Covering events from January - December 2003

Despite a few positive steps, no attempt was made to introduce the fundamental legal and institutional reforms necessary to bring an end to serious human rights violations. Tens of thousands of people continued to be detained or imprisoned in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association, and were at serious risk of torture or ill-treatment. Thousands of people were sentenced to death or executed. Restrictions increased on the cultural and religious rights of the mainly Muslim Uighur community in Xinjiang, where thousands of people have been detained or imprisoned for so-called "separatist" or "terrorist" offences. In Tibet and other ethnic Tibetan areas, freedom of expression and religion continued to be severely restricted. China continued to use the international "war against terrorism" as a pretext for cracking down on peaceful dissent.


A new administration headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao took office in March and introduced a few positive reforms, including the abolition of the "custody and repatriation" system of administrative detention (see below). However, no significant attempt was made to address underlying legal and institutional weaknesses that allow human rights violations to be perpetrated with impunity.

The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in February became the first major test for the new leadership. After months of attempting to conceal vital information about the spread of the disease, the authorities eventually began to respond to international pressure for greater accountability and transparency. The World Health Organization announced that the outbreak was under control in June.

In July, a senior Chinese leader, Luo Gan, called for a continuation of the "strike hard" campaign against crime, which led to a rapid rise in the number of death sentences and executions after its initiation in April 2001, raising fears that this would continue to result in curtailed trial procedures, the use of torture and ill-treatment to obtain "confessions" and imposition of the death penalty without due process.

In August delegates to the Ninth National Women's Congress reportedly discussed a survey that showed that domestic violence had occurred in a third of all Chinese families. Increased media reporting on this issue appeared to indicate a growing willingness to tackle this entrenched and widespread abuse.

China strengthened its ties with neighbouring countries, including Central Asian countries under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as India, Nepal and Pakistan. One motive appeared to be the forcible return of Chinese nationals, particularly Uighur asylum-seekers and refugees branded as "separatists" or "terrorists" by the Chinese authorities.

There were concerns that the international community was taking a "softer" line on China by confining its human rights concerns to private dialogue sessions rather than public scrutiny. These were borne out when for the second year running the UN Commission on Human Rights failed to propose a motion criticizing China's human rights record. Nevertheless, the UN Special Rapporteur on education delivered a highly critical assessment of China's education policies following her visit to Beijing in September.

Violations in the context of economic reform

The authorities took an increasingly hard line against people protesting against house demolitions and evictions, particularly in large cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, where demolitions of old homes were accelerated by Beijing's preparations for hosting the Olympics in 2008. Scores of peaceful protesters were detained and lawyers assisting in such cases were at risk of arrest or intimidation.

The rights of freedom of expression and association of workers' representatives continued to be severely curtailed and independent trade unions remained illegal. Many of those involved in protests against mass lay-offs, low wages, corrupt management and other issues were detained or imprisoned.

  • In October, Zheng Enchong, a defence lawyer in Shanghai, was sentenced to three years in prison after he had assisted hundreds of displaced families to contest their evictions through the courts. He was convicted of the vaguely defined offence of "illegally providing state secrets to entities outside China" following a prosecution which appeared to be politically motivated.
  • In May workers' representatives Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang were sentenced to seven and four years in prison respectively after participating in protests in Liaoyang in northeast China where state-owned companies had laid off millions of men and women. They were transferred in October to Lingyuan Prison, notorious for its poor conditions and brutal regime, despite concerns that they were suffering from serious health problems.

Violations in the context of the spread of HIV/AIDS

Increasing openness on health issues after the outbreak of SARS appeared to result in greater official concern for those affected by HIV/AIDS, but the authorities failed to meet demands for full transparency and accountability in the context of the spread of the virus. Official figures of 840,000 people infected with HIV and 80,000 AIDS patients were considered to be serious underestimates.

The authorities continued to resist calls from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others to conduct an independent inquiry into the operation of state-sanctioned blood collection stations in Henan and other central provinces which reportedly resulted in up to one million HIV infections. Vaguely defined "state secrets" legislation continued to be used to detain those suspected of publicizing statistics about the spread of the disease. Medical specialists and others who attempted to raise public awareness of the issue were arrested or intimidated.

People living with HIV/AIDS continued to suffer because of a lack of specialized medical treatment and some were detained and beaten after participating in protests relating to lack of access to medical care.

