'The freedom of people of all ethnic groups to believe in all religions has been fully guaranteed.'
By Kai Di for RFA Mandarin, Amelia Loi for RFA Cantonese, RFA Uyghur and RFA Tibetan
February 18, 2023
Members of the Chinese delegation at the meeting of the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were grilled this week over the situations in China’s Xinjiang region, Tibet and Hong Kong.
Under intense questioning by UN experts over two days, a delegation of 40 Chinese officials staunchly denied any human rights violations against Uyghur and Tibetan minorities, or efforts to eradicate their religious lives, as documented in UN and other reports.
In two six-hour sessions on Wednesday and Thursday in Geneva, the Chinese officials were quizzed by 18 experts from the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or CESCR, about the situations in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, the autonomous region where the predominantly Muslim Uyghur people live.
The Chinese delegates were asked to explain reports of the destruction of Uyghur cultural landmarks, including satellite imagery showing damage to mosques, cemeteries and shrines.
They were questioned about the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in "re-education" camps, complete with watchtowers and floodlights, barbed wire and surveillance cameras.
They were asked about the attempts to erase the Tibetan language, religion and culture and China’s banning of mother-tongue language instruction from schools in ethnic minority regions.
They were quizzed about the draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong that has made it easy to detain or incarcerate anyone who expresses opposition to the government.
A perimeter fence surrounds what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region. Speaking about the centers, a Chinese official told the CESCR committee, 'They have the security measures that are necessary for a school, but they are completely different from those found in prisons and detention centers.' Credit: Reuters file photo
Invariably, the Chinese delegates responded with denials and assurances that rights were protected.
"The freedom of people of all ethnic groups to believe in all religions has been fully guaranteed," one official told the committee. "The daily customs of all ethnic groups including diet, festivals, weddings and funerals are fully protected in Xinjiang.
Another said there was a “misunderstanding” regarding the detention centers where an estimated 1.7 million Uyghurs have been detained.
"You asked why there are walls, barbed wire and other detention facilities," he said. "These vocational education and training centers are schools. Of course they have the security measures that are necessary for a school, but they are completely different from those found in prisons and detention centers."
Crimes against humanity
Those responses fly in the face of evidence submitted to the committee by numerous human rights groups as well as facts uncovered by an exhaustive report issued last August commissioned by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that found
China’s detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity.
Qelbinur Sidiq, also known as Kalbinur Sidik, who was forced by authorities in 2017 to teach Mandarin Chinese in Xinjiang’s “re-education” camp system, said the responses of the Chinese delegates “full of the same old lies and disinformation.”
The ethnic Uzbek woman born in Xinjiang also underwent a forced abortion and sterilization as part of a government campaign to suppress birth rates of Muslim women in the region.
“They denied all the repression taking place in our homeland East Turkestan,” she said, using the Uyghurs’ preferred name for Xinjiang.
Students attend a Chinese language learning class at Nagqu No. 2 Senior High School, a public boarding school for students from northern Tibet, in Lhasa, western China's Tibet Autonomous Region, June 1, 2021. Credit: Associated Press
Peter Irwin, a delegate from the Uyghur Human Rights Project, which submitted a detailed report on violations of Uyghurs' cultural rights, forced abortions, birth control policies, discrimination and forced labor to the committee, dismissed the Chinese responses as "absurd."
"It's absurd, because they're just telling lies,” he told Radio Free Asia. “They're just completely not acknowledging that there are abuses, and there clearly are."
But Irwin said it was important for the Chinese delegation to undergo such a grilling at the UN, where Beijing's growing involvement in top positions at several UN agencies has sparked international concern.
Thinlay Chukki, a representative from the Tibet Bureau in Geneva told RFA on Thursday that the Chinese delegates gave unsatisfying answers about harsh policies in the western autonomous region.
“As always, the Chinese government claims that Tibetans are happy under the Chinese Communist Party, but we want to know under what circumstances they are saying that Tibetans are happy,” he told RFA.
“The U.N. rights committee members asked critical questions on Tibet and we know that the reports that we have submitted to the UN have raised more concerns on the repressive measures against Tibetan culture and religion,” he said.
Comprising 18 experts, the committee periodically reviews UN member states regarding the status of their citizens' rights to food, housing, education, health, social security, water and sanitation, as well as the right to work. Questions are submitted by both U.N. experts and human rights groups.
However, China had not appeared before the committee for nearly nine years. This year, it sent a large contingent from the Chinese Communist Party's outreach and influence arm, the United Front Work Department.
The meeting was akin to a showdown, said Renee Xia, head of the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders group, which submitted a report to the committee detailing the ongoing persecution of rights lawyers, broad and vague definitions of "national security" crimes in Hong Kong and widespread discrimination against ethnic groups.
"I'm not exaggerating, it has the feel of a showdown — a human rights treaty body's independent experts vs. Chinese officials scrambling to defend their government's crimes against humanity," Xia said via her Twitter account on Wednesday.
"At today's review, #CESCR members asked detailed, well-informed follow-up questions, clearly not fooled by Chinese officials' straight-faced lies, denies, and boasts," she wrote. "Big thanks to many NGOs' active engagement — submitting reports, attending hearings."
Members of the League of Social Democrats are surrounded by police as they carry a banner outside a court in Hong Kong on February 6, 2023, as the trial of 47 of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy figures begins in the largest prosecution under a national security law that has crushed dissent in the city. Credit: AFP
Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ report said Chinese leader Xi Jinping's claim to prioritize the "right to subsistence" and the "right to development" has left the right to freedom of expression, including minority groups' expression of their own cultures, out in the cold.
The report also detailed a lack of judicial independence, routine and widespread retaliation against activists, the rapid shrinking of civil society space and an ongoing failure to guarantee rights protecting housing, health, land, labor, education, language, religion and women and people identifying as LGBTQ.
In Hong Kong, dozens of former opposition politicians and activists are on trial under a draconian national security law for "subversion," after they held a primary election in the summer of 2020 aimed at maximizing the number of pro-democracy seats in the city's Legislative Council.
Former pro-democracy district councilor Daniel Kwok wrote on his Facebook page that he had testified to the committee on the massive expansion of police powers in Hong Kong under the national security law.
"Police use the #national security law to seize the property of any person and institution without a warrant issued by a court, a power that seriously damages the property and privacy of citizens," he wrote.
Kwok’s report was among 30 contributions submitted by Hong Kong-based groups to the committee, although at least 15 pro-Beijing groups submitted reports praising the national security law, a process that Kwok described as "whitewashing."
Translated by Luisetta Mudie for RFA Mandarin, Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan and RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.