Social distancing in a Macau Hospital waiting room. Human Rights Watch has raised concerns about human rights abuses under the guise of COVID-19 public health lockdowns in China. Photo by Macau Photo Agency via UnