With President Xi Jinping at the helm, the Chinese government doubled down on repression inside and outside the country in 2021. Its “zero-tolerance” policy towards Covid-19 strengthened the authorities’ hand, as they imposed harsh policies in the name of public health.
Beijing’s information manipulation has become pervasive: the government censors, punishes dissent, propagates disinformation, and tightens the reins on tech giants. The once-cacophonous internet is now dominated by pro-government voices that report to the authorities on people whose views they deem insufficiently nationalistic.
Xi’s latest promise to tackle inequality and deliver “common prosperity” rings hollow as his government suffocates grassroots voices. After the self-immolation of a delivery truck driver in January, the government tightened regulatory controls to protect gig workers, yet also cracked down on their activism. China’s rapidly expanding inequality led some young people to advocate a form of passive resistance known as “tang ping”—opting out of consumption and demeaning work—a concept that the government condemned and censored.
Authorities devastated human rights protections and civil liberties in Hong Kong, recasting much of the peaceful behavior that had undergirded Hong Kong life, such as publishing news, as acts of subversion. An April 2021 report by Human Rights Watch found authorities were committing crimes against humanity as part of a widespread and systematic attack on Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, including mass detention, torture, and cultural persecution. Tibetans continued to be subjected to grave abuses, including harsh and lengthy imprisonment for exercising their basic rights.
The Chinese government’s rights record and its “wolf warrior” diplomacy resulted in increasingly negative public perceptions of the government in some countries abroad. New research from AidData revealed US$385 billion in “hidden debt” owed by developing countries to Chinese authorities. Some foreign governments took more concrete measures to press the Chinese government to improve its rights record, at home and abroad, but those remained inadequate to effectively challenge the scope and scale of Beijing’s abuses.
Beijing and Hong Kong authorities moved aggressively to roll back rights in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy activists were arbitrarily arrested and detained. In January, authorities arrested 53 politicians for “subversion” for their involvement in a July 2020 public opinion poll. In September, three members of the group Student Politicism were arrested for “conspiracy to incite subversion” for delivering snacks to imprisoned protesters. Ordinary people were arrested for public defiance, such as for displaying flags bearing the banned 2019 protest slogan, “Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
At time of writing, over 150 people had been arrested for violating the draconian National Security Law (NSL) since it was imposed on June 30, 2020. Some NSL suspects held in custody were mistreated; pro-democracy activist Tam Tak-chi has been held in solitary confinement since he was detained in September 2020.
Authorities turned Hong Kong’s quasi-democratic institutions into rubber-stamp bodies. In March, Beijing imposed “electoral reforms,” requiring that only those loyal to the Chinese Communist Party could win a seat in Hong Kong’s legislature. In April, following citizens’ calls to cast blank ballots to protest the changes, the government revised the electoral laws to prohibit “incitement of others to cast blank ballots,” with sentences of up to three years in prison. In September, when the government required elected members to the District Council—a consultative body that advises the government on local issues—to take a loyalty oath, about half resigned as they anticipated being disqualified by the government for their pro-democracy views.
Authorities banned the annual Victoria Park vigil commemorating victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. On the day of the vigil, police arrested the vice-chair of the organizing group, Hong Kong Alliance, cordoned off the park, and stationed officers throughout the city to prevent remembrances. In September, police froze the Alliance’s HK$2.2 million (US$283,000) in assets, closed its June 4th Museum about the massacre, revoked its registration, deleted its social media accounts, and arrested its four leaders for “inciting subversion.”
Dozens of civil society organizations disbanded in 2021, including protest organizer Civil Human Rights Front in August and the legal aid group 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund in November. Major labor groups, including the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), disbanded in August and September respectively.
Throughout 2021, Beijing’s newspapers smeared the Hong Kong Bar Association and its chairperson, Paul Harris, and called for his resignation. In August, citing threats to himself and his family, a pro-democracy candidate withdrew from a council election of the Law Society, a solicitors’ association. Candidates with Beijing ties later won.
