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Chinese military police officer stands guard in Tiananmen Square JASON LEE/Reuters/PA Images

The world cannot ignore China’s worsening abuse of basic human rights

A regime that denies proper medical treatment for a Nobel Laureate dying of cancer, detains his widow, disqualifies democratically-elected legislators for quoting Mahatma Gandhi, regards an international treaty it has signed as having “no practical significance”, restricts WhatsApp and bans Winnie the Pooh is one that forfeits all respect and indeed deserves the outrage and condemnation of the world. And yet, still democratic world leaders kowtow to China’s one party state and fail to defend their values.

Ten days ago, Liu Xiaobo became only the second Nobel Laureate in history to die in custody. No one has been able to reach his widow, Liu Xia, believed to remain in detention. Other Nobel Laureates, such as Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, spent many years in detention, but the only other Laureate to die in state custody was Nazi opponent Carl von Ossietzky. That is not the only thing Adolf Hitler and Xi Jinping have in common.

China is ruled by a regime that uses torture and other violence with impunity. Liu Xiaobo’s death could have been prevented if proper medical treatment was provided at an earlier stage. The refusal to provide it constitutes torture. Yet Liu Xiaobo’s case, while symbolic and tragic, is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Abuses of basic human rights are widespread

On 9 July 2015, an unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, and their relatives and colleagues, began, with over 300 being detained, interrogated or disappeared. While most have now been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, many have testimonies of horrific physical and psychological torture. Frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication and prolonged isolation are the norm for prisoners of conscience in China – not only for the lawyers and activists detained in the last two years, but for the people they were trying to defend: practitioners of the banned Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong spiritual movement, unregistered Christians, Uighur Muslims, Tibetans and any perceived critic of the Chinese Communist Party. According to Wang Qiaoling, the wife of lawyer Li Heping who was released last month:

“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…”

Another prisoner of conscience claims that:

“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.”

Frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication and prolonged isolation are the norm for prisoners of conscience in China

Zhang Shaojie, a pastor from Henan, is barely alive after enduring various forms of torture. He was sentenced in 2014 to a twelve-year term and according to his daughter Esther Zhang Huixin, he is being intentionally starved of daylight, sleep and food. She adds:

“They cruelly torture my father. He’s unable to see the sun during the day. He’s deprived of sleep for 24 hours at a time. The prison gives him only one steamed bun a day and intentionally starves him. According to people who have been released from that prison, my father is barely alive, suffering both mentally and physically.”

Yang Hua, another jailed Christian pastor, was described in March as “on the verge of paralysis” as a result of severe inflammation in his legs. Proper medical treatment has been denied, with only penicillin prescribed.

In China, if a dissident or religious minority leader is not arrested and tortured, they are often disappeared. Catholic Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou has not been seen for some time, prompting the Vatican to issue a statement of “grave concern”.

Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang describe a “police state” in which those who study abroad are rounded up upon return, and some have disappeared into detention. According to some, a “huge crackdown” is currently underway. During Ramadan, Muslims in Xinjiang were prohibited from fasting.

Eighteen years ago this month, a brutal crackdown was launched against the peaceful, meditative Buddhist movement known as Falun Gong. Since 1999 repeated reports have emerged of thousands of arrests and also of barbaric torture of Falun Gong practitioners, and the forcible removal of their organs – a practice known as ‘organ harvesting’. This has been brought to the world’s attention in research studies by former Canadian prosecutor and government minister David Kilgour, lawyer David Matas and American researcher Ethan Gutmann. If the evidence is true, as it appears to be, it constitutes a crime against humanity. It requires further investigation, ideally sponsored by foreign governments such as the United States, United Kingdom and European Union, or the United Nations, and a ban on organ tourism until the barbaric practice stops.

The Hong Kong dimension

Twenty years ago, Britain returned Hong Kong to China. Under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, it had been hoped that whatever happened in the mainland, Hong Kong would be China’s success story. Yet even in Hong Kong, the heavy hand of Beijing is now being felt daily. China’s Foreign Ministry says the Joint Declaration is now simply an “historical document that no longer has any practical significance”, and claims it “was not up to any outsider to comment on”. Beijing’s latest “interpretation” of Hong Kong’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, turned Common Law on its head and led to courts stripping directly-elected pro-democracy legislators of their seats, rendering their oath invalid and denying them the opportunity to retake their oaths. This interpretation is made retrospectively, applying to acts which at the time were perfectly lawful – with the result that every human right in Hong Kong may be interpreted away on Beijing’s whim. Pro-democracy legislators are now threatened with jail, and journalists are harassed – Hong Kong has slipped in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom indices from 18th in 2002 to 73rd in 2017.

Winnie the Pooh has been banned because of an image of the fictional bear and its comparison with Xi Jinping. Personally, I see no comparison between the cuddly, good-hearted fictional bear and this murderous tyrant who has presided over the biggest crackdown on human rights in China since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, but if I were Xi I would take Winnie the Pooh as a compliment – or at least a cause for laughter. The fact that he doesn’t shows he is no better than a Mafia boss who brooks no dissent and will eliminate anyone who mocks him.


The time has come for the world to say “enough is enough” to China. Of course we want to trade with a market of almost 1.4 billion people. Of course we need China’s help in combating climate change and taming North Korea. But there comes a point beyond which we should not go. There comes a point where the values that make us who we are – human rights and dignity, basic freedoms, democracy and most importantly the rule of law – are non-negotiable.

This is a regime that is so fearful, sensitive, fragile and repressive that it murders a Nobel Laureate, flouts international law, tramples on the remnants of democracy, strips living prisoners of their vital organs and bans Winnie the Pooh. It is truly absurd as well as completely outrageous. Xi Jinping’s regime is behaving like a pariah regime – and, until it changes, should be treated as such.