Political Rights Score: 7
Civil Liberties Score: 6
Status: Not Free
The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Hong Kong or Tibet, which are examined in separate reports.
The Chinese government continued in 2009 to demonstrate high levels of insecurity and intolerance regarding citizens’ political activism and demands for human rights protection. Aiming to suppress protests during politically sensitive anniversaries during the year, including the 60-year mark of the Communist Party’s rise to power, the authorities resorted to lockdowns on major cities and new restrictions on the internet. The government also engaged in a renewed campaign against democracy activists, human rights lawyers, and religious or ethnic minorities, which included sentencing dozens to long prison terms following unfair trials. Repressive measures were intensified in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, especially after ethnic violence erupted there in July. Nevertheless, many citizens defied government hostility and asserted their rights to free expression and association.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in mainland China in 1949. Party leader Mao Zedong subsequently oversaw devastating mass-mobilization campaigns, such as the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping emerged as paramount leader. Over the next two decades, he maintained the CCP’s absolute rule in the political sphere while initiating limited market-based reforms to stimulate the economy.
The CCP signaled its resolve to avoid democratization with the deadly 1989 assault on prodemocracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and surrounding areas. Following the crackdown, Jiang Zemin replaced Zhao Ziyang as general secretary of the party. Jiang was named state president in 1993 and became China’s top leader following Deng’s death in 1997. He continued Deng’s policy of rapid economic growth, recognizing that regime legitimacy now rested largely on the CCP’s ability to boost living standards. In the political sphere, Jiang maintained a hard line.
Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang as CCP general secretary in 2002, state president in 2003, and head of the military in 2004. Many observers expected Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao to implement modest political reforms to address pressing socioeconomic problems including a rising income gap, unemployment, the lack of a social safety net, environmental degradation, and corruption. However, while it proved moderately more responsive to certain constituencies—especially the urban middle class—the government continued to exercise tight control over key institutions and intensified repression of perceived threats to the CCP’s authority.
In March 2008, the National People’s Congress bestowed additional five-year terms on Hu and Wen, while Shanghai party boss Xi Jinping was appointed vice president, setting the stage for him to potentially succeed Hu in 2012. In August, China hosted the Olympic Games in Beijing. Despite its pledges to ensure an open media environment and improved human rights protections surrounding the games, the government engaged in large-scale evictions, greater restrictions on freedom of movement, internet censorship for foreign journalists, and crackdowns on dissidents and minorities.
The atmosphere of heightened repression continued in 2009, as the global economic crisis, rising public protests, and the arrival of several politically sensitive anniversaries strengthened hard-liners within the CCP. The major dates included the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet in March, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June, the 10th anniversary of the CCP’s ongoing suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in July, and the 60th anniversary of the CCP’s rise to power in October. Following the model used for the Olympics, the authorities imposed anniversary-related security measures including lockdowns on major cities, increased restrictions on internet access, and systematic arrests of rights activists, petitioners, and religious and ethnic minorities. Conditions in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region deteriorated during the year, both before and after ethnic violence erupted in July.
Popular unrest was not limited to Xinjiang. Growing anger over corruption, abuse of power, and impunity fueled tens of thousands of protests, particularly in rural areas. In response, CCP leaders committed more resources to tackling corruption, spurring the investigation of hundreds of mid- and high-ranking officials and a well-publicized crackdown on organized crime, although the effort stopped short of much-needed legal and institutional reforms. The CCP also tightened political control over the judiciary, expanded the use of surveillance equipment, and established a network of extralegal taskforces to coordinate the suppression of grassroots discontent.
Despite government repression, a growing nonprofit sector continued to provide crucial social services and increase citizens’ rights awareness. In addition, bloggers, journalists, legal professionals, workers, and religious believers pushed the limits of permissible activity, sometimes effectively asserting the rights to free expression and association. Citizens managed to expose official corruption, obtain compensation for unpaid wages, and force the partial retraction of a plan to install monitoring and censorship software on personal computers. According to reports by activists and references on official websites, banned political publications continued to circulate—especially online—including the newly released memoir of ousted CCP leader Zhao Ziyang, the prodemocracy manifesto Charter 08, and the Nine Commentaries, a collection of editorials highly critical of CCP rule.
Also during the year, reconstruction continued in the wake of a May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that led to an estimated 70,000 deaths. The effort was marred, however, by the alleged misuse of relief funds and ongoing government attempts to cover up the disproportionate toll among children due to shoddily constructed school buildings. Under public pressure, the government published the death toll among children in May, setting the figure at 5,335, though many observers argued that the true count was probably much higher.
China weathered the global economic downturn better than many other countries, thanks in part to a $580 billion stimulus package. However, critics raised concerns that the government spending could boost large, underperforming state-owned enterprises at the expense of small and medium-sized companies that typically account for much of the country’s tax revenue and economic dynamism. Some observers also warned that the increased investment in infrastructure could stir unrest related to land disputes.
At the international level, the CCP made concerted efforts to extend its propaganda and censorship beyond China’s borders. The government invested billions of dollars in new international versions of party mouthpieces such as Xinhua News Agency, while pressuring foreign officials to silence regime critics at cultural events in Germany, Australia, South Korea, Bangladesh, and Taiwan. Chinese officials also successfully pressured Pakistan and Cambodia to repatriate Uighur asylum-seekers, who faced possible torture and execution in China. Relations between China and Taiwan continued to thaw, as new bilateral agreements facilitated transportation links, judicial assistance, and economic investment.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
China is not an electoral democracy. The CCP has a monopoly on political power and its nine-member Politburo Standing Committee makes most important political decisions and sets government policy. Party members hold almost all top posts in government, the military, and the internal security services, as well as in many economic entities and social organizations.
The 3,000-member National People’s Congress (NPC), which is elected for five-year terms by subnational congresses, formally elects the state president for up to two five-year terms, and confirms the premier after he is nominated by the president. However, the NPC is a largely symbolic body, meeting for just two weeks a year and serving primarily to approve proposed legislation, though members sometimes question bills before passing them. The country’s only competitive elections are for village committees and urban residency councils, which hold limited authority and are generally subordinate to the local CCP committees. The nomination of candidates remains tightly controlled, and many of these elections have been marred by fraud, violence, corruption, and attacks on independent candidates. Plans to expand polls to higher levels of governance, such as townships, have stalled.
Opposition groups like the China Democracy Party are suppressed, and members are imprisoned. Prominent democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced in December 2009 to 11 years in prison for his involvement in drafting and circulating Charter 08. At least 100 other signers of the prodemocracy manifesto were reportedly summoned for questioning following its publication. Several other democracy activists received long prison sentences during the year, including Xie Changfa, sentenced to 13 years for organizing a Hunan province branch of the China Democracy Party,andGuo Quan, an online writer and professor who launched the China New People’s Party, sentenced to 10 years. In October, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China published a partial list of over 1,200 political prisoners, while the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation estimated that 1,150 new arrests for “endangering state security” were made in 2009. Tens of thousands of others are thought to be held in extrajudicial forms of detention for their political or religious views.
In February 2009, the government of the Macau Special Administrative Region, a Portuguese-ruled colony until 1999, passed legislation that stipulates long prison terms for crimes such as “secession,” “subversion,” and “association with foreign political organizations that harm state security.” Human rights groups raised concerns that, as in the rest of China, such provisions could be used to restrict freedom of expression and imprison critics of the Macau or Beijing authorities. Macau immigration officers reportedly cited the law in barring entry to several prodemocracy lawmakers and activists from Hong Kong shortly after its passage.
Corruption remains endemic despite increased government antigraft efforts, generating growing public resentment. The problem is most acute in sectors with extensive state involvement, such as construction, land procurement, and banking. While multiple bodies track and prosecute corruption, there is no independent anticorruption agency. Tens of thousands of cases were investigated at all levels in 2009, with suspects including several assistant ministers and heads of state-run conglomerates. A crackdown on organized crime in Chongqing that began in June swept up thousands of suspects, exposing criminal infiltration of key industries as well as crime bosses’ collusion with senior officers in local party committees, the police, and the judiciary. Prosecution in such cases is often selective, as informal personal networks and internal CCP power struggles influence the choice of targets. Also in 2009, censors heavily restricted reporting on a Namibian bribery probe involving a state-owned company formerly headed by President Hu Jintao’s son.
