By Alison Kentish
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 14 2021 – China must end its campaign against individuals seeking redress for COVID-19 linked abuses and the human rights lawyers and activists who help them, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said as reports ranging from allegedly trapping them inside their homes, to chaining alleged lock-down violators to metal posts emerge.
This comes as the World Health Organisation team has arrived in Wuhan to investigate the origins of the outbreak and just as China announced today, Jan. 14, its first COVID-19-related death in 8 months.
In a statement last week, the New York based rights group said that “under the pretext of COVID-19 lockdowns”, Chinese authorities unleashed cruel measures against its citizens. HRW said the government is attempting to silence its critics, through surveillance, intimidation and lengthy prison terms.
HRW China Researcher Yaqui Wang told IPS that governments and the international community should apply pressure on the Chinese government to end the abuses.
Inter Press Service (IPS): You cited international human rights law, which dictates that state restrictions due to public health needs must be lawful, necessary and proportionate. Based on reports on the ground, are restrictions in China flouting those conditions?
Yaqiu Wang (YW): Right. There were measurements undertaken by the Chinese government that seemed to be unnecessarily harsh and failed to respect human dignity. For example, officials were seen sealing apartment doors to prevent people from leaving their homes.
Some residents were chained to metal posts for purportedly violating stay-at-home orders. Videos circulated online showed residents yelling from their homes in despair. In Xinjiang, authorities forced some residents to drink traditional Chinese medicines.
According to international human rights law, when quarantines or lockdowns are imposed, the authorities are obligated to ensure access to food, water, health care, and care-giving support. Yet, during the Wuhan lockdown, you saw on the Chinese internet many chilling stories: A boy with cerebral palsy died because no one took care of him after his father was taken to be quarantined. A woman with leukemia died after being turned away by several hospitals because of concerns about cross-infection. A mother desperately pleaded to the police to let her leukemia-stricken daughter through a checkpoint at a bridge to get chemotherapy. A man with kidney disease jumped to his death from his apartment balcony after he couldn’t get access to health facilities for dialysis.
Bear in mind, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg given the stringent censorship people in China are living under. Information critical of the government is swiftly removed. More often than not, people don’t even bother to voice their criticism or tell their stories knowing they could be punished.
IPS: You expressed concern about human rights abuses being carried out under the guise of public health lockdowns. What are some of the ways citizens say they are being intimidated?
YW: For example, in the name of cracking down on false information about the pandemic, the authorities have detained hundreds, if not thousands, of people for “rumour-mongering,” censored online discussions of the epidemic, curbed media reporting, and imprisoned citizen journalists.
IPS: How concerned are you about surveillance tactics that intercept citizens’ communications platforms? Are you worried that citizens will be afraid to come forward and voice any concerns?
YW: That is now the digital reality of people living in China. Whatever you say publicly on Chinese social media or privately through Chinese messaging apps is open for the Chinese government to see. If you criticise the government, even privately, you can be harassed, or worse, imprisoned. The perhaps more pernicious effect is that knowing the risks, many choose to self-censor.
The fear permeates the Chinese society, long existed before the pandemic.
IPS: You stated that residents also fear detainment and harsh punishments, including lengthy prison sentences if they speak out. Are those fears founded on hearings taking place during the pandemic?
YW: Since the outbreak in Wuhan, authorities detained several citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan. A court in Shanghai sentenced Zhang Zhan to four years in prison after convicting her of picking quarrels and provoking trouble. The situation and whereabouts of Fang Bin, a businessman in Wuhan who has been detained for posting videos of city hospital, remain unknown. Beijing-based activists Chen Mei and Cai Wei, whom the police detained in April for archiving censored COVID-19-related information, remain in a detention center awaiting trial.
IPS: Are there measures in place to assist citizens who do come forward, but would require some level of anonymity in reporting grievances?
YW: It has actually become very difficult. One the one hand, many securer communication tools, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, are banned in China. It is increasingly difficult to circumvent censorship and obtain secure communication because unauthorised VPNs are increasingly banned in China. So, people are left to use domestic apps, and these apps are heavily surveilled and censored. For example, all WeChat accounts are attached to a phone number which is attached to your national ID card. The Chinese government has pretty much eliminated anonymity in the Chinese digital space.
IPS: You are calling for an end to intimidation and surveillance of those critical of the government’s COVID response. Bearing in mind the realities on the ground in China, are you hoping that, at the very least, you can shed light on what is going on?
YW: Yes, so people outside of China are aware of the abuses going on inside China. We hope governments and the international community can put pressure on the Chinese government to cease the abuses.