Human Rights Defenders
Authorities continued to crack down on human right defenders. Police in Hunan province detained activist Ou Biaofeng in December 2020, and later charged him with “inciting subversion.” Ou has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and a supporter of Dong Yaoqiong, who was held in a psychiatric hospital for over a year after she splashed ink on a poster of President Xi in 2018. In February, Dong was reportedly taken into a psychiatric hospital again after she posted on Twitter about being subjected to police surveillance.
In January 2021, a court in Guizhou province sentenced former journalist Zhang Jialong to one-and-a-half years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for criticizing the government’s censorship and urging the US to help “tear down” the Great Firewall in a 2014 meeting with then-US Secretary of State John Kerry.
In April, Beijing police detained food delivery worker and labor activist Chen Guojiang, accusing him of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after he tried to unionize delivery workers, undermining the government’s vow to protect gig workers from dangerous working conditions.
In May, Guangzhou police detained human rights activist and writer Wang Aizhong on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
In July, a court in Hebei province sentenced outspoken agricultural mogul Sun Dawu to 18 years in prison on charges including “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “assembling a crowd to attack state agencies.” Sun was also a longtime supporter of human rights activists and lawyers.
In August, a court in Anhui province sentenced activist Zhou Weilin to three-and-a-half years in prison for his tweets critical of the government and articles he wrote for the overseas-based Rights Defense Network website.
Also in August, Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, the founder and two staff members of the anti-discrimination group Changsha Funeng, were sentenced to between two and five years in prison in a secret trial. Authorities detained the three in July 2019, on charges of “subversion.”
In September, prominent rights lawyers Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong were indicted for “subversion.” Authorities detained the activists in late 2019 and early 2020, for participating a gathering where attendees discussed human rights and China’s political future. In February, Beijing police detained Li Qiaochu, a women’s and labor rights activist, and partner of Xu, charging her with “subversion.” While in detention, Li was taken to a hospital several times for treatment of mental and physical illnesses.
Also in September, the authorities forcibly disappeared Huang Xueqin, a journalist and leading voice in China’s #MeToo movement, and Wang Jianbing, a labor activist. In the same month, detained human rights lawyer Chang Weiping was allowed by authorities to meet with his lawyer for the first time since he was forcibly disappeared in 2020.
Freedom of Expression
Authorities harassed, detained, or prosecuted numerous people for their online posts and private chat messages critical of the government, bringing trumped-up charges of “spreading rumors,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and “insulting the country’s leaders.” A 2021 Wall Street Journal report found that 58 Chinese users were punished with prison sentences between six months and four years since 2017 for their posts on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube—all platforms banned in China.
An increasing number of people were punished for speeches deemed “unpatriotic.” In February, at least seven people were detained for comments in relation to the border clash with Indian troops. In March, the government passed a provision stipulating that slandering “heroes and martyrs” could be punished with up to three years in prison. Former journalist Qiu Ziming was sentenced to an eight-month prison term for suggesting the real death toll of Chinese soldiers in the clash was higher than the official figure.
Authorities continued to suppress online content not in line with “core socialist values.” They targeted “misbehaving” celebrities and their online fan groups, and banned some reality shows. In April, censors deleted from WeChat and other websites an article penned by former premier Wen Jiaobao in which he wrote, “China, in my vision, should be a country of justice and fairness.”
In December 2020, the Beijing police detained Haze Fan, a journalist for Bloomberg News, on suspicion of endangering national security. In July, the Communist Youth League encouraged the harassment and doxing of foreign journalists who were covering the flood disaster in Zhengzhou.
Authorities attacked press freedom. They forced the city’s second most popular newspaper, Apple Daily¸ to close in June, after arresting its owner, Jimmy Lai, top executives, and editors, freezing Lai’s HK$500 million (US$64 million) worth of assets, and raiding the paper’s headquarters. Lai was also sentenced to a total of 14 months in prison in April for attending protests; he faced an additional six charges in four other cases.