CCP officials increasingly seek input from academics and civic groups on pending legislation and occasionally hold public hearings, though without relinquishing control over the decision-making process. New open-government regulations took effect in 2008, but implementation has been incomplete. While some agencies have been more forthcoming in publishing accounting details or official regulations, courts have hesitated to enforce citizens’ information requests, and a precise accounting of economic stimulus funds had not been released by the end of 2009 despite promises of transparency. Local officials continued to hide vital information on topics including mining disasters, tainted food products, and polluting companies. China was ranked 79 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite relative freedom in private discussion and journalists’ efforts to push the limits of permissible speech, China’s media environment remains extremely restrictive. The authorities employ sophisticated means to control news reporting, particularly on sensitive topics. This includes setting the agenda by allowing key state-run media outlets to cover events—including negative news—in a timely but selective manner, and requiring that other outlets restrict their coverage to such approved accounts. Party directives in 2009 curbed reporting related to sensitive anniversaries, public health, environmental accidents, deaths in police custody, foreign policy, and other topics. Journalists who fail to comply with official guidance are harassed, fired, or jailed. According to international watchdog groups, at least 30 journalists, mostly freelancers, and 68 cyberdissidents remained imprisoned at year’s end for disseminating proscribed information, though the actual number is likely much higher. In one prominent case, online activist Huang Qi was sentenced in November to three years in prison for publishing criticism of the authorities’ response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Tan Zuoren, an activist who had coordinated citizen efforts to document the death toll from school collapses during the quake, was put on trial in August, and several witnesses were beaten on their way to testify. At year’s end, Tan remained in detention but had not been sentenced.
In addition to restrictions on media coverage imposed by the central government, lower-level officials also take measures to repress reports that expose shortcomings in their performance. Several journalists were assaulted during 2009 while trying to cover pollution or corruption. Others faced criminal defamation charges or were jailed on bribery charges in an apparent effort to stifle investigative reporting. Activist Wu Baoquan was sentenced in September to 18 months in prison after posting online allegations that officials in Inner Mongolia had profited from forced evictions. In December, Fu Hua of China Business News was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly accepting bribes in relation to a story exposing safety problems in the construction of an airport in northeastern China. In November, the editor in chief Hu Shuli and other key staff resigned from the business magazine Caijing amid clashes with owners over financial matters and pressure to tone down its aggressive reporting on corruption.
Regulations have allowed greater freedom of movement for foreign journalists since 2007, but local officials continue to block, harass, and sometimes assault foreign reporters while intimidating their Chinese sources and assistants. In February 2009, the government issued a code of conduct for Chinese assistants of foreign correspondents that threatens punishment for those who engage in “independent reporting.” Some international radio and television broadcasts, including the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Asia, remain jammed. The signal of the Falun Gong–affiliated satellite station New Tang Dynasty TV remained cut off in 2009, after the French company Eutelsat, apparently under pressure from Beijing, stopped its broadcasts in June 2008.
In 2009, China was home to the largest number of internet users globally, reaching 360 million by September 2009, according to official figures. However, the government maintains an elaborate apparatus for censoring and monitoring internet use and personal communications, including via mobile telephones. The authorities block websites they deem politically threatening and detain those who post the content.In 2009, they repeatedly blocked social-networking and microblogging sites, removed political content and shut down blogs in the name of antipornography campaigns, required users to register their real identities when posting comments on news websites, and stepped up obstruction of technologies used to circumvent censorship. In May, the government announced regulations requiring the installation of censorship and surveillance software called Green Dam Youth Escort on all computers sold in China; following protests from the international business community, human rights groups, and Chinese internet users, the authorities withdrew the directive in June, but said installation would proceed for computers in schools and internet cafes. For all the government’s controls, the technology’s flexibility, circumvention tools, and the large volume of online communications have allowed many users to nonetheless access censored content, expose official corruption, mobilize protests, and circulate banned political texts.
The number of religious believers, including Christians, has expanded in recent years. Nevertheless, religious freedom remains sharply curtailed, and religious minorities remained a key target of repression during 2009. All religious groups are required to register with the government, which regulates their activities and guides their theology. Some faiths, such as Falun Gong as well as certain Buddhist and Christian groups, are formally outlawed, and their members face harassment, imprisonment, and torture. Other unregistered groups, such as unofficial Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations, operate in a legal gray zone, and state tolerance of them varies from place to place. In September, police and thugs destroyed the Linfen-Fushan megachurch in Shanxi; church leaders were subsequently sentenced to as much as seven years in prison. Unregistered Buddhist temples were similarly targeted for demolition during the year, particularly in Jiangxi province. Security forces led by the 6-10 Office, an extralegal agency created in 1999, continued to target Falun Gong adherents nationwide for surveillance, imprisonment, torture, and forced conversion, sometimes leading to deaths in custody. In January 2009, Chongqing resident Jiang Xiqing died while held at a “reeducation through labor” camp for practicing Falun Gong; lawyers seeking to investigate his death were detained and beaten.
Academic freedom remains restricted with respect to politically sensitive issues. The CCP controls the appointment of university officials, and many scholars practice self-censorship to preserve their positions and personal safety. Pressure to self-censor increased during 2009, particularly surrounding the June and October anniversaries. Political indoctrination is a required component of the curriculum at all levels of education.
Freedoms of assembly and association are severely restricted. Both central and local authorities issued regulations in 2009 aimed at preventing petitioners from traveling to Beijing to report injustices to senior officials. Local officials continued to face penalties if they failed to limit the flow of petitioners to the capital; as a result, petitioners were routinely intercepted, harassed, detained in illegal detention centers termed “black jails,” or sent to labor camps. Thousands of detained petitioners were reportedly subjected to beatings, psychological abuse, and sexual violence. Despite such repression, workers, farmers, and others held tens of thousands of protests during the year, reflecting growing public anger over wrongdoing by officials, especially land confiscation, corruption, and fatal police beatings. Security agencies and hired thugs often use excessive force to put down demonstrations; in several instances during 2009, this drove protesters to violently attack symbols of authority, such as police cars and government buildings. In June, riot police used batons to disperse an estimated 10,000 residents of Shishou in Hubei province, who had mustered after police refused to investigate the mysterious death of a 24-year-old hotel chef. At least eight people were subsequently sentenced to jail terms, including relatives of the deceased. In some cases, officials tolerate demonstrations as an outlet for pent-up frustration, or agree to protesters’ demands.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are required to register and follow strict regulations, including vague prohibitions on advocating non-CCP rule, “damaging national unity,” or “upsetting ethnic harmony.” Many groups seeking more independence organize informally or register as businesses, though they are vulnerable to closure at any time. A government crackdown on several public interest groups in 2009 generated a chilling effect among civil society activists, with many putting projects on hold. In July, Beijing authorities shut down the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid NGO known for defending victims of the 2008 tainted-milk scandal and commissioning a report on government policies in Tibet, and raided the offices of the Yi Ren Ping Center, an organization assisting Hepatitis B patients.
The only legal labor union is the government-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Collective bargaining is legal but does not occur in practice, and independent labor leaders are harassed and jailed. Nevertheless, workers have increasingly asserted themselves informally via strikes, collective petitioning, and selection of negotiating representatives. Such tactics repeatedly yielded concessions from employers or drew government intervention on behalf of workers in 2009. Three labor laws that took effect in 2008 were designed to protect workers, counter discrimination, and facilitate complaints against employers, while also empowering CCP-controlled unions. Initial promising signs on implementation—including a sharp rise in the number of labor-dispute cases filed by workers—were overshadowed by the economic downturn, the lack of independent arbitration bodies, and a growing backlog of complaints. Dangerous workplace conditions continued to claim lives. The official number of workplace accidents during the first three months of 2009 declined compared with the same period in 2008, but the death toll for the first quarter remained high at 18,501. Forced labor, including child labor through government-sanctioned “work-study” programs and in “reeducation through labor” camps, remains a serious problem.
The CCP controls the judiciary and directs verdicts and sentences, particularly in politically sensitive cases. Judicial autonomy is greater in commercial litigation and civil suits involving private individuals. A party veteran with no formal legal training was appointed as chief justice in 2008, and he subsequently issued a doctrine emphasizing the “Supremacy of the Cause of the Party” over the law. In 2009, the government accelerated a crackdown on civil rights lawyers, law firms, and NGOs offering legal services. In March, authorities shut down the Beijing-based law firm Yitong, known for representing victims of corruption or rights abuses. In May, over 20 lawyers were effectively disbarred when their license registrations were rejected, and several were physically assaulted during the year. In November, Wang Yonghang, a lawyer from Dalian in northeastern China, was sentenced to seven years in prison for defending Falun Gong practitioners, the harshest term given to an attorney in recent memory. Prominent lawyer Gao Zhisheng remained “disappeared” and at severe risk of torture following his abduction by security forces in February.
