Alarm at repressive new laws in China on counter-terror, security and NGOs

Chinese draft laws on security, counter-terrorism and non-governmental organizations that move closer to implementation this week constitute a further and more serious threat to freedom of religion and expression and deepen repression in an already restrictive political climate. The new measures, which have caused alarm in the international community, broaden the reach of the Party state still further, contracting the space for civil society.

  • Together with the National Security Law that is expected to be implemented this year, the proposed counter-terror law[1] outlines a counter-terrorism structure with vast discretionary powers. The conflation of “terrorism” with religious “extremism” in the law gives scope for the penalization of almost any peaceful expressions of Tibetan identity, acts of non-violent dissent, or criticism of ethnic or religious policies. It also broadens the reach of the state into lay society, for instance requiring the strengthening of “counter-terrorism education” in schools.
  • The draft security law will offer a programmatic and institutional framework for measures to protect “National Security”. The proposal formulates goals and policies to promote “the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party” and to “maintain a socialist system with Chinese characteristics” and calls for “guarding against and lawfully punishing the exploitation of religion to conduct illegal and criminal activities”, while maintaining “normal order of religious activities”. Religious policy in the PRC is shaped by the ideology of the ruling Communist Party and its political imperative of maintaining power.
  • In a statement, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights defenders (a joint program of the World Organization against Torture – OMCT and FIDH, of which the International Campaign for Tibet is a member), expressed its concern about the draft “Overseas NGO Management law”, which is under discussion after its second reading by the National People’s Congress in April, as it would inevitably shrink the space for Chinese civil society and severely restrict freedom of association and expression in the country.[2]

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “In the week of the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, for which no one has been held accountable, it is worrying to see the Chinese government pushing forward new legislation that would curtail even more basic human rights. The new draft laws have taken shape in the context of a political environment in Tibet which has involved killing with impunity, torture and imprisonment of individuals. These measures have become the cause of instability and are therefore counterproductive; the new draft security and counter-terror laws will heighten tensions still further. There must be a complete review and revision of the laws, as they are in contravention of international and national Chinese law that safeguards freedom or religion and belief and freedom of expression and opinion.”

The draft law on counter-terror

The new draft law represents an escalation in an expansive ‘counter-terrorism’ drive launched by the government following the killings in Xinjiang that has increasingly targeted Tibetans, despite the absence of any violent insurgency in Tibet.[3] Earlier this year, the Chinese authorities even announced ‘rewards’ of thousands of dollars for information on ‘terrorism’ that is conflated with ‘separatism’ in state media reporting.[4] The Chinese authorities have demonstrated their ‘surge’ capacity with large-scale military drills, intensified border security and training exercises for troops on responding to self-immolations and in monasteries. For the first time religious teachings by the Dalai Lama last July [2014] were described by the Chinese state as an incitement to ‘hatred’ and ‘extremist action’ and there is the implication that Tibetan self-immolations, which harm no one else, can be characterized as ‘terrorism’.

The new draft law on counter-terror provides blanket authorization for arbitrary and sweeping measures against religious activity that appears to contravene its protection in both international and national Chinese law. Although China’s Constitution states that citizens of the PRC have “freedom of religious belief”, the CCP defines what is ‘acceptable’ behavior and religion is only tolerated as long as it does not interfere with or challenge the legitimacy of the ruling Party.

In the new law, “violent terrorist ideology” is equated with actions that may be completely non-violent, such as “splittism”, which can include almost any peaceful expression of Tibetan national identity or culture, and undermining of “ethnic unity”. The draft bill uses opaque descriptions such as “Using ethnicity or religion as pretext to obstruct the lawful performance of state officers’ lawful duties” or sanctions even private possession of items “that publicize extremism, or otherwise advocating extremism”, which are subject to interpretation according to the political climate and the authorities’ drive to secure convictions against specific individuals. For instance, in the context of the Chinese authorities openly blaming the Dalai Lama in exile for the wave of self-immolations across Tibet,[5] keeping a small photograph of the Dalai Lama in one’s private possession could even be termed ‘extremist’, given that the Chinese authorities blame him for.

The law also introduces further extra-judicial measures, increasing the impunity of the Chinese state. It introduces another means of “administrative detention”, despite the Chinese authorities’ declared abolition of the ‘Re-education through Labour’ (RTL) system.[6]

In terms of far-reaching decisions on organizations or entities’ status as being “terrorist”, it is telling that there is no judicial process for appeal in front of a court; the draft law states that affected organizations have instead to appeal with the counter-terrorism authorities.