  • In September Gao Yaojie, a gynaecologist in her seventies, was tried for libel in connection with her accusation that untrained Henan "folk doctors" had made false claims about their AIDS remedies to make huge profits. She was aquitted in November. There were serious concerns that the case had been brought for political reasons to disrupt her work. Gao Yaojie had reportedly been placed under surveillance by local police and warned against speaking to journalists since she began to draw attention to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Henan in the mid-1990s.

Repression of spiritual and religious groups

Members of unofficial spiritual or religious groups, including some Qi Gong groups and unregistered Christian groups, continued to be arbitrarily detained, tortured and ill-treated.

Rhetoric intensified in the official media against the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which was banned as a "heretical organization" in July 1999, apparently exacerbating the climate of violence and intolerance against the Falun Gong. Detained Falun Gong practitioners, including large numbers of women, were at risk of torture, including sexual abuse, particularly if they refused to renounce their beliefs. According to overseas Falun Gong sources, more than 800 people detained in connection with the Falun Gong had died since 1999, mostly as a result of torture or ill-treatment.

  • Deng Shiying reportedly died on 19 July, the day after her release from Jilin Women's Prison in Changchun City, Jilin Province, where she was serving a seven-year prison sentence in connection with producing and distributing information describing human rights violations against Falun Gong practitioners in China. According to Falun Gong sources, she was beaten by other inmates, apparently prompted by prison officials, shortly before her release.

Political activists and Internet users

Political activists and Internet users continued to be arrested after peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Many were imprisoned after unfair trials, often on vaguely defined charges relating to "state secrets" or "subversion". One dissident, Wang Bingzhang, was sentenced to life imprisonment on "terrorist" charges (see below).

By the end of the year, at least 50 people had been detained or imprisoned after accessing or circulating politically sensitive information on the Internet. Sentences ranged from two to 12 years. Over 100 others were detained for "spreading rumours" or "false information" by Internet and text message about the outbreak of SARS in March. It was unclear how many were still detained at the end of the year.

  • In May, Huang Qi, a computer engineer from Sichuan province, was sentenced to five years' imprisonment for "inciting subversion of the state" after he published articles on his website about human rights and political issues. Huang Qi had been detained without access to his family for almost three years before his sentence was announced. His sentence was upheld on appeal in August. In November, Liu Di, a psychology student from Beijing, who had appealed for the release of Huang Qi in an Internet chatroom under the pseudonym "Stainless Steel Mouse", was released on bail after being detained for over a year. In December it was announced that she would not face formal indictment.
  • Veteran dissident Kang Yuchun was released from prison five years before the end of his sentence on the eve of the European Union (EU)-China human rights dialogue in October.

Torture, administrative detention and unfair trials

Torture and ill-treatment remained widespread in many state institutions. Common methods included kicking, beating, electric shocks, suspension by the arms, shackling in painful positions, and sleep and food deprivation. Women in detention were vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse.

"Custody and repatriation", a system of administrative detention which had allowed for the arbitrary detention and abuse of millions of migrant workers, vagrants, homeless children and others in urban areas, was formally abolished when new rules for dealing with vagrancy came into effect in August. Its abolition was prompted by a public outcry about the brutal murder of migrant worker Sun Zhigang in March while he was being held unlawfully in a "custody and repatriation" centre in Guangzhou city.

However, another system, "re-education through labour", continued to allow for the detention of hundreds of thousands of people for up to three years without charge or trial. In September the Ministry of Public Security announced new regulations aimed at preventing the police from using torture in administrative cases, but it remained unclear how well they would be enforced in practice.

People accused of both political and criminal offences continued to be denied due process. Detainees' access to lawyers and family members continued to be severely restricted. Political trials fell far short of international fair trial standards. Those charged with offences related to "state secrets" or "terrorism" had their legal rights restricted and were tried in camera.

  • In February US-based dissident Wang Bingzhang became the first democracy activist known to have been convicted of "terrorist" offences. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with various charges, including passing military secrets to Taiwan and leading a "terrorist" group. There were serious violations of Chinese and international law during his trial and pre-trial detention. In May the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that his arrest and detention were arbitrary and called on the authorities to remedy the situation.

Death penalty

The death penalty continued to be used extensively and arbitrarily as a result of political interference. People were executed for non-violent crimes such as tax fraud and pimping as well as drug offences and violent crimes. The authorities continued to keep national statistics on death sentences and executions secret. By the end of the year, with the limited records available, AI had recorded 1,639 death sentences and 726 executions, although the true figures were believed to be much higher.