Despite recent criminal procedure reforms, trials—which often amount to mere sentencing announcements—are frequently closed to the public. Torture remains widespread, with coerced confessions routinely admitted as evidence. Endemic corruption exacerbates the lack of due process. Since late 2008, about a dozen senior judges have been detained on bribery charges, including the vice president of the Supreme People’s Court.Many suspects are deprived of court hearings altogether, detained instead by bureaucratic fiat in “reeducation through labor” camps. Based on interviews with recently released detainees, a February 2009 study by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group reported that in addition to petty thieves and drug addicts, Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, and petitioners constituted a significant percentage of those incarcerated in the camps. The use of various forms of extralegal detention has increased in recent years, including secret jails and psychiatric arrest of petitioners and dissidents. Together, detention facilities are estimated to hold a total of three to five million detainees. Conditions in such facilities are generally harsh, with detainees reporting inadequate food, regular beatings, and deprivation of medical care; the government generally does not permit visits by independent monitoring groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. Some 65 crimes—including nonviolent offenses—carry the death penalty. The number of executions remains a state secret but was thought to be close to 5,000 in 2009. Recent reforms enabling the Supreme People’s Court to review capital cases have apparently led to a modest reduction in executions. In 2009, state-run media reported that executed prisoners “provide the major source of [organ] transplants in China”; some experts have also raised concerns over the possible use of those imprisoned for their religious beliefs or ethnic identity as sources for organs.
Security forces work closely with the CCP leadership at all levels, and special departments under the Ministry of Public Security are dedicated to maintaining the party’s monopoly on political power. Hired thugs and urban management officers also engage in intimidation and abuse of petitioners, protesters, and whistleblowers. During 2009, the CCP significantly expanded its network of extralegal “stability maintenance” offices, including at the neighborhood level and in some enterprises. As part of their mandate, these agencies are tasked with suppressing the peaceful exercise of basic civil liberties.
In April 2009, the government published its first National Human Rights Action Plan, outlining measures that, if implemented, would lead to improvements in human rights protection. However, observers questioned its likely impact given that it imposed no specific obligations or envisioned any change in trajectory from the regime’s current priorities or ongoing systemic abuses.
In the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, political indoctrination programs, curbs on Muslim religious practice, and policies marginalizing the use of Uighur language in education intensified throughout 2009. The government continued decade-old policies to alter the region’s demography, offering incentives to ethnic Han to move to the area and instituting a program to transfer Uighur laborers, sometimes by force, to work in other parts of China. In February, the government began a project to demolish most buildings in the historic core of the city of Kashgar and resettle some 200,000 Uighur residents. On July 5, police forcibly suppressed a peaceful demonstration in Urumqi by Uighurs voicing frustration over the limited investigation into the deaths of Uighur factory workers in a brawl with Han employees in southern China. The police action—which according to Amnesty International included using tear gas and shooting with live ammunition into crowds of peaceful protesters—sparked an outbreak of violence between Uighurs and Han residents. State-run media reported that 197 people were killed, but the details of events that day could not be fully verified due to tight government control of information and the intimidation of witnesses. The July 5 clashes were followed by a harsh crackdown that included large-scale “disappearances” of Uighurs, imprisonment and execution of Uighurs and some Han residents following questionable legal proceedings, and an almost complete shutdown of internet access in the region that remained in effect for several months. Among those detained were the managers of websites reporting on Uighur issues. A state propaganda campaign vilifying Uighurs and the U.S.-based Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer fueled further ethnic tensions and increased discrimination against Uighurs throughout the country.
Minorities, the disabled, and people with HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis B face severe societal discrimination. In a positive development, a court ruled in October 2009 that mandatory Hepatitis B testing violated the 2008 Employment Promotion Law. A household registration, or hukou, system remains in place, mostly affecting China’s 150 million internal migrants. Some local governments have experimented with reforms to allow greater mobility, but citizens continue to face restrictions on changing employers or residence, and many migrants are unable to fully access social services as a result. Other restrictions on freedom of movement remained substantial during 2009, as the authorities imposed lockdowns on Beijing and neighboring provinces surrounding the Octoberanniversary. Dissidents were restricted from traveling abroad or placed under house arrest, particularly around the June anniversary and during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit in November. Law enforcement agencies continued to seek out and repatriate North Korean refugees, who face imprisonment or execution upon return. In August, a court in Inner Mongolia sentenced two Chinese citizens to 7 and 10 years in prison for helping 61 North Korean refugees cross into neighboring Mongolia.
Despite a growing body of property rights legislation, protection remains weak in practice, and all land is formally owned by the state. Tens of thousands of forced evictions and illegal land confiscations occurred in 2009, generally to provide land for private development, state-led infrastructure projects, or upcoming international events such as the World Expo in Shanghai. Residents who resist eviction, seek legal redress, or organize protests face violence at the hands of local police or hired thugs. In May 2009, over 1,000 villagers in Hunan reportedly clashed with police after a local man was beaten to death by security guards for a company that had begun building on confiscated land. Reforms to rural land use announced at the end of 2008 were put on hold in 2009, ostensibly due to the economic downturn.
China’s policy of allowing only one child per couple remains in place, though many rural families are allowed a second child if the first is female. Although compulsory abortion and sterilization by local officials are less common than in the past, they still occur fairly frequently. According to official websites, authorities in some areas of Yunnan and Fujian mandated the use of abortion in 2009, while in other provinces officials imposed fines on families that resisted the one-child policy. These controls and a cultural preference for boys have led to sex-selective abortion and a general shortage of females, exacerbating the problem of human trafficking.
Domestic violence and sexual harassment affect one-third of Chinese families, according to statistics published in November 2008 by the CCP-controlled All-China Women’s Federation. The government has taken steps in recent years to improve the legal framework related to violence against women, but implementation remains weak. The case of female hotel worker Deng Yujiao, who killed a local official as he tried to rape her in May 2009, drew public sympathy and stimulated discussion of the need to protect women’s rights.
Political Rights Score: 7
Civil Liberties Score: 7
Status: Not Free
This population figure from China’s 2000 census includes 2.4 million Tibetans living in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and 2.9 million Tibetans living in areas of eastern Tibet that were incorporated into various Chinese provinces.
Although Tibet was more accessible to tourists and journalists for parts of the year, the high level of repression established in 2008 was generally maintained in 2009, particularly ahead of politically sensitive anniversaries. There were few large-scale demonstrations, though many Tibetans resorted to passive protest tactics, such as a farming boycott and abstention from Tibetan New Year celebrations. At least 715 political and religious prisoners reportedly remained in custody as of September. In October, three Tibetans were executed, marking the first use of the death penalty in the territory since 2003. Talks between the government and representatives of the Dalai Lama did not resume in 2009. Instead the authorities continued ideological indoctrination campaigns and the vilification of the Dalai Lama through official rhetoric.
The eastern portions of Tibetan-populated areas were gradually incorporated into various Chinese provinces over several centuries. The Tibetan plateau was ruled by a Dalai Lama in the early 20th century until the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet in 1950, defeating the local army. In 1951, the Chinese Communist Party formally extended control over the Tibetan plateau. This territory was designated as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) in 1965.
In 1959, Chinese troops suppressed a major uprising in Lhasa in which tens of thousands of people were reportedly killed. Tibet’s spiritual and political leader—the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso—was forced to flee to India with some 80,000 supporters. During the next six years, China closed 97 percent of the region’s Buddhist monasteries and defrocked more than 100,000 monks and nuns. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–76), nearly all of Tibet’s estimated 6,200 monasteries were destroyed.
Under reforms introduced in 1980, religious practice was allowed again—with restrictions—and tourism was permitted in certain areas. Beginning in 1987, some 200 mostly peaceful demonstrations were mounted in Lhasa and surrounding areas. After antigovernment protests escalated in March 1989, martial law was imposed; it was not lifted until May 1990.
In the 1990s, Beijing reinvigorated efforts to control religious affairs and undermine the exiled Dalai Lama’s authority. Six-year-old Gendun Choekyi Nyima was detained by the authorities in 1995, and his selection by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama was rejected; he has not been seen since. Beijing then orchestrated the selection of another six-year-old boy as the Panchen Lama. Since one of the roles of the Panchen Lama is to identify the reincarnated Dalai Lama, the move was seen as a bid by Beijing to control the eventual selection of the 15th Dalai Lama. China hosted envoys of the Dalai Lama in 2002, the first formal contacts since 1993. The Tibetan government-in-exile sought to negotiate genuine autonomy for Tibet, particularly to ensure the survival of its Buddhist culture, but no progress was made during subsequent rounds of dialogue. Meanwhile, other Tibetan exile groups have increasingly demanded independence.
