave the way for diplomatic action and economic sanctions against the city’s government.

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