The government also transformed the previously independent Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). In May, it replaced the head of RTHK with Li Pak Chuen, who had no prior media experience. Li then censored current affairs programs, prohibited staff from attending press award events that honored their coverage of the 2019 protests, and fired journalists and talk show hosts for their views critical of the government.
Freedom of Religion
Chinese law allows people to practice only five officially recognized religions in officially approved premises, and authorities retain control over personnel appointments, publications, finances, and seminary applications. Since 2016, when President Xi called for “Sinicization” of religions—which aims to ensure that the Chinese Communist Party is the arbiter of people’s spiritual life—state control over religion has strengthened.
In 2021, police arrested those who worshipped outside of state-sanctioned parameters. In May, a Shenzhen court sentenced four employees from a company that sold audio devices broadcasting the Bible to between 15 months and six years for “operating an illegal business.” In July, five members of an unauthorized “house church” in Shanxi province were detained on suspicion of “illegally crossing the border” after they went to a January 2020 religious conference in Malaysia. In August, police took nine people involved with the Golden Lamp Church, an unauthorized “house church” in Linfen, Shanxi province, into custody.
Authorities continued efforts to alter the architectural style of mosques and landmarks to make them look more “Chinese” across the country, while Hui Muslim activists said police had harassed them for criticizing the policy.
Police censored the internet through website blocking for the first time. In January 2021, the police ordered internet service providers to block access to HKChronicles.com, a website that documents police abuse but had also revealed personal information about police officers. In June, an Israeli hosting company took down the website of a Hong Kong exile initiative, 2021 Hong Kong Charter, at the request of the Hong Kong police, though it reinstated the site following an international outcry. In September, Hong Kong police blocked the website of the June 4th Museum.
Academic freedom deteriorated. University administrations were hostile towards student unions throughout 2021, while a number of academics were fired, or their contracts were not renewed, because of their pro-democracy views.
Authorities censored art, forcing theaters to pull a documentary about the 2019 protests in March, and forcing a new museum, M+, to pull a work by Chinese dissident-artist Ai Weiwei from its opening in November.
The Chinese authorities are committing crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. Abuses committed included mass arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances, mass surveillance, cultural and religious persecution, separation of families, forced returns to China, forced labor, and sexual violence and violations of reproductive rights. Little news trickled out of Xinjiang in 2021, however, as the authorities maintained tight control over information, and as access to the region, already limited, was further constrained due to Covid-19 movement restrictions.
Some Uyghurs who disappeared into Xinjiang’s abusive “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” were confirmed imprisoned, including prominent academic Rahile Dawut, though her alleged crime, length of sentence, and location of imprisonment remained unclear. There were also reports of Uyghurs dying in detention, including biotech researcher Mihriay Erkin, 31, businessman Yaqub Haji, 45, and poet and publisher Haji Mirzahid Kerimi, 82.
A report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project showed the Xinjiang government dispossessed Uyghurs by confiscating $84.8 million worth of assets from 21 jailed Uyghurs and auctioning the assets online.
Neighboring governments continued to facilitate Beijing’s abuses. In September, Kazakh authorities banned a Russian-American researcher, Yevgeniy Bunin, from the country in apparent efforts to stymie his work documenting Xinjiang’s abuses. Also in September, Turkey denied entry to Dolkun Isa, president of the Uyghur exile organization World Uyghur Congress. Uyghurs abroad from Afghanistan to Morocco feared deportations to China as the Chinese government continued to seek their return for alleged terrorism, a term vaguely defined under Chinese law that encompasses peaceful expression and advocacy.
Businesses continued to be subjected to heightened scrutiny over their Xinjiang involvement. In March, Chinese consumers boycotted international clothing brands for vowing to stop purchasing cotton from Xinjiang due to reports of forced labor. In April, Shenzhen police shut down the Chinese affiliate of a US labor auditing nonprofit, Verite. In July, US photography company Kodak deleted from Instagram a photographer’s post calling Xinjiang “dystopian.” The US Customs and Border Protection agency issued numerous import bans related to Xinjiang, including cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, and all downstream products that use Xinjiang cotton and tomatoes manufactured outside the region. There are growing calls for other countries to impose similar bans on Xinjiang imports.
