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China: Jack Straw visit this week – Briefing on human rights concerns

EU Arms Embargo

The EU imposed an embargo on arms transfers to China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, in response to "the repressive actions against those who legitimately claim their democratic rights".

Human rights abuses are still rife in China and many of those involved in the 1989 protests are still in prison or harassed by the authorities. The Chinese authorities’ response to death earlier this week of Zhao Ziyang, the former Party Chairman who publicly sympathised with the students’ cause, is evidence that the Chinese government still refuses to publicly address the reason for the embargo.

Yet EU ministers are frequently reported to be considering lifting the embargo this year. While the EU Code of Conduct on arms transfers sets out human rights criteria to be taken into account when granting arms export licences, it has no legal teeth and the weak wording is open to interpretation by Member States.

Even now it is flouted in some parts of the EU and in countries about to join as EU members.

Death Penalty

China executes more people each year than the rest of the countries of the world put together - a senior Chinese legislator suggested in March 2004 that China executes "nearly 10,000" people each year.

Methods include lethal injection and firing squad, and fleets of 'mobile execution chambers' are being rolled out throughout the country. Two-thirds are of China’s 68 capital crimes are non-violent, including tax evasion, smuggling and pimping.


Systematic and widespread use of kicking, beating, electric shocks, suspension by the arms, food and sleep deprivation; allegations are rarely investigated; many have died as a result. China has repeatedly postponed visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, most recently in June 2004.

Human Rights Defenders

Individuals in China who attempt to highlight and alleviate the hardships suffered by groups of people being denied their rights, are at high risk or arbitrary detention, arrest, or being sentenced on extremely vague charges relating to "state secrets".

These individuals include:

  • lawyers attempting to defend farmers’ land rights or urban residents’ housing rights in the face of corruption;
  • AIDS activists campaigning for better health care provision by the state;
  • labour activists attempting to ensure fair treatment of laid-off workers; and
  • individuals seeking the right to redress having lost family members during the 4 June 1989 demonstrations in Beijing.

Repression Of Dissent

Political activists and members of spiritual and religious groups are regularly arrested and imprisoned for exercising their basic right to freedom of expression. Tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners (a spiritual movement) are in prison, many in "re-education through labour" camps and are at risk of torture and ill-treatment if they refuse to renounce their beliefs.

Amnesty is campaigning for the release of Mao Hengfeng, a woman currently held and tortured at a "re-education through labour" camp because she protested when the authorities forced her to abort her child as part of China’s family planning laws.

Repression Of Internet Users

Internet users continued to be arrested after peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Many are imprisoned after unfair trials, often on vaguely defined charges relating to "state secrets" or "subversion".

By the end of April this year at least 60 people had been detained or imprisoned after accessing or circulating politically sensitive information on the Internet. Sentences range from two to twelve years.

In addition, over 100 others were detained for "spreading rumours" or "false information", by Internet and text message, about the outbreak of SARS last year.

Xinjiang Region

The authorities continue to use the international "war against terrorism" to justify harsh repression in the autonomous province of Xinjiang, including serious human rights violations against the ethnic Uighur community who are Muslims. The authorities make little distinction between acts of violence and acts of passive resistance.

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 are just a few examples of repression.

The crackdown against suspected "separatists, terrorists and religious extremists" has intensified following the start of a renewed 100-day security crackdown in October 2003. Arrests continue and thousands of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, remained incarcerated.

Amnesty International is concerned that the Chinese authorities may be putting pressure on neighbouring countries to forcibly return Uighurs suspected of "separatist" activities, including asylum-seekers and refugees.


Freedom of expression, religion and association continue to be severely restricted in Tibet. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience, including many monks and nuns, remain in prison, and reports persist of deaths in custody, torture and ill-treatment.

Hong Kong

While Amnesty International was pleased to see the authorities defer recent plans for ‘anti-subversion’ legislation in Hong Kong, we are monitoring the situation and do not wish to see the introduction of any new laws which restrict fundamental freedoms.

Social Unrest

Low wages, mass lay-offs and corrupt management practices have led to a wave of labour disputes in China which have been met by the authorities with intimidation, arrests and long prison sentences.

More on the human rights situation in China

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