Under Zhang Qingli, who was appointed as secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the TAR in 2005, the authorities amplified their repressive policies. To protest religious restrictions and the previous arrest of several monks, 300 monks conducted a peaceful march in Lhasa on March 10, 2008, the 49th anniversary of the 1959 uprising; security agents suppressed the march. A riot erupted four days later, with Tibetans attacking Chinese—civilians as well as those suspected of being plainclothes police—and burning Han- or Hui-owned businesses and government offices. The authorities reported that 19 people, mostly Chinese civilians, were killed, primarily in fires. Most observers believed the protests and riots to have been spontaneous outbursts of ethnic tension. Some, including prominent Chinese human rights activists, raised concerns of official malfeasance in terms of police not taking necessary steps to prevent violence or deliberately allowing it to escalate. Over 150 other protests, most of them reportedly peaceful, soon broke out in all Tibetan-populated areas of the plateau, as well as in other provinces. The government responded with a massive deployment of armed forces and barred entry to foreign media and tourists. According to overseas Tibetan groups, between 100 and 218 Tibetans were killed as security forces suppressed the demonstrations.
Although the region was accessible to tourists and journalists under special conditions for part of 2009, the high level of repression established in 2008 was generally maintained. Security measures were especially tight surrounding a series of politically sensitive dates. These included the Tibetan New Year (Losar) in February and both the 50th anniversary of the 1959 uprising and the one-year mark of the 2008 protests in March. During this period, security forces increased their presence in Lhasa, raided homes and businesses, detained hundreds of Tibetans accused of not having permits to be in Lhasa, established roadblocks throughout the region, and restricted access for foreign tourists and journalists. Tight restrictions were imposed again ahead of the 60th anniversary of CCP rule in October.
These security efforts largely prevented major demonstrations during the year, though several Tibetans carried out one-person protests; most were immediately detained. Many Tibetans instead resorted to passive methods of protest, such as participating in a farming boycott or refusing to partake in Losar celebrations.
Talks between the government and representatives of the Dalai Lama, which had last taken place in November 2008, did not resume in 2009. Meanwhile, official statements, state-run media, and “patriotic education” campaigns continued to vilify the exiled leader. Beijing also pursued an increasingly aggressive, and often effective, policy of pressuring foreign governments to refrain from meeting with the Dalai Lama and to publicly express support for the official Chinese position on Tibet.
The government’s economic development programs have disproportionately benefited ethnic Han and a select category of Tibetans, such as businessmen or government employees. Most other Tibetans cannot take advantage of economic development and related opportunities for higher education and employment. The development activity has also increased Han migration and stoked Tibetan fears of cultural assimilation.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
The Chinese government rules Tibet through administration of the TAR and 10 Tibetan autonomous prefectures in nearby Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces. Under the Chinese constitution, autonomous areas have the right to formulate their own regulations and implement national legislation in accordance with local conditions. In practice, decision-making power is concentrated in the hands of senior CCP officials; in the case of the TAR, Zhang Qingli, an ethnic Han, has served as the region’s CCP secretary since 2005. The few ethnic Tibetans who occupy senior positions serve mostly as figureheads, often echoing official statements that condemn the Dalai Lama and emphasize Beijing’s role in developing Tibet’s economy. Jampa Phuntsog, an ethnic Tibetan, served as chairman of the TAR government from 2003 through the end of 2009.
Since 1960, the Dalai Lama has overseen the introduction of a partly democratic system to the government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. Current institutions include a popularly elected 46-member Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, a Supreme Judicial Commission overseeing civil disputes, and more recently, the direct election of a prime minister. In 2001, Buddhist scholar and lama Samdhong Rinpoche was chosen as prime minister and re-elected in 2006. Participating in the polls were Tibetans in exile in India, Nepal, the United States, and Europe; an estimated 120,000 are eligible to vote, though in practice, voter turnout was reportedly 30 percent. Observers have noted that such arrangements fall short of a fully democratic system due to an absence of political parties and the ongoing role of the unelected Dalai Lama in decision-making; a significant number in the exile community have resisted proposals by the Dalai Lama to completely step down from his political responsibilities, however.
Corruption is believed to be extensive in Tibet, as in the rest of China. Nevertheless, little information was available during the year on the scale of the problem or official measures to combat it. Tibet is not ranked separately on Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Chinese authorities control the flow of information in Tibet, tightly restricting all media. International broadcasts are jammed. Increased internet penetration in urban areas has provided more access to information, but online restrictions and internet cafe surveillance in place across China are enforced even more stringently in the TAR. Officials repeatedly shut down mobile-telephone networks surrounding politically sensitive dates in March 2009. Security forces have also been known to periodically confiscate mobile phones, computers, and other communication devices from monasteries and private homes, and to routinely monitor calls in and out of the region. Tibetans who transmitted information abroad often suffered repercussions, while some internet users were arrested solely for accessing banned information. In August, 19-year-old Pasang Norbu was reportedly detained after viewing online images of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan flag at a Lhasa internet cafe. In November, Kunchok Tsephel was sentenced to 15 years in prison, on charges of “leaking state secrets,” for writings posted on a literary website he had founded. In December, a Qinghai court sentenced Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen to six years in prison; he had been detained in March after filming interviews with Tibetans for a documentary he was making titled Leaving Fear Behind.
Authorities continued to restrict access to Tibet for foreign journalists in 2009, though not as consistently as in 2008. Journalists were denied entry throughout the year, especially around politically sensitive dates. During other periods, journalists were required to travel in groups, and access was contingent on prior official permission, with Tibet being the only area of China to require such special authorization. Residents who assisted foreign journalists were reportedly harassed.
The authorities regularly suppress religious activities, particularly those seen as forms of political dissent or advocacy of Tibetan independence. Possession of Dalai Lama–related materials can lead to official harassment and punishment. CCP members and government employees must adhere to atheism and cannot practice a religion. The Religious Affairs Bureaus (RABs) control who can and cannot study religion in the monasteries and nunneries in the TAR; officials allow only men or women over the age of 18 to become monks or nuns, and they are required to sign a declaration rejecting Tibetan independence, expressing loyalty to the Chinese government, and denouncing the Dalai Lama. Regulations announced in 2007 require government approval for the recognition and education of reincarnated teachers. The government manages the daily operations of monasteries through Democratic Management Committees (DMCs) and the RABs. Only monks and nuns deemed loyal to the CCP may lead DMCs and laypeople have also been appointed to these committees. Since 2008, monasteries in Kardze (Ganzi in Chinese) have been required to have a police station within their confines.
Since March 2008, the authorities have intensified ideological education campaigns that had been conducted sporadically since 1996 and began to escalate after Zhang Qingli’s appointment in 2005. According to official statements, over 2,300 officials had been sent out to 505 monasteries across the TAR by March 2009 to carry out “patriotic education” programs among monks and nuns. The campaign had been extended beyond monasteries to reach Tibet’s general population in 2008, forcing students, civil servants, farmers, and merchants to recognize the CCP claim that China “liberated” Tibet and to denounce the Dalai Lama. Monks and nuns who refuse face expulsion from monasteries or nunneries, while others risk loss of employment, or arrest.In a move that further reinforced the CCP’s version of Tibetan history, the government designated March 28 as a new holiday called Serf Emancipation Day.
University professors cannot lecture on certain topics, and many must attend political indoctrination sessions. The government restricts course materials to prevent the circulation of unofficial versions of Tibetan history.
Freedoms of assembly and association are severely restricted in practice. Independent trade unions, civic groups, and human rights groups are illegal, and even nonviolent protests are harshly punished. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on development and health care operate under highly restrictive agreements. Domestic groups that challenge government policy on Tibet risk punishment. In July 2009, the authorities shut down the Beijing-based Open Constitution Initiative, a prominent legal-aid NGO, shortly after it published a report attributing the March 2008 protests to legitimate Tibetan grievances, thereby challenging the official line that the unrest was masterminded by external actors.
Despite the risks, Tibetans continued to seek avenues for peacefully expressing dissent in 2009. In the first large gathering since the 2008 protests, at least 100 people marched peacefully in Lhasa to assert religious freedom; six Tibetans were reportedly detained for several days for participating. Smaller or even one-person demonstrations were more common, though in most cases participants were immediately arrested. Tibetans also staged passive protests, such as a widespread boycott of Losar celebrations in February. In Kardze (Ganzi in Chinese) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, farmers expressed disapproval of the post–March 2008 crackdown by refusing to till their land. Authorities responded with eviction threats, and at least one individual reportedly died after being beaten by police for putting up posters supporting the farming boycott.