Authorities in Tibetan areas continue to severely restrict freedoms of religion, expression, movement, and assembly. They also fail to address popular concerns about mining and land grabs by local officials, which often involve intimidation and unlawful use of force by security forces.
Following a November 2020 announcement tightening controls on online communications that “undermine national unity,” there was a surge of reported detentions of Tibetans in 2021 for alleged online offenses. In particular, Tibetans who communicated with people outside China were harassed and punished, regardless of the content of their communications.
The government stepped up coercive assimilationist policies. Chinese language classes were already compulsory for schoolteachers, local officials, and vocational trainees. In July, authorities announced that kindergartens in ethnic minority areas must use Chinese as a medium of instruction. In August, President Xi emphasized the subordination of minority identities to a single national identity at the national “Ethnic Work” conference.
Authorities’ heightened surveillance and intimidation at all levels, from online to neighborhoods to schools, and have rendered protests—such as those over the downgrading of minority language in Inner Mongolia in 2020—virtually impossible in Tibetan areas.
At least eight Tibetan prisoners or suspects were released due to ill health, some due to torture, four of whom died soon after, though the true number is unknown due to extreme information controls in Tibet.
Belt and Road Initiative
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in 2013, is the government’s trillion-dollar infrastructure and investment program stretching across some 70 countries. Some BRI projects have been criticized for lack of transparency, disregard of community concerns, and negative environmental impacts.
Human Rights Watch published a report, in August, that documented economic, social, and cultural rights violations in Cambodia resulting from the Lower Sesan 2 dam’s displacement of nearly 5,000 people between 2013 and 2018 and impacts on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of others upstream and downstream. The dam was a BRI project funded mainly by a Chinese-state owned bank and built by a Chinese-state owned electricity generation company.
China Labor Watch, an NGO, reported, in April, that overseas Chinese workers working on BRI infrastructure projects in Algeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, and other countries were victims of human trafficking and forced labor, including being deceived into working illegally, held against their will, and forced to work while infected with Covid-19 in early and mid-2020.
The Free World reaction
Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States imposed coordinated and bilateral targeted sanctions on Chinese government officials and companies responsible for serious human rights violations, including international crimes, in Xinjiang. The US also imposed sanctions on several senior Hong Kong officials for imposing the National Security Law. In August, the US gave Hong Kong people in the US a temporary 18-month “safe haven.”
In September, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed “regret” that the authorities had not given her meaningful access to Xinjiang, and said that her office would issue an assessment of human rights in that region. Her announcement followed a joint statement of concern by 44 governments at the 47th session of the UN Human Rights Council. A similar statement was delivered by 43 governments at the UN General Assembly in October 2021.
Parliamentarians in Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and the UK passed resolutions accusing the Chinese government of committing genocide against Uyghurs; some also called on their governments to limit participation in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The UK Parliament passed a non-binding motion supporting a diplomatic boycott of the Games. Members of the European Parliament halted the EU’s proposed Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China, citing human rights concerns, and freezing consideration of the deal for as long as they are subject to Beijing’s counter sanctions. In September, they also adopted a recommendation for a new, more assertive, and better coordinated EU strategy on China, placing human rights at its core.
EU member states continued to issue strong statements of condemnation of China’s human rights abuses at the UN. In July, the European Commission issued a guidance note to help businesses address the risk of forced labor, and, in September, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged that the EU would introduce legislation banning goods produced through forced labor to enter the EU market.
New research shows that Chinese government-linked disinformation campaigns have spread in scope, languages used, and platforms globally, including in 2021 on the origin of Covid-19.
In response to sanctions imposed on Chinese government officials, companies, and agencies, in March, Chinese authorities accused several EU officials and civil society groups of “maliciously spread[ing] lies and disinformation,” and imposed vague sanctions on them. In July, Beijing announced another round of sanctions on US-based individuals and organizations, including Human Rights Watch.