Amnesty International Report 1999 - China (including the Hongo Kong Special Administrative Region)

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of activists and suspected opponents of the government were detained during the year. Thousands of political prisoners jailed in previous years remained imprisoned, many of them prisoners of conscience. Some had been sentenced after unfair trials, others were still held without charge or trial. Political trials continued to fall short of international fair trial standards. Torture and ill-treatment remained endemic, in some cases resulting in death. The death penalty continued to be used extensively.

In March Zhu Rongji was appointed Prime Minister by the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament. Economic reforms intensified, resulting in increased unemployment, labour disputes and repression of worker rights activists.

The report on the 1997 visit to China by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, published in March, recommended changes to national security legislation in line with international standards. Two landmark visits to China – by the US President, Bill Clinton, and by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson – highlighted the authorities' growing but limited willingness to discuss human rights, as well as continuing violations. In October China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Despite such moves, repression of dissent continued, culminating in December in the trial of high profile dissidents. New regulations on the registration of "social groups" and on publishing were introduced in October and December, increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and association.

A crack-down on suspected Uighur nationalists and independent Muslim religious leaders continued in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR – see Amnesty International Report 1998). While violent clashes between small groups of Uighur nationalists and the security forces were reported, hundreds of people were arbitrarily detained merely for their suspected nationalist sympathies or for engaging in peaceful religious activities. Thousands of political prisoners were reportedly imprisoned in the region; many were tortured. At least 14 Uighur political prisoners accused of having used violence were executed.

Arbitrary arrests continued across the XUAR, particularly in the city of Gulja (Yining) and surrounding villages, where ethnic protests took place in 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Abdet Pettar, a medical surgeon at Gulja's military hospital, was reportedly arrested in early July and accused of having treated "nationalist separatists". He was still held without charge in a military prison at the end of the year. Three other Uighurs – Tursun Mehmet and Alimjan, both teachers, and Abdushukur, a local government official – were arrested later in July in Gulja for allegedly helping "separatists". They were still held without charge at the end of the year.

A crack-down on Tibetan nationalists and Buddhists continued in the Tibet Autonomous Region. At least 10 prisoners were reported to have died – one was reportedly shot dead – following a protest at Drapchi prison in early May at the time European Union representatives visited the prison. Many prisoners who had taken part in the protest were beaten and placed in solitary confinement. Ngawang Sungrab, a monk from Drepung monastery, and Gyaltsen Choephel, a layman from Lhasa, were beaten so severely that they needed hospital treatment. The authorities later admitted that "minor disturbances" had occurred at the prison in early May, but denied that any prisoners had died as a result. On 7 June four imprisoned nuns, Choekyi Wangmo, Tashi Lhamo, Dekyi Yangzom and Khedron Yonten, who had been placed in solitary confinement in May, reportedly died in Drapchi prison. Prison officials said they had committed suicide, but did not explain how they had all done so on the same day while held in solitary confinement.

Hundreds of other people were detained for political reasons, many of them prisoners of conscience. Four poets, Wu Ruohai, Ma Zhe, Ma Qiang and Xiong Jingren, were detained in January in Guiyang, Guizhou province, as they were planning to launch an independent literary magazine. Ma Qiang and Wu Ruohai were released after a few weeks, but the other two remained in secret detention. In November Ma Zhe was reportedly sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for "subversion". Li Yi, a businessman from Guiyang and friend of the poets, and Wu Ruojie, a rock singer and brother of one of the poets, were also detained and accused of "divulging state secrets" for reporting the arrests of the poets to foreign journalists and people outside China. They were sentenced without charge or trial to three years of "re-education through labour". Neither was a known dissident.

Worker rights activists were arbitrarily detained in the context of growing labour unrest. Some arrests followed demonstrations by workers, notably in Sichuan province. Others were of people who had called for reforms. Li Qingxi, a laid-off worker from the Datong coal mine in Shanxi province, was arrested in January when he posted publicly a statement calling for independent trade unions. He was sentenced in March without charge or trial to one year of "re-education through labour", reportedly to be served "at home". Zhang Shanguang, a labour rights activist from Hunan province, was detained in July after trying to set up a group to help laid-off workers. He was sentenced in December to 10 years' imprisonment, accused of having "illegally provided information to overseas hostile organizations and individuals", reportedly for speaking about farmers' protests in his province in a Radio Free Asia interview.

Widespread arrests were made during politically sensitive periods. Many people were detained in February and March before and during the annual session of the NPC, particularly those who addressed open letters to the NPC calling for reforms. A further wave of arrests took place in May in the weeks leading up to the ninth anniversary of the 4 June 1989 crack-down on pro-democracy activists.

In July, 10 pro-democracy activists were detained in Hangzhou city, Zhejiang province, after trying to register the Chinese Democratic Party (CDP). This was the first known attempt to register an alternative political party in China since 1949. Most of the 10 were released within hours or placed under house arrest. Wang Youcai, a founder of the CDP, was held for several weeks before being released. He was rearrested in late November during a new crack-down on people associated with the CDP, which led to the detention or arrest of at least 30 people.

