New democratic reform proposal unveiled Wednesday by Beijing for implementation in Hong Kong leave much to be desired, and fall significantly short of widely publicized protester demands for “true universal suffrage.” While proposed changes do allow each resident to vote for Hong Kong’s leader, candidates are only eligible after they’ve been successfully “vetted” by Beijing — a clear affront to the principle of free elections. Lawmakers in Hong Kong have reportedly vowed to veto the bill.
In another recent high-profile case highlighting China’s assault on dissent, several women’s rights activists were arrested without charges in Beijing in March for their role in organizing small-scale demonstrations against sexual harassment on public transportation. A few of them were held for over a month, and were only released after intense international pressure.
Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, cited the unsatisfactory Hong Kong reform proposal as well as the plight of the so-called “Feminist Five” as the latest of many human rights violations under the presidency of Xi Jinping. At a lecture at Columbia University on Wednesday, Richardson discussed the increasing crackdown on civil society in China, and her organization’s work to combat it.
Since Xi Jinping took office in 2013, Richardson explained, China has found itself in a phase of transition. The Communist Party is declining in popularity, the fabled growth of China’s economy has slowed, and a growing impatience with the closed society has sparked protests and other advocacy efforts. As a result, Jinping’s regime has pushed for a return to Party ideology, creating an untenable balance. “On one hand, you have the rise and proliferation of independent voices in China,” Richardson said. “On the other, you have the extreme hostility of the government toward any independent organizing.”
The innocuous women’s rights activists showed just how sensitive Beijing can be regarding uncontrolled social movements. “The fact that China doesn’t see civil society groups as an asset is alarming,” Richardson said. But laws unrelated to activism can also facilitate abuses: Richardson said that one of her organization’s greatest concerns in China right now is the country’s new counterterrorism law, drafted in January. The law fails to provide “basic legal protections for criminal suspects,” according to the Human Rights Watch website. “You think the Patriot Act was bad?” Richardson asked. “Well, this is enough to make anyone’s blood run cold.”
Two years into what is likely to be a ten-year Jinping presidency, the international human rights community is bracing itself for a bumpy ride. “Since Xi Jinping came to power, this community’s been under incredible assault,” Richardson said. Human Rights Watch has stopped trying to keep detailed numbers on exactly how many Chinese citizens have been detained, harassed, surveilled or otherwise persecuted since 2013: “We just can’t keep up.”
It’s a bleak portrait, but there are bright spots. Richardson said the state has made some small concessions to activist communities, particularly environmentally-themed NGOS, which are permitted to bring forth cases against companies. Could that create sort of trickle-down freedom? “Maybe that creates a little more room for other kinds of activism through the legal system,” Richardson said. “The fact that people are demanding these changes is, alone, grounds for optimism.”