By Leo Lan

As a citizen, imagine you are assured by a regime that you will be abundantly fed but you don’t have the right to choose your state leaders. Imagine also that you are detained after you attempt to attend a human rights training at the United Nations, or even if you just support others’ engagement with UN mechanisms. Would that be the kind of society we would want? These images depict the experiences of Chinese human rights defenders; Chinese citizens live in this kind of society.

At the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting on June 22, China tried again to push members of Council the to support their so-called “mutually beneficial cooperation” resolution (also known as the “Win-Win” resolution), claiming that it will be mutually beneficial to countries which support the resolution. The consequence of passing such a resolution instead will actually mean that the international community is allowing China to redefine universal human rights values and restrict the monitoring and criticism of human rights violations to cooperative “negotiations” among state parties.

File photo: UN.

Activists in China have been repeatedly targeted and detained for trying to engage with the UN’s human rights mechanisms. The tragic death of Cao Shunli, who died in custody on March 14, 2014, is still very much vividly in the memory of fellow activists. Her legacy left other activists lamenting her fate but also more determined to face the risks involved in the struggle to raise concern about human rights causes and cases with the UN mechanisms.

Cao was abducted at the Beijing Capital International Airport as she was about to board a flight to Geneva on September 14, 2013, to participate in a UN human rights training course and attend a session of the Council. She disappeared for five weeks and during that time, her family received no information about her whereabouts. The authorities did not acknowledge detaining her until after China’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva at the Council had concluded in October 2013.

Cao Shunli. Photo via Chinese Human Rights Defenders

Simply for her attempt to go to Geneva, Cao was criminally detained on the charge of “picking quarrels and instigating trouble”. During the next five months, Cao was consistently denied proper medical treatment in detention. The authorities repeatedly rejected her family and lawyer’s requests to release her on bail on medical grounds. Only when authorities realized that she was in critical condition and might die in Chaoyang District Detention Center in Beijing, did they eventually send her to an emergency medical center. They later transferred her to a hospital, where she ultimately died. Even after she was hospitalized, the authorities forced her family to sign documentation acknowledging her release on “bail for medical treatment.” 

Cao Shunli’s death shocked many in the human rights defenders community in China and the international community. Nobody would ever imagine that the Chinese government would go that far to silence someone who merely tried to engage a UN mechanism, despite the fact that civil society, including human rights defenders, were assured the right to participate in the UN’s processes. Yet China’s response to participation in civil society was to silence a human rights defender to death. And that’s not even the end of this tragic story.

Chen Jiafeng. Photo via Chinese Human Rights Defenders

After Cao Shunli’s death, her fellow activists continue to commemorate her death every year. One of her best friends, Chen Jianfang, also a grassroots activist, was incarcerated simply for commemorating Cao. On March 20, 2019, Chen Jianfang was taken away from her home in Shanghai by the police. Just days before she was seized, she had penned a tribute to Cao Shunli, on March 14, marking the fifth anniversary of her death. On the same day that Chen’s essay was posted, several UN independent human rights experts also released a statement, renewing calls for an investigation into Cao Shunli’s death. In Chen’s essay, she denounced the government’s failure to set up an independent investigation into Cao’s case, writing: “I use my grief as a force to carry on the unfinished work of Ms. Cao Shunli, to continue to defend human rights, and never take a break until China achieves genuine freedom and democracy.” Chen was held incommunicado and then indicted on August 30, 2019. As of the date of writing, her trial date has not been set. 

An excerpt from a handbook published by Malho prefecture government in 2015. It shows how carrying corpses in public processions disrupts social stability. The fist says ‘strike hard’ and the corpse is marked ‘self-immolator.’ Photo: Human Rights Watch.

Would it really be “mutually beneficial” to silence and detain people like Cao and Chen? If the member states of the Human Rights Council agree with China’s “mutually beneficial cooperation” resolution, it would only mean that states are agreeing with China’s approach to silence the people and civil society groups who simply want to engage with the Council. It will not be “mutually beneficial”, but it will only be beneficial to authoritarian regimes like China. If the resolution passes, these regimes will get away human rights abuses and avoid any meaningful and effective monitoring of their appalling human rights record.

Silencing dissidents does not mean that human rights violations don’t exist or dissenting views don’t exist. States should uphold universal values, which is the value of upholding the role of the UN Human Rights Council and not being deceived by China’s propaganda. If states do not work to oppose China’s “Win-Win” resolution, it will be a “lose-lose” situation for all. 


Leo Lan is a Research and Advocacy Consultant of the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. He tweets at LeoLanCHRD.

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