Wang Youcai and two other high profile dissidents, Qin Yongmin and Xu Wenli, were tried in December in different cities and sentenced to prison terms of 11, 12 and 13 years respectively on charges of "plotting to subvert the state power". Other dissidents who had been detained earlier in the year were also sentenced to terms of imprisonment or "re-education through labour".

Detention, ill-treatment and harassment of members of unapproved Christian groups continued. Most of some 200 Roman Catholics who were detained in late 1997 in Linchuan city, Jiangxi province, were held for between one and three months and released only after paying a fine. The arrests were apparently aimed at stopping them celebrating mass outside officially recognized churches. Detention of Roman Catholics continued in other provinces. For example, Julius Jia Zhiguo, Bishop of Zhengding, Hebei province, was detained in June, having been warned he would be "taken away" during President Clinton's visit to China.

In August information came to light about the detention of 16 leaders of a Christian group in Xingyang county, Henan province, who earlier in the year had been given terms of two or three years' detention in a labour camp and were reportedly beaten repeatedly in detention. In October, 11 house church leaders were detained in Wugang county, Henan province, and reportedly tortured at Fangcheng prison. Arrests of house church members subsequently continued in the province with those detained being made to pay heavy fines to secure release.

Thousands of political prisoners detained without trial or convicted after unfair trials in previous years remained in jail, including many prisoners of conscience. At least 2,000 convicted political prisoners were serving sentences for "counter-revolutionary" offences. The government made no move to review these cases, even though such offences had been abolished in law in 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998). More than 200,000 people continued to be administratively detained without charge or trial in labour camps for "re-education through labour".

A few prisoners of conscience were released on parole, although some continued to be subjected to police surveillance and harassment, and others were forced into exile. Wang Dan, for example, a student activist imprisoned twice since 1989, was released on medical parole in March but sent into effective exile in the USA.

Political trials continued to fall far short of international fair trial standards, with verdicts and sentences usually decided by the authorities before trial, and appeal hearings usually a formality. Turgun Tay, a Uighur businessman from Gulja, was reportedly sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment in April for involvement in "illegal" religious activities. His trial, by the Yining Intermediate People's Court, was reportedly held in secret, with no relatives or lawyer present. A series of unfair trials of pro-democracy activists took place in various provinces. Defendants were denied adequate time and facilities to defend themselves. In October, for example, Chen Zengxiang, a bookseller and veteran pro-democracy activist from Qingdao, Shandong province, was reportedly tried in secret and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for "seeking to subvert the State power". Detained since May for investigation of his links to exiled dissidents, he was reportedly denied access to a lawyer on the grounds that his case involved "national security".

Torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners held in detention centres, prisons and labour camps remained widespread, sometimes resulting in death. Prison conditions were often harsh, with inadequate food and medical care, and many prisoners suffered serious illness as a result.

Many cases of torture were reported by unofficial sources. Three men, Zhou Guiyi, Xiao Beizhou and Yu Li, were beaten to death by police in Hubei's Xinzhou county between April 1997 and February 1998. The families of the three men received compensation, but no action was taken to bring those responsible to justice. Abdul Helil, a Uighur detained in the XUAR for leading a demonstration in Gulja in February 1997, was reportedly tortured after arrest to force him to confess to "crimes" and denounce friends. In mid-1998, he was reportedly held in the prison of the 4th Division of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a military-run institution, where he continued to be ill-treated. Zhu Shengwen, the Vice-Mayor of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, alleged he was tortured to force him to confess to corruption. He said he was punched, had his arms twisted and wrenched, and was repeatedly given electric shocks with an electric baton. In April he was sentenced to life imprisonment. No investigation into his allegation of torture was known to have been carried out. In October Li Jiayong, a member of the New Testament Church in Shandong province, reportedly died in police custody. The police reportedly claimed he had committed suicide by jumping out of a window, but private sources believed he had died as a result of torture. He had been detained and badly beaten twice before. There was no independent inquiry into his death.

Local media also reported cases of torture and ill-treatment. In March a newspaper revealed that police in Guangdong province had kept a farmer chained inside a two-square-metre iron cage for five years as punishment for attacking an officer. The day after the newspaper report, the man was set free. The Guangdong authorities subsequently set up a commission to investigate the incident. In June, for the first time in China, an official publication published figures for the number of people who had been tortured to death in custody in previous years: 126 people had died in such circumstances in 1993 and 115 in 1994.

The death penalty continued to be used extensively. The Criminal Law, revised in 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998), integrated offences made liable to the death penalty under regulations adopted since the 1980s, such as fraud and tax evasion, bringing the number of offences punishable by death to about 60. In September the Supreme People's Court announced that there had been a large reduction in the number of executions because of the 1997 legal revisions, but the government failed to publish statistics to prove this. The limited records available to Amnesty International at the end of the year showed that at least 1,657 people were sentenced to death and 1,067 executed in 1998; the true figures were believed to be far higher.