The draft counter-terror law incorporates the following:

  • The law calls for formulating working plans for counter-terrorism even on a local level, thereby establishing a sweeping new policy on every level of government (Art. 10)
  • “Counter-terrorism education, guidance, supervision, inspections and evaluation of schools’ counter-terrorism work” must be strengthened, according to the law. This implies further political indoctrination into schools, which is likely to deepen the negative impact of anti-Dalai Lama and “anti-separatism” propaganda. (Art. 14).
  • Article 23 of the draft regulations states: “Leading institutions for counter-terrorism efforts, public security organs and relevant departments shall participate in the formulation and implementation of urban and rural planning.” As further wording in the document shows, this refers to the integration of surveillance and control measures into the construction of infrastructure, including video surveillance and other measures, intensifying the intrusion of the state into private life despite already constrictive measures.
  • Although patriotic education across Tibetan areas is extensive, the draft counter-terror bill authorizes a wide range of institutions to deepen this still further, specifying the need for village committees, prisons and ethnic and religious affairs departments to administer “reformatory education” to those who have displayed “terrorist or extremist tendencies” (Art. 26).
  • It is notable that, according to the draft law, even those enforcing the law are targeted, and warned of sweeping sanctions if they fail to perform their duties. (Art. 98) This is an indicator of the political climate, in which officials and security personnel are required to implement the stringent measures without question. In Tibet, even Party members have been warned that they face “punishment” if they harbor thoughts about the Dalai Lama.[7]
  • The National People’s Congress[8] has revised the initial draft and deleted, when defining terrorism, a reference to “thoughts” as relevant punishable “behavior” (Art. 104). But it still proposes that certain types of ‘speech’ qualify as terrorism offences. The draft law also seeks to legitimize the authorities’ attempts to keep individuals under tight surveillance and to block information flow, stating that if prohibited activities are not stopped officials can “adopt means necessary to forcibly disperse relevant persons; forcibly remove those who do not comply; seize relevant materials and items, copy and then delete relevant information and images; close or deactivate illegal websites, accounts and mobile phone number and seal relevant illegal venues.” (Art. 25);
  • Vaguely formulated regulations open the door to arbitrary measures which in particular target religious activities when labelling the following as “extremist conduct” (Art. 24). The definition of punishable behavior in the relevant clauses must be viewed as in contradiction to international human rights law, such as Art. 18 and 19 of the UDHR:
    • “Using ethnicity or religion as pretext to obstruct the lawful performance of state officers’ lawful duties”; and even vaguer still: “interfering in the habits and ways of life of other persons, or in production of management” (Art. 24 (3));
    • “manufacturing, disseminating, possessing items that publicize extremism, or otherwise advocating extremism” (Art. 24 (1));
    • “forcing others to take part to religious activities, forcing others to display items that advocate extremism, forcing others to make donations or contribute manual labor to places of religious worship or to clerical persons” (Art. 24 (4));
    • “misrepresenting or insulting state policies, laws, administrative regulations”, thereby stipulating that peaceful dissent can be termed as “extremist” (Art. 24 (5));
    • “organizing, instructing, forcing minors to take part to religious activities or to not receive compulsory education; forcing others to hold a religious ceremony in place of marriage or divorce registration; and other [conducts] that disrupt the implementation of state policy, laws, administrative rules and regulations;” (Art. 24 (5));

Footnotes
[1] As per initial draft from October 2014 (see http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/news/2014-10/28/content_1883384.htm); see English translation at http://chinalawtranslate.com/en/archives/3070; note the revision of the draft in February 2015, according to http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/news/Legislation/2015-02/27/content_1906080.htm; a period for “comments” apparently ended in December 2014. It is expected to be passed this year.

[2] https://www.fidh.org/International-Federation-for-Human-Rights/asia/china/china-the-draft-overseas-ngo-management-law-must-be-substantially;

[3] ICT report, October 15, 2014, http://www.savetibet.org/new-aggressive-counter-terrorism-campaign-expands-from-xinjiang-to-tibet-with-increased-militarization-of-the-plateau/

[4] The rewards are promised also for information on ‘illegal border crossing’ referring to Tibetans who escape into exile. The Chinese authorities have virtually succeeded in closing the gateway into exile via Nepal, with a total last year of less than 300 new arrivals, compared to a steady 2500-3500 Tibetan refugees arriving each year prior to 2008.

[5] As in the Chinese government’s latest White Paper on Tibet, issued in April (2015): http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-04/15/c_134154123.htm

[6] According to the draft law, public security organs can impose “10 to 15 days detention” or a fine of up to 1,000 Yuan in case of “extremist conduct”. It is notable that no judicial process for this is outlined.Although Beijing announced that the government would “stop using” the RTL system by the end of 2013, the Chinese authorities have at the same time intensified other measures of detention without trial, such as ‘black jails’ and enforced ‘drug rehabilitation centers’.

[7] ICT report, January 28, 2015, http://www.savetibet.org/communist-party-officials-punished-for-supporting-dalai-lama/

[8] The national legislative body, that is effectively a rubber stamp for decisions made by the Communist Party Politburo.

 

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