The judicial system in Tibet remains abysmal. Defendants lack access to meaningful legal representation, and trials are closed if state security is invoked. Chinese lawyers who offer to defend Tibetan suspects have been harassed or disbarred. Security forces routinely engage in detention without due process and torture. Tibetan human rights groups and Amnesty International documented at least five Tibetans who reportedly died in custody, or immediately after release, as a result of torture in 2009. In the first executions in Tibet since 2003, three people were put to death in October for their role in the 2008 protests. Widespread and arbitrary arrests continued in 2009, though not on the same scale as in 2008. Due to government restrictions on prison access for independent monitors, precise figures of Tibetan detainees were unavailable. However, a partial list of political prisoners published by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China included 715 Tibetans as of September 2009, the vast majority of whom were arrested on or after March 10, 2008.
The deployment of an estimated 70,000 soldiers and the erection of roadblocks following the March 2008 protests exacerbated already severe restrictions on freedom of movement. Similar measures were employed sporadically during 2009, particularly surrounding the politically sensitive anniversaries. Increased security efforts kept the number of Tibetans who successfully crossed the border into Nepal at around 500 in 2009, compared with over 2,000 in 2007.
As members of an officially recognized “minority” group, Tibetans receive preferential treatment in university admissions. However, the dominant role of the Chinese language in education and employment limits opportunities for many Tibetans. The illiteracy rate among Tibetans, at over 47 percent, remains five times greater than that among ethnic Han. Private-sector employers favor ethnic Han for many jobs, especially in urban areas. Tibetans find it more difficult than Han residents to obtain permits and loans to open businesses. General discrimination increased after the 2008 riots, as television broadcasts showed footage of Tibetans attacking Han residents and burning down Han and Hui businesses.
The authorities have intensified efforts to forcibly resettle traditionally nomadic Tibetan herders in permanent-housing areas with no provisions for income generation. According to official reports, in 2008 the government relocated some 312,000 Tibetan farmers and herders to housing projects. A program to resettle a further 57,000 herders would reportedly be completed in 2010.
China’s restrictive family-planning policies are more leniently enforced for Tibetans and other ethnic minorities than for ethnic Han. Officials limit urban Tibetans to having two children and encourage—but do not usually require—rural Tibetans to stop at three children.
Hong Kong (2010)
Political Rights Score: 5
Civil Liberties Score: 2
Status: Partly Free
A record 150,000 people attended a candlelight vigil in June 2009 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the massacre in which Chinese security forces crushed prodemocracy protests in Beijing and other cities. In November, the Hong Kong government proposed reforms to the electoral system. The plan included expansions of the legislature and the election committee that chooses the chief executive, but would largely preserve the existing semidemocratic system. Separately, Beijing’s growing influence over Hong Kong’s media landscape and immigration policies was evident during the year.
Hong Kong Island was ceded in perpetuity to Britain in 1842; adjacent territories were subsequently added, and the last section was leased to Britain in 1898 for a period of 99 years. In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, London agreed to restore the entire colony to China in 1997. In return, Beijing—under its “one country, two systems” formula—pledged to maintain the enclave’s legal, political, and economic autonomy for 50 years.
Under the 1984 agreement, a constitution for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), known as the Basic Law, took effect in 1997. Stating that universal suffrage was the “ultimate aim” for Hong Kong, the Basic Law allowed direct elections for only 18 seats in the 60-member legislature, known as the Legislative Council (Legco), with the gradual expansion of elected seats to 30 by 2003. After China took control, it temporarily suspended the Legco and installed a provisional legislature that repealed or tightened several civil liberties laws during its 10-month tenure.
Tung Chee-hwa was chosen as Hong Kong’s chief executive by a Beijing-organized election committee in 1997, and his popularity waned as Beijing became increasingly involved in Hong Kong’s affairs, raising fears that civic freedoms would be compromised. Officials were forced to withdraw a restrictive antisubversion bill—Basic Law Article 23—after it sparked massive protests in July 2003.
Pro-Beijing parties retained control of the Legco in 2004 elections, which were marred by intimidation that was thought to have been organized by Beijing. In 2005, with two years left to serve, the deeply unpopular Tung resigned. He was replaced by career civil servant Donald Tsang, who China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) decided would serve out the remainder of Tung’s term before facing election. In 2007, Hong Kong held competitive elections for chief executive after democracy supporters on the 800-member election committee nominated a second candidate, Alan Leong. However, Tsang won a new term by a wide margin, garnering 82 percent of the votes in the mostly pro-Beijing committee.
Pro-Beijing parties again won Legco elections in September 2008, taking 30 seats, although few of those members were elected by popular vote. The prodemocracy camp won 23 seats, including 19 by popular vote, enabling them to retain a veto over proposed constitutional reforms.
In November 2009, the government published a consultation document on proposed electoral reforms for the 2012 polls that would ostensibly serve as a transitional arrangement until the anticipated adoption of universal suffrage in 2017 for the chief executive and 2020 for the Legco. The system outlined in the plan did not represent substantive progress toward full democracy. Observers noted that the Hong Kong government’s reluctance to make more drastic changes was partly due to restrictions imposed by several decisions of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, the most recent in 2007, and the requirement that any reforms obtain its approval. At year’s end, the proposal remained open for public consultation, and Tsang was expected to submit a draft to the Legco in February 2010.
Beijing’s growing influence over Hong Kong’s media landscape and immigration policies remained evident during 2009. However, partly in response to comments by Tsang in which he downplayed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a record turnout of 150,000 people joined an annual candlelight vigil in June to commemorate the incident, in which Chinese security forces had crushed prodemocracy protests in Beijing and other cities. Public events marking the anniversary were not permitted in the rest of China.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Hong Kong’s Basic Law calls for the election of a chief executive and a unicameral Legislative Council (Legco). The chief executive is elected by an 800-member committee: some 200,000 “functional constituency” voters—representatives of various elite business and social sectors, many with close ties to Beijing—elect 600 members, and the remaining 200 consist of Legco members, Hong Kong delegates to the NPC, religious representatives, and 41 members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a mainland advisory body. The chief executive serves a five-year term.
The Legco consists of 30 directly elected members and 30 members chosen by the functional constituency voters. Legco members serve four-year terms. The Basic Law restricts the Legco’s lawmaking powers, prohibiting legislators from introducing bills that would affect Hong Kong’s public spending, governmental operations, or political structure. In the territory’s multiparty system, the five main parties are the prodemocracy Democratic Party, Civic Party, and League of Social Democrats; the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong; and the business-oriented Liberal Party.
The 2008 Legco elections were procedurally free and fair, but the semidemocratic structure of the legislature meant that the prodemocracy camp remained a minority despite winning nearly 60 percent of the popular vote. Unlike in 2004, the elections were not accompanied by overt intimidation or threats, though indirect pressure and influence from Beijing was nonetheless evident.
The consultation document on electoral reform introduced in November 2009 proposed several modest changes to the current system. The election committee for the chief executive would expand from 800 to 1,200 members, but would otherwise retain its existing composition. The Legco would expand from 60 to 70 seats, with direct elections for five of the new seats and the remaining five chosen indirectly by elected members of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils. The consultation document did not include a blueprint for adopting universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020, contravening the government’s earlier promises and heightening fears that the transition would be pushed further into the future.
Politically motivated violence is rare in Hong Kong. However, a total of 11 suspects—one in Hong Kong and ten in China—involved in a 2008 plot to shoot prominent prodemocracy politician Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, known for his vocal criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, received sentences of up to 18 years in prison in 2009. The plot’s alleged mastermind was said to reside in Taiwan and remained at large at year’s end.
Hong Kong is generally regarded as having low rates of corruption, although business interests have considerable influence on the Legco. In May 2009, the territory’s internationally respected Independent Commission Against Corruption reported a 23 percent increase in graft complaints during the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2008. This was widely viewed as a result of the economic downturn, as officials were more inclined to engage in graft to compensate for personal financial losses. The right to access government information is protected by law and observed in practice. Hong Kong was ranked 12 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Under Article 27 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong residents enjoy freedoms of speech, press, and publication. These rights are generally respected in practice, and political debate is vigorous. There are dozens of daily newspapers, and residents have access to international radio broadcasts and satellite television. International media organizations operate without interference. Nonetheless, Beijing’s growing influence over the media, book publishing, and film industries in recent years has led to self-censorship, particularly on issues deemed sensitive by the central government. This influence stems in part from the close relationship between Hong Kong media owners and the central authorities; at least 10 such owners sit on the CPPCC. In one incident during 2009, managers of the Hong Kong edition of Esquire magazine barred the publication of a 16-page feature about the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the feature’s author was subsequently fired. More broadly, the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association reported that “only two or three newspapers devoted significant coverage to the anniversary, while leading TV stations aired just a few special programs, with some appearing to follow [the Communist Party’s] line.”
