China Says “F.A.C.T.” But It’s Their Fiction

By the IHRC Tibet Project Team 2018–19

In the observation deck at the Palais des Nations, home of the U.N. in Geneva, for China’s 3rd Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”) Adoption Session, our Tibet team from the Boston University International Human Rights Law Clinic and our partners could not help but find China’s blatant denial of the truth comical. The whole deck — coincidentally, most of the other spectators were from another program at Boston University — would burst out in laughter every time China or a Chinese organization raved about how China’s progress in implementing human rights protections was based on “fact.” Actually, China felt the need to emphasize facts so much that it developed an acronym for the session: “F(undamental interests). A(nti-terrorism). C (ampus). T(ruth).” I wonder how long it took them to come up with that!

Last year, the Tibet team in the IHRL Clinic wrote submissions focused on violations of Tibetans’ human rights to various United Nations mechanisms in preparation for China’s 3rd UPR Session in November 2018. Among those UN bodies were the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (“WGAD”) and the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (“SR on Racism”). Last year, the Tibet team’s WGAD submission continued raising China’s unacceptable treatment of Tibetan human rights defenders. This year, one part of our work pushed the advocacy on the detention of activists further — stay tuned for our post on that important and exciting work.

Outside the gates of Palais des Nations — Tibetan flags and photos of human rights defenders as a display and statement of support.

Another aspect of our work this year picked up where last year’s work with the SR on Racism left off. We wrote a joint urgent request to the SR on Racism and SR on Minorities for a fact-finding mission to investigate China’s increasingly restrictive policies on Tibetans’ freedom of movement. China’s discriminatory passport program places those from areas that consist mostly of ethnically Chinese people on the “fast-track,” through which applicants receive passports or a reason for delay within 15 days. Those from areas where Tibetans or other non-Chinese groups typically live, however, are on the “slow-track.” They face extremely long delays and are routinely denied a passport without a reason, or a valid one. Tibetans in particular face unfair procedures, such as going through 10 different administrative stages before a decision is made on their applications. The program’s restriction of Tibetans’ freedom of movement (and religion) is clearly illustrated by the extreme drop in the number of Tibetans making their annual pilgrimage to India to seek blessings from the Dalai Lama: before 2008, an average of 3000 Tibetans made the pilgrimage; in 2017, due to the increased restrictions, only 80 made it to India.

China’s “development” initiatives under “One Belt One Road” (“OBOR”) and the “Comfortable Housing Policy” have also been a focus of concern in our work. OBOR has been destroying Tibetans’ traditional lands by stripping away their natural resources and minerals. The Comfortable Housing Policy has been forcing Tibetans to relocate into “New Socialist Villages,” which China boasts as improving Tibetans’ living conditions. In fact, however, movement to the villages forces Tibetans into substandard living conditions and sedentary lifestyles. Moreover, the lands Tibetans are forced to leave are essential to their traditional nomadic culture. Over 2 million Tibetans have been forcibly relocated since 2006, and the number continues to grow — reports as recent as January of this year on 40 families from one small county reflect that there is no end in sight for expulsion policies. In August 2018, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (“CERD”) expressed concerns over these policies in its Concluding Observations, confirming that those from “ethnic autonomous regions… have lost their traditional lands and livelihoods” because of China’s resettlement measures, and that compensation is often insufficient. China has one year to report back to CERD before CERD reports a lack of response to the General Assembly.

Another area of our focus is the Chinese resident permit program, known as “Hukou,” which requires residents to obtain permits based on their registered birthplace. In order to move to urban areas, a person from a rural area must apply for a new urban permit. Without such a permit, the person cannot obtain benefits, including healthcare, because Chinese residents may only receive benefits where they are registered. In 2014, new rules made it easier for Chinese residents to transfer their residence to Tibet, but they further restricted Tibetans’ freedom of movement. The Hukou system tiers the cities: higher-tiered cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, grade transfer requests on whether applicants fulfill certain factors such as education level, tax payments, and work experience. Such requirements significantly disadvantage traditionally nomadic Tibetans. Even though lower-tiered cities have less demanding criteria, Tibetans still face barriers transferring to such cities because a rural migrant must give up land rights in rural areas in order to apply for an urban Hukou permit. Tibetans rarely receive adequate compensation for their land, which means they rarely have adequate financial means to move residences. Accordingly, rural Tibetans face an impossible choice, while an influx of Chinese residents further expropriates Tibetans’ once-rural lands. Since 2017 various UN agencies have been highlighting the disruptive and discriminatory nature of the Hukou program.

China underwent its 3rd UPR Cycle in November 2018. There, over 30 States made recommendations regarding China’s treatment of non-Chinese groups, including its denial of freedom of movement to Tibetans. At the Adoption Session, China unsurprisingly boasted about accepting 284 out of 346 recommendations (about 82%) for the 3rd UPR cycle. Specifically, China claimed that it had “accepted and already implemented” States’ recommendations to guarantee freedoms for non-Chinese groups, including Tibetans. But how can China possibly say this when reports continue to illustrate its suppression of Tibetans’ most basic freedoms?

In explaining the recommendations it did not accept, China laughably relied upon its “FACT” acronym. “F”: China has “fundamental interests” as a sovereign and other States should not interfere with its internal affairs. “A”: China’s internal laws provide an “anti-terrorism” initiative to protect its people. “C”: Human rights defenders are sent to re-education “campuses,” not camps.[1] “T”: China only relies on the “truth.” My question is this: If China is really so confident that the “facts” show that it is not violating any human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet, or in its re-education “campuses,” why has it refused to provide any UN bodies with full access to these areas? Why deny access if you have nothing to hide, China?

As frustrating as it was to listen to other States and Chinese organizations praise China, we were encouraged when two States out of 13 (Norway and the Netherlands) were willing to call China out on these inconsistencies. They admonished China’s puffery about accepting 82% of recommendations when it had failed to implement protections for human rights defenders or freedom of expression. They also pushed for unhindered access by various UN bodies. Similarly, out of the 8 stakeholders who spoke at the Adoption Session, 4 spoke out against China’s façade, and renewed the urgent request for unhindered access by the UN.

Our view from the Observation Deck, with Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo’s famous ceiling painting in prominent view.

China itself stated at the Adoption Session that “facts speak louder than words.” Well, China, we agree. The facts are that victims and reports continue to reveal your repressive policies, and these undoubtedly speak louder than your propagandistic words.

[1] As a part of China’s initiative to combat “extremism” and “terrorism,” Chinese authorities have been sending those of non-Chinese ethnicity, especially Uyghurs, to detention facilities where detainees are forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, praise the Chinese government, and denounce aspects of their unique identity. China insisted on this terminology difference because China claims these “campuses” are safe spaces where individuals can learn to become patriotic and productive members of society; whereas, “camps” have a negative, oppressive connotation.

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.