In January, 89 people were executed in Beijing alone, purportedly to ensure "law and order" during the Lunar New Year. Others sentenced to death included Ma Yulan, a woman convicted in November of "organizing prostitution" – a capital crime since 1991.

During the year Amnesty International published several reports, including: in February, People's Republic of China: Summary of Amnesty International's Concerns; in June, People's Republic of China: Nine Years after Tiananmen, Still a "Counter-Revolutionary Riot"? and China: Detention and Harassment of Dissidents and Others Between January and June 1998; and in September, People's Republic of China: The Death Penalty in 1997.

On several occasions Amnesty International presented its human rights concerns to government representatives during meetings in various countries.

Hong Kong Special AdministrativeRegion (HKSAR)

Elections for a new legislature (Legco) to replace the Provisional Legislative Council (PLC) proceeded as planned in May, although on the basis of a greatly reduced franchise and curtailed powers for legislators (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Controversy over interpretation of key articles of Hong Kong's post-1997 Constitution, the Basic Law, continued throughout the year, raising questions about the extent of Hong Kong's autonomy.  Controversial legal amendments passed by the PLC included an interpretive amendment whereby all ordinances which previously did not bind the "Crown" will not bind the "State", with the "State" now defined to include subordinate organs of central government such as the Xinhua News Agency. The amendment was widely criticized for undermining the new constitutional order expressed in Article 22 of the Basic Law and for providing potential immunity from Hong Kong laws for a range of official organizations whose precise role in Hong Kong remained unclear.

In December Hong Kong citizens Cheung Tze-keung, Chin Hon-sau and Chan Chi-hou were executed and 13 others were imprisoned in Guangdong, mainland China, for cross-border crimes and crimes committed in Hong Kong, even though Hong Kong law does not provide for the death penalty. The handling of the case appeared to undermine Hong Kong's judicial autonomy under the "one country two systems" principle. The HKSAR government and the Guangdong court cited the Chinese criminal code under which crimes "plotted, planned and prepared" on the mainland can be tried there even if committed elsewhere. However, little reliable evidence was reportedly presented at the trial to prove the crimes were planned on the mainland. Heavily criticized for misinterpreting the Basic Law and failing to assert jurisdiction over the case, the HKSAR government argued that it did not press for the defendants to be returned to Hong Kong because it did not have enough evidence to prosecute in Hong Kong and had no formal agreement with the rest of China on the return of criminal suspects. It promised to negotiate urgently such an agreement.

In November the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association determined that the PLC's repeal of amendments to labour laws, passed shortly before the handover, was a breach of ILO Convention No. 87 and a step backwards in implementing Convention No. 98 on freedom of association (see Amnesty International Report 1998).

The Secretary for Justice announced in June that it was not necessary to enact legislation on national security offences, as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, during the first two-year session of Legco.

Peaceful demonstrations continued throughout the year. In May Lee Kin-yun and Ng Kung-siu were conditionally released after being convicted of desecrating two miniature national and regional flags in January in an incident that posed no threat to public order. It was the first conviction under post-handover laws which place restrictions on non-violent expression of protest. In June, in relation to a separate incident, the Independent Police Complaints Council upheld a demonstrator's complaint, ruling that the police abused their power when they played loud music to drown out protesters' speeches in July 1997.

In May, four police officers were sentenced to between four and six months' imprisonment for torturing a suspect. The four were accused of attempting to force Yiu So-man to admit to possessing heroin by stuffing a shoe in his mouth, pouring water into his nose and ears until he fainted, and threatening to throw him off a balcony.

In August a police officer with a history of mental health problems was convicted of manslaughter for shooting and killing detainee Chan Kwok-keung in Aberdeen police station in 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Police pledged to enhance measures to identify unfit officers. Legislators argued that the implementation of long-delayed safeguards for detainees might have prevented the incident.

Several prison officers and 21 prisoners were injured during a brawl between prisoners in Ma Poping prison on 27 July. More than 70 prisoners complained about violence used by officers during the disturbance when two Justices of the Peace (JPs) made an unannounced visit to the prison. Assault charges brought against several officers were still outstanding. During the year the government began a review of the jp prison inspection system and the Ombudsman criticized prison officers' overuse of their powers to isolate prisoners indefinitely.

In January the HKSAR government announced that it would abolish the "port of first asylum policy" for Vietnamese nationals so that all such people who arrive without proper documentation would in future face repatriation in the same way as other undocumented arrivals. At the end of the year nearly 1,000 refugees remained in Hong Kong with little prospect of resettlement overseas. Of these, 278 who had initially fled Viet Nam to China before seeking asylum in Hong Kong continued a court challenge to the government's plans to remove them to mainland China. A further 500 ethnic Chinese from Viet Nam who had been refused refugee status remained in limbo as the Vietnamese government refuse to accept them for repatriation.

In April Amnesty International submitted comments on the government's draft outline report on implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In June Amnesty International published a report, Hong Kong: No Room For Complacency, describing developments since the handover in July 1997. In October and in December Amnesty International made urgent representations on the case of Cheung Tze-keung and others, seeking a review of the case and commutation of the death sentences.

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