Hong Kong journalists face a number of restrictions when covering events on the mainland. In February 2009, Chinese authorities issued regulations requiring Hong Kong journalists to obtain temporary press cards from Beijing’s liaison office prior to each reporting trip to the mainland, and to secure the prior consent of interviewees. While violence against journalists is rare in Hong Kong, reporters from the territory have repeatedly faced surveillance, intimidation, beatings, and occasional imprisonment when reporting on the mainland. In September, three journalists—a television reporter and two cameramen—were reportedly detained and beaten by police while covering unrest in Xinjiang. An official Chinese investigation concluded that the journalists had been at fault for “instigating protests,” prompting a demonstration and a petition by hundreds of Hong Kong journalists.
The Hong Kong government, rather than an independent regulator, controls media licensing in the territory. Authorities continued to obstruct broadcasts by the prodemocracy station Citizens’ Radio in 2009, after its license application was rejected in 2006. In November and December, more than a dozen prodemocracy activists and lawmakers were fined between US$125 and US$1,500 each for participating in unlicensed radio broadcasts, though one of the judges ruling on the case acknowledged the act of civil disobedience as “noble.” Separately, in September, the government rejected proposals to convert the state-owned but editorially independent Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) into a fully independent public broadcaster, or to create such an outlet. Officials instead announced the creation of a government-appointed board to advise RTHK’s director of broadcasting, potentially curbing the station’s editorial autonomy. A period for public consultation on the issue began in October and had not concluded by year’s end.
The Basic Law provides for freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice. Religious groups are excluded from the Societies Ordinance, which requires nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to register with the government. Adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement remain free to practice in the territory and hold occasional demonstrations despite facing repression on the mainland. University professors can write and lecture freely, and political debate on campuses is lively.
The Basic Law guarantees freedoms of assembly and association. Police permits for demonstrations are required but rarely denied, and protests on politically sensitive issues are held regularly. In June 2009, a record 150,000 people participated in a candlelight vigil to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Nevertheless, outside activists who planned to participate in events highlighting rights abuses in China continued to be denied entry or prevented from leaving the mainland in 2009.
Hong Kong hosts a vibrant and largely unfettered NGO sector, and trade unions are independent. However, there is limited legal protection for basic labor rights. Collective-bargaining rights are not recognized, protections against antiunion discrimination are weak, and there are few regulations on working hours and wages. While strikes are legal and several occurred in 2009, many workers sign contracts stating that walkouts could be grounds for summary dismissal.
The judiciary is independent, and the trial process is fair. The NPC reserves the right to make final interpretations of the Basic Law, effectively limiting the power of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeals. While the NPC has not directly intervened in court cases for a number of years, several recent incidents raised concerns about growing influence from Beijing over law enforcement matters. In 2008, U.S.-based Tiananmen Square activist Zhou Yongjun was detained while visiting Hong Kong on a fake Malaysian passport, and in an unusual move, he was handed over to authorities on the mainland. He was tried there on bank fraud charges in 2009, although it remained unclear whether he or the person named on the fake passport was wanted by the authorities; a verdict was pending at year’s end. Also in 2009, Hong Kong officials decided not to prosecute family members and acquaintances of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, a close Beijing ally, after they physically assaulted several foreign journalists. Chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, who has headed the judiciary since the handover, announced his retirement in September 2009; at year’s end, observers were watching to see who would be his successor and whether that individual would uphold the same standards of independence.
Police are forbidden by law to employ torture and other forms of abuse. However, official figures indicated that police conducted over 1,600 strip searches in 2008, leading to the adoption in February 2009 of additional measures to monitor and limit the use of such searches. Arbitrary arrest and detention are illegal; suspects must be charged within 48 hours of their arrest. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
Citizens are treated equally under the law, though Hong Kong’s population of 200,000 foreign domestic workers remains vulnerable to abuse, and South Asians routinely complain of discrimination in employment. Since foreign workers face deportation if dismissed, many are reluctant to bring complaints against employers. A Race Discrimination Ordinance that took effect in July 2009 created an independent Equal Opportunities Commission to enforce its protections. However, in September the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticized the ordinance for failing to cover certain government actions, neglecting the issue of indirect discrimination, and effectively excluding immigrants.
The government does not control travel, choice of residence, or employment within Hong Kong, although documents are required to travel to the mainland, and employers must apply to bring in workers from China; direct applications from workers are not accepted. Hong Kong maintains its own immigration system. In September 2009, an appeals court criticized the government for lack of candor and destruction of relevant documents in a lawsuit challenging the denial of entry to four Taiwanese Falun Gong practitioners in 2003; however, the court was reluctant to conclude that the immigration department had acted in an unlawful fashion in denying the plaintiffs’ entry. FiveLegco members and several human rights activists from Hong Kong were barred entry to Macau in March 2009, shortly after that territory passed new national security legislation; many of those affected are regularly barred from the mainland as well.
Women are protected by law from discrimination and abuse and are entitled to equal access to schooling, as well as to property in divorce settlements. However, women continue to face discrimination in employment opportunities, salary, inheritance, and welfare. Despite robust efforts by the government, Hong Kong remains a point of transit and destination for persons trafficked for sexual exploitation or forced labor.
Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 2
Taiwan’s political rights rating improved from 2 to 1 due to enforcement of anticorruption laws, including the prosecution of former high-ranking officials. However, the country’s civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2 due to flaws in the protection of criminal defendants’ rights and limitations on academic freedom, including passage of a law restraining scholars at public educational facilities from participating in certain political activities.
Former president Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party was sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges in September 2009, though some observers raised concerns over flaws in the handling of his and other corruption cases. Following criticism of the government’s response to Typhoon Morakot, Prime Minister Liu Chao-shiuan resigned in September. The Kuomintang government continued to improve relations with China during the year, leading to Taiwanese participation in UN-affiliated institutions for the first time since 1971. However, there were also growing concerns over restrictions on free expression, including limitations on academic freedom and pressure to limit criticism of Taiwanese and Chinese government policy.
Taiwan, also referred to sometimes as the Republic of China (ROC), became home to the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government-in-exile in 1949. Although the island is independent in all but name, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers it a renegade province and has threatened to take military action if de jure independence is declared.
Taiwan’s transition to democracy began in 1987, when the KMT ended 38 years of martial law. In 1988, Lee Teng-hui became the first native Taiwanese president, breaking the mainland emigres’ stranglehold on politics. The media were liberalized and opposition political parties legalized in 1989. Lee oversaw Taiwan’s first full multiparty legislative elections in 1991–92 and the first direct presidential election in 1996.
Chen Shui-bian’s victory in the 2000 presidential race, as a candidate of the proindependence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), ended 55 years of KMT rule. Chen narrowly won reelection in March 2004, but the KMT-led opposition retained its majority in the Legislative Yuan (LY) in parliamentary elections later that year, and political gridlock between the executive and legislative branches continued.
The KMT secured an overwhelming majority in the January 2008 legislative elections, taking 81 of 113 seats. The DPP took 27, and the remainder went to independents and smaller parties. The polls were the first to be held under a new electoral system. The fact that the KMT and DPP respectively secured 72 percent and 24 percent of the seats after winning 51 percent and 37 percent of the votes prompted some calls for a reexamination of the reforms. Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT won the March presidential election, defeating the DPP’s Frank Hsieh by a 16-point margin. Both elections were deemed generally free and fair, and an improvement over the 2004 polls, by international observers. They also marked the island’s second peaceful, democratic transfer of power. The DPP’s poor showing was attributed to voters’ economic concerns, frustration at political gridlock, wariness of the DPP’s proindependence policies, and recent corruption scandals involving Chen and other top officials.
Chen was indicted in December 2008, after his immunity had expired, and in September 2009 he was sentenced to life in prison for embezzlement, money laundering, and bribery. Some observers viewed the case as a milestone for the rule of law. However, there were also concerns raised over irregularities and possible political bias, including Chen’s detention before and during trial, prosecutorial leaks to the media, and disciplinary charges against his defense counsel.
The KMT government’s popularity was hurt during 2009 by the effects of the global economic downturn, although the economy had begun to recover by year’s end. Separately, Prime Minister Liu Chao-shiuan was replaced by former KMT secretary general Wu Den-yih in September amidst a broader cabinet reshuffle after the government drew criticism for its slow response to Typhoon Morakot. The natural disaster caused over 500 deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in August.
The DPP won an important parliamentary by-election in September, giving it a quarter of the LY and increased oversight powers, including the ability to petition the Constitutional Court for interpretations of the validity of official policies and actions. The KMT retained a majority of the contested posts in December local elections, but the DPP made notable gains.