Execution was by shooting and increasingly by lethal injection. In March it was reported that the authorities in Yunnan province had purchased 18 mobile execution chambers for execution by lethal injection to improve the "efficiency" and "cost-effectiveness" of executions.

Judicial interpretations issued by the Supreme Court in May and September respectively extended the potential application of the death penalty to people suffering from SARS who deliberately spread the disease, and to those involved in the illegal production, trade and storage of defined quantities of toxic chemicals.

  • In January Lobsang Dhondup, a Tibetan from Sichuan province, was executed after being convicted after an unfair trial of "causing explosions" and other offences. The authorities stated that his trial was held in secret because it involved "state secrets" without providing further clarification. He was executed hours after his sentence was passed, without his case being referred to the Supreme Court for review as required under Chinese law, and despite official assurances to the USA and the EU that his case would receive a "lengthy" review.

North Korean asylum-seekers

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of North Korean asylum-seekers in northeast China were arrested and forcibly returned during the year. China continued to deny North Koreans access to any refugee determination procedures despite evidence that many had a genuine claim to asylum and in breach of the UN Refugee Convention to which China is a state party. Reports suggested that the majority of those crossing the border were women who were at risk of being sold as brides or forced into prostitution. In August China reportedly increased its military presence along the border in an apparent attempt to curb the flow of North Koreans into China.

The crack-down extended to people suspected of helping North Koreans, including members of foreign aid and religious organizations, ethnic Korean Chinese nationals, and journalists attempting to raise awareness of their plight, many of whom were detained for interrogation.

  • In May, Seok Jae-hyun, a South Korean journalist, was sentenced to two years in prison for "trafficking in human beings" after he photographed a group of refugees boarding boats bound for South Korea and Japan. It was not known what became of the several dozen North Koreans boarding the boats who were detained at the same time.

Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

The authorities continued to use the international "war against terrorism" to justify harsh repression in Xinjiang, which continued to result in serious human rights violations against the ethnic Uighur community. The authorities continued to make little distinction between acts of violence and acts of passive resistance. Repression was often manifested through assaults on Uighur culture, such as the closure of several mosques, restrictions on the use of the Uighur language and the banning of certain Uighur books and journals.

The crack-down against suspected "separatists, terrorists and religious extremists" intensified following the start of a renewed 100-day security crack-down in October. Arrests continued and thousands of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, remained in prison. Concerns increased that China was putting pressure on neighbouring countries to forcibly return Uighurs suspected of "separatist" activities, including asylum-seekers and refugees.

  • Officials confirmed in October that Shaheer Ali, who had been forcibly returned to China from Nepal in 2002, had been executed after being found guilty of "terrorist" offences in a closed trial. He had been recognized as a refugee by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Nepal. Shaheer Ali had secretly left behind a detailed testimony in which he described being beaten, given electric shocks and kicked unconscious during a previous period of detention in 1994.

Tibet Autonomous Region and other ethnic Tibetan areas

A series of releases of high-profile Tibetan prisoners of conscience during 2002 was not maintained in 2003, and freedom of religion, association and expression continued to be severely restricted. Contacts between the Chinese authorities and representatives of the Tibetan government in exile apparently failed to result in any significant policy changes. Over 100 Tibetans, mainly Buddhist monks and nuns, continued to be imprisoned in violation of their fundamental human rights, and arbitrary arrests and unfair trials continued.

  • Choedar Dargye, Gedun Thogphel and Jampa Choephel, three monks from Khangmar monastery, Ngaba prefecture, Sichuan province, were tried in August. They had been arrested for distributing material calling for independence for Tibet, painting a Tibetan flag and possessing photographs of the Dalai Lama. They were sentenced to 12 years in prison. Three others were arrested in connection with the same case. Some sources indicated that they had been sentenced to between one and eight years in prison. One of the three, Jamyang Oezer, was reported to be seriously ill in hospital.

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

In the wake of protests involving half a million people in July, the Hong Kong authorities eventually withdrew proposed legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that Hong Kong is to enact its own laws to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion. There were serious concerns that such legislation could be used to suppress rights to freedom of expression and association as well as legitimate activities of NGOs and the media. The authorities promised further public consultation on revised proposals, but made no commitment on a timescale for their reintroduction.

AI country visits

In December, an AI delegate attended an EU-China experts' seminar in Venice, Italy, on judicial guarantees of human rights and capacity-building of NGOs.

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