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“We can dig a pit and bury you alive” Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China, 2011

“We can dig a pit and bury you alive”

Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China, 2011

Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)


Press release

The state of human rights in China continued to deteriorate in the year 2011. As documented in this annual report from CHRD, it has been a year  of harsh crackdowns for human rights defenders (HRDs), characterized by  lengthy prison sentences, extensive use of extralegal detention, and  enforced disappearance and torture.

Against the backdrop of the wave of protests that swept across North Africa and the Middle East and brought down entrenched dictatorships, anonymous online calls in China for “Jasmine rallies” clearly unnerved the government. Large numbers of security personnel were deployed in the areas where protests were expected to take place; an unknown number of people (estimated in the thousands) who had spoken out on the subject or posted related information online, or who participated in the rallies, were seized and taken away for interrogation. Dozens of human rights activists, lawyers, and outspoken intellectuals were disappeared and tortured, and several veteran democracy advocates were sentenced to long prison terms.

“This ‘Jasmine Crackdown,’ felt most keenly by HRDs, marked yet another low point in the downward spiral of China’s human rights records, making 2011 the most repressive year since the rights defense (weiquan) movement began in the early 2000s,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s International Director.

Among the rights defenders surveyed for this report, over half said that in comparison to the previous year freedoms of expression and assembly—essential prerequisites for the defense of human rights—had deteriorated in 2011. The crackdown impacted not only the individual activists, but also menacingly conveyed a warning to the ordinary Chinese citizens: anyone who challenges the government will be punished.

One of the most alarming developments in 2011 was the extensive use of enforced disappearance against HRDs. Although thousands of citizens are  routinely held in illegal “black jails”  for complaining about  government misconduct, the use of enforced disappearance, which occurred  only rarely before the Jasmine Crackdown, was stepped up: at least two  dozen high-profile activists across the country were disappeared and  held for weeks or months at a time. In August, the government announced draft amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) that would allow certain detainees to be held incommunicado and in undisclosed location for up to six months, without any notification being provided to their families. The Chinese government announced in the 2012 annual March meeting of the National People’s Congress that some changes have been made to the problematic provisions of the CPL, notably that the families would now be notified of the “residential surveillance,” but the final text of the law is yet to be made public.

A disturbing development in 2011 for China’s 250 million registered users of microblogging services (“weibo”) was the introduction of the “real-name registration system.”  In December the Beijing municipal and Guangdong provincial governments, where major internet companies are based, announced that new users would be required to register for an account using their real names, with existing users expected to comply with this new requirement in the near future. This measure is probably one of the most effective yet in reining in the power of microblogs to expose rights abuses and put pressure on the authorities.

In December 2011, just days before the end of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng’s five-year suspension of a prison term for subversion imposed in December 2006, a Beijing court cancelled the suspension and ordered him to serve his full three-year sentence in a Xinjiang prison.

Disappeared for 20 months, Gao’s whereabouts remain unclear as he was not allowed to see his family when they tried to visit him in prison in January 2012. In December 2011 and January 2012, as the anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring approached, the government sent a clear warning that it would not tolerate any activities promoting democratic transition by imposing heavy custodial sentences on three democracy activists: Chen Wei, Chen Xi and Li Tie.

Ending 2011 on a slightly more positive note, in November the Guangzhou government announced “innovative reforms” intended to make it easier for certain categories of “social organizations” to legally register, with such reforms possibly being rolled out to the rest of China later.

However, organizations which focus on the promotion of human rights are unlikely to benefit from such measures and will continue to suffer from close monitoring and forced closure.

Other key findings of this report

  • In 2011, CHRD documented 3,833 incidences of individuals arbitrarily detained for their work in defense of human rights and 159 incidences of torture of such persons.
  • Of this total, the vast majority were held in forms of detention with no basis in Chinese law or regulations, particularly black jails and soft detention.
  • According to a survey of 57 HRDs conducted for this report, one in four activists suffered torture or enforced disappearance; half were detained; and two out of three were monitored or harassed in 2011 for their activities.

“The extent to which torture, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary detention is routinely used by the authorities to penalize activists is truly alarming,” said Renee Xia, “CHRD’s survey provides new evidence that the Chinese government has utterly failed to honor international obligations to protect human rights defenders.”

This is CHRD’s fifth annual report on HRDs in China. It examines their situation China during 2011, the conditions in which their work was conducted, and the extent to which the government has or has not fulfilled its obligations to protect their rights as articulated in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The report has been compiled based on a review of data gathered during 2011. In addition, a survey was conducted with 57 human rights activists based in 13 provinces and municipalities across China. International and domestic media reporting and the work of other human rights organizations on the situation of human rights in China during 2011 were also consulted.

Media Contacts

Renee Xia, International Director, +852 8191 6937  or +1 240 374 8937,

Wang Songlian, Research Coordinator, +852 8191

Please click here to read the full report.

March 9, 2012


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