The Ma administration continued its policy of establishing closer relations with the PRC government in 2009. Bilateral talks led to agreements on mutual judicial and law enforcement assistance, loosened Taiwanese restrictions on mainland investment, and the removal of PRC objections to Taiwan’s participation—with observer status under the name “Chinese Taipei”—in the World Health Assembly. This enabled Taiwanese representatives to partake in a UN specialized agency event for the first time since 1971.
Though many Taiwanese supported improved economic ties with China, critics argued that the administration was conceding elements of Taiwan’s sovereignty, moving too quickly, and acting with minimal transparency. Several incidents during 2009 stoked fears that growing economic and diplomatic reliance on the PRC would increase pressure to self-censor on issues Beijing deemed sensitive or important. For example, the government in September refused to issue a visa to Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent advocate for the rights of China’s Uighur minority. Meanwhile, Beijing maintained an aggressive legal and military stance on the prospect of eventual Taiwanese independence; an estimated 1,300 missiles remained aimed at the island at year’s end.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Taiwan is an electoral democracy. The 1946 constitution, adopted while the KMT was in power on the mainland, created a unique structure with five branches of government (yuan). The president, who is directly elected for up to two four-year terms, wields executive power, appoints the prime minister, and can dissolve the legislature. The Executive Yuan, or cabinet, consists of ministers appointed by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister. The prime minister is responsible to the national legislature (Legislative Yuan), which, under constitutional amendments that took effect in 2008, consists of 113 members serving four-year terms; 73 are elected in single-member districts, and 34 are chosen through nationwide proportional representation. The six remaining members are chosen by indigenous people. The three other branches of government are the judiciary (Judicial Yuan), a watchdog body (Control Yuan), and a branch responsible for civil service examinations (Examination Yuan).
The two main political parties are the proindependence DPP and the Chinese nationalist KMT, which hold a combined 108 of 113 legislative seats and dominate the political landscape. Opposition parties are generally able to function freely, as indicated by the DPP’s relatively strong performance in the December 2009 local elections. Nevertheless, there were credible reports during the year of increased political pressure on government critics and individuals whose activities could displease the Chinese authorities.
Though significantly less pervasive than in the past, corruption remains a feature of political life and an ongoing problem in the security forces. In 2009, the authorities took additional measures to enforce anticorruption laws, resulting in the prosecution of former top officials and the removal of four legislators from office due to vote-buying. Former president Chen Shui-bian and his wife were sentenced in September to life in prison on charges of embezzlement and money laundering; an appeal was pending at year’s end.The authorities also launched investigations of over 200 candidates for alleged vote-buying in the December local elections. Though several KMT members were investigated or punished during the year, some observers raised concerns about selective prosecution of DPP politicians. Among other high-profile cases, a retired high-ranking military officer was indicted in April on bribery and blackmail charges, and five police officers were convicted in December of accepting bribes from casino operators, receiving terms ranging from 12 to 20 years in prison.Taiwan was ranked 37 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In March 2009, Taiwan ratified two UN human rights treaties—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—and passed an implementing law allowing two years to bring relevant regulations and practice into line with the treaties. The United Nations in June refused to formally accept the ratifications, citing the PRC as the only recognized representative of China.
The Taiwanese media reflect a diversity of views and report aggressively on government policies and corruption allegations. Given that most Taiwanese can access about 100 cable television stations, the state’s influence on the media is, on balance, minimal. However, reforms and personnel changes at publicly owned media since 2008 have raised concerns about politicization. A former spokesperson for President Ma Ying-jeou’s electoral campaign was appointed as deputy president of the Central News Agency (CNA) in late 2008, and CNA staff reported receiving directives to alter certain content. Local and international observers noted that criticism of the government in subsequent CNA coverage was markedly toned down. In 2009, legislation requiring government approval of Public Television Service programming was dropped after public protests. However, local press freedom advocates and the Control Yuan criticized subsequent government measures to expand the service’s board and replace its management.
Actions by private media owners, economic pressures resulting from the global financial crisis, and potential PRC influence on free expression were also of concern in 2009. Most private news outlets are seen as sympathetic to one of the two main political parties. Observers reported an increase in paid news placements in print and electronic media during the year. After a businessman with mainland commercial interests purchased the China Times Group in late 2008, several incidents raised concerns of increased editorial pressure to soften criticism of the Ma administration and Beijing; in June 2009, the company threatened to sue several journalists and press freedom advocates for defamation over criticism of its actions in a dispute with the National Communications Commission. In September, the Kaohsiung Film Festival came under pressure—albeit unsuccessful—to not screen a documentary about exiled Uighur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer for fear that it could indirectly harm growing tourism from the mainland. There are generally no restrictions on the internet, which was accessed by over 65 percent of the population in 2009.
Taiwanese of all faiths can worship freely. Religious organizations that choose to register with the government receive tax-exempt status. Despite pressure from Beijing, the government in September 2009 allowed the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit the island and participate in memorial services for victims of Typhoon Morakot.
Although Taiwanese educators can generally write and lecture freely, the ability of scholars to engage in political activism outside the classroom came under pressure in 2009. The LY in July 2009 passed the Act Governing the Administrative Impartiality of Public Officials, which contained provisions restraining scholars at public academic facilities from participating in certain political activities. In addition, two professors known for their involvement in human rights groups faced prosecution for organizing peaceful protests surrounding the 2008 visit of a Chinese envoy; the cases were still pending at year’s end.
Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and several large-scale demonstrations took place during 2009. Nevertheless, adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is persecuted in China, occasionally faced pressure from local authorities to limit their protests at sites frequented by Chinese tourists. Unlike during his 2008 visit, demonstrations during Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin’s December 2009 trip to Taiwan passed without significant violence between police and protesters. In May, the Control Yuan urged disciplinary measures against Taipei’s police chief and precinct captain for police misconduct during the 2008 clashes, but some observers criticized the body’s decision not to impeach any officials.The Parade and Assembly Law includes restrictions on demonstration locations and permit requirements for outdoor meetings. Although permits are generally granted, at least 26 people were under investigation in 2009 for allegedly failing to obtain a permit or obey police orders to disperse. All civic organizations must register with the government, though registration is freely granted. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focusing on human rights, social welfare, and the environment are active and operate without harassment.
Trade unions are independent, and most workers enjoy freedom of association. However, government employees and defense-industry workers are barred from joining unions or bargaining collectively. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 human rights report, unions may be dissolved if their activities “disturb public order,” while other restrictions undermine collective bargaining and make it difficult to strike legally. The number of labor disputes increased in 2009 amid the economic downturn. Taiwan’s 350,000 foreign workers are not covered by the Labor Standards Law or represented by unions, and many decline to report abuses for fear of deportation.
The judiciary is independent and trials are generally fair. However, prominent cases in 2009 exposed flaws in the protection of criminal defendants’ rights. Several suspects were detained for extended periods prior to conviction, including former president Chen, who was held in custody throughout the year as his trial proceeded. Legal experts also noted other irregularities in Chen’s case, including government efforts to pursue disciplinary measures against his counsel for comments to the media. Prosecutorial leaks to the media continued during the year, sullying defendants’ reputations before trial and conviction. The legal system partially responded to shortcomings in Chen’s case, as the Grand Council of Justices ruled in January that prosecutors’ recording of meetings between the defendant and his counsel was unconstitutional.
Police largely respect the ban on arbitrary detention, and suspects are allowed attorneys during interrogations to prevent abuse. However, three defendants in the high-profile Lu Cheng murder case, who were allegedly tortured in the 1980s to extract a confession, continued to be detained after 22 years as appeals proceeded. They remained in custody at year’s end following a May 2009 High Court ruling. An estimated 187 criminal cases in Taiwan have lasted over 10 years. Although no executions have been carried out since 2005, 44 people remained on death row at year’s end. Searches without warrants are allowed only in particular circumstances, and a 1999 law imposes strict punishments for illicit wiretapping.
The constitution provides for the equality of all citizens. Apart from the unresolved issue of ownership of ancestral lands, the rights of indigenous people are protected by law. Six LY seats are reserved for indigenous people, giving them representation that exceeds their share of the population. Thousands of indigenous people were left homeless by Typhoon Morakot, leading to their resettlement in nearby areas.
Taiwanese law does not allow for the granting of asylum or refugee status. However, amendments to the Immigration Act in 2009 facilitated the granting of residency certificates to over 100 Tibetans and 400 descendants of soldiers left behind in Thailand and Burma in 1949. In December, the Executive Yuan passed a refugee draft bill; it had yet to be debated by the legislature at year’s end.
With the exception of civil servants and military personnel traveling to China, freedom of movement is generally unrestricted. Direct cross-strait air travel has expanded significantly since 2008, though PRC tourists are required to travel in chaperoned groups within Taiwan.
Taiwanese women face private-sector job discrimination and lower pay than men on average. After the 2008 elections, women held 30 percent of the LY seats. Rape and domestic violence remain problems despite government programs to protect women and the work of numerous NGOs to improve women’s rights. Although authorities can pursue such cases without the victims formally pressing charges, cultural norms inhibit many women from reporting the crimes. Taiwan is both a source and destination for trafficked women.In January 2009, the legislature passed a law that specifically criminalized sex and labor trafficking while increasing penalties for such offenses.
Political Rights Score: 5
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free
The authorities continued to restrict freedoms of speech and assembly in 2009. In April, Singapore’s legislature passed a measure that would require police permission for public assemblies of all sizes, removing a previous threshold of five or more people. In October, the Far Eastern Economic Review lost an appeal in a defamation case brought by the prime minister and his father; the magazine agreed to settle the case in November and was shuttered by its owners in December.
The British colony of Singapore obtained home rule in 1959, entered the Malaysian Federation in 1963, and gained full independence in 1965. During his three decades as prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party (PAP) transformed the port city into a regional financial center and exporter of high-technology goods but restricted individual freedoms and stunted political development in the process.
Lee transferred the premiership to Goh Chok Tong in 1990 but stayed on as “senior minister,” and the PAP retained its dominance. Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004, and the elder Lee assumed the title of “minister mentor.” In 2005, President Sellapan Ramanathan began a second term as the largely ceremonial head of state.
Despite his expressed desire for a “more open society,” Lee Hsien Loong did little to change the authoritarian political climate. He called elections in May 2006, a year early, to secure a mandate for his economic reform agenda. With a nine-day campaign period and defamation lawsuits hampering opposition candidates, the polls resembled past elections in serving more as a referendum on the prime minister’s popularity than as an actual contest for power. The PAP retained 82 of the 84 elected seats with 66 percent of the vote, although the opposition offered candidates for a greater number of seats and secured a larger percentage of the vote than in previous years. The opposition Workers’ Party and Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) each won a single seat despite receiving 16.3 percent and 13 percent of the vote, respectively.
Over the next three years, Lee continued to pursue his economic agenda while using the legal system and other tools to keep the opposition in check. The government also maintained that racial sensitivities and the threat of Islamist terrorism justified draconian restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly. Such rules were repeatedly used to silence criticism of the authorities. Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leader Chee Soon Juan faced multiple convictions and heavy fines for defamation and other crimes in 2007 and 2008, while the Far Eastern Economic Review, a 63-year-old magazine owned by the U.S.-based News Corporation, was forced to pay some US$300,000 in November 2009 to settle a defamation case brought by the Lees.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Singapore is not an electoral democracy. The country is governed through a parliamentary system, and elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, but the ruling PAP dominates the political process. The prime minister retains control over the Elections Department, and the country lacks a structurally independent election authority. Opposition campaigns are hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP’s influence on the media and the courts.
The largely ceremonial president is elected by popular vote for six-year terms, and a special committee is empowered to vet candidates. The prime minister and cabinet are appointed by the president. Singapore has had only three prime ministers since independence. Of the unicameral legislature’s 84 elected members, who serve five-year terms, 9 are elected from single-member constituencies, while 75 are elected in Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), a mechanism intended to foster minority representation. The winner-take-all nature of the system, however, limits the extent to which GRCs actually facilitate minority representation and, in effect, helps perpetuate the return of incumbents. Up to nine additional, nonpartisan members can be appointed by the president, and up to three members can be appointed to ensure a minimum of opposition representation.
Singapore has traditionally been lauded for its relative lack of corruption. There is no special legislation facilitating access to information, however, and management of state funds came under question for the first time in 2007. Critics lamented the state’s secret investment of national reserves, and investigations into the state investment arm, Temasek Holdings, were launched by Indonesian and Thai watchdog agencies. Singapore was ranked 3 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Singapore’s media market remains tightly constrained. All domestic newspapers, radio stations, and television channels are owned by government-linked companies. Although editorials and news coverage generally support state policies, newspapers occasionally publish critical pieces. Self-censorship is common among journalists. The Sedition Act, in effect since the colonial period, outlaws seditious speech, the distribution of seditious materials, and acts with “seditious tendency.” Media including videos, music, and books are sometimes censored, typically for sex, violence, or drug references.
Foreign broadcasters and periodicals can be restricted for engaging in domestic politics, and regulations in place since 2006 require all foreign publications to appoint legal representatives and provide significant financial deposits. The leadership’s practice of using defamation suits and license revocations to silence critical media is often applied to foreign-owned outlets. In October 2009, the Far Eastern Economic Review lost its appeal of an earlier judgment finding that it had defamed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, Lee Kuan Yew, by publishing a 2006 interview with an opposition figure. The magazine agreed to settle the case for about US$300,000 in November, and it was discontinued as of December 2009 by its owner, the U.S.-based News Corporation, which cited falling revenues and readership. The Lees have never lost a defamation case in Singapore.
The internet is widely accessible, but the authorities monitor online material and block some content through directives to licensed service providers. In 2008, lawyer and blogger Gopalan Nair was sentenced to three months in jail for insulting judges on his blog and in an e-mail message.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion as long as its practice does not violate any other regulations, and most groups worship freely. However, religious actions perceived as threats to racial or religious harmony are not tolerated, and unconventional groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church are banned. All religious groups are required to register with the government under the 1966 Societies Act. In October 2009, five adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, including Singapore nationals and mainland Chinese, were arrested and briefly detained after putting up posters in a public park that described the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China; the case was pending at year’s end.
All public universities and political research institutions have direct government links that bear at least some influence. Academics engage in political debate, but their publications rarely deviate from the government line on matters related to Singapore.
The Societies Act restricts freedom of association by requiring most organizations of more than 10 people to register with the government, and only registered parties and associations may engage in organized political activity. Political speeches are tightly regulated, and public assemblies must be approved by police. Legislation passed in April 2009 eliminated a previous threshold requiring permits for public assemblies of five or more people, meaning political events involving just one person could require official approval. Permits are not needed for private, indoor gatherings as long as the topic of discussion is not race or religion.
Unions are granted fairly broad rights under the Trade Unions Act, though restrictions include a ban on government employees joining unions. A 2004 amendment to the law prohibits union members from voting on collective agreements negotiated by union representatives and employers. Strikes are legal for all except utility workers, but they must be approved by a majority of a union’s members as opposed to the internationally accepted standard of at least 50 percent of the members who vote. In practice, many restrictions are not applied. All but five of the country’s 64 unions are affiliated with the National Trade Union Congress, which is openly allied with the PAP. Singapore’s 180,000 domestic workers are excluded from the Employment Act and regularly exploited. A 2006 standard contract for migrant domestic workers addresses food deprivation and entitles replaced workers to seek other employment in Singapore, but it fails to provide other basic protections, such as rest days.
The government’s overwhelming success in court cases raises questions about judicial independence, particularly because lawsuits against opposition politicians and parties often drive them into bankruptcy. Many judges have ties to PAP leaders, but it is unclear whether the government pressures judges or simply appoints those who share its conservative philosophy. The judiciary is efficient, and defendants in criminal cases enjoy most due process rights.
The government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy, but the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Criminal Law Act (CLA) permit the authorities to conduct warrantless searches and arrests to preserve national security, order, and the public interest. The ISA, previously aimed at communist threats, is now used against suspected Islamist terrorists.Suspects can be detained without charge or trial for an unlimited number of two-year periods. A 1989 constitutional amendment prohibits judicial review of the substantive grounds for detention under the ISA and of the constitutionality of the law itself. The CLA is mainly used to detain organized crime suspects; it allows preventive detention for an extendable one-year period. The Misuse of Drugs Act empowers authorities to commit suspected drug users, without trial, to rehabilitation centers for up to three years.
Security forces are not known to commit serious abuses. The government has in recent years jailed police officers convicted of mistreating detainees. The penal code mandates caning, in addition to imprisonment, for about 30 offenses; it is discretionary for certain other crimes involving the use of force. Caning is reportedly common in practice.
There is no legal discrimination, and the government actively promotes racial harmony and equity. Despite government efforts, ethnic Malays have not on average reached the schooling and income levels of ethnic Chinese or ethnic Indians,and they reportedly face discrimination in private-sector employment.
Citizens enjoy freedom of movement, although the government occasionally enforces its policy of ethnic balance in public housing, in which most Singaporeans live, and opposition politicians have been denied the right to travel.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men in most areas, and many are well-educated professionals, though relatively few women hold top positions in government and the private sector. Of the current Parliament’s 84 elected seats, 17 are held by women, all of whom belong to the PAP. In 2007, Parliament voted to maintain provisions of the penal code that make acts of “gross indecency” between men punishable by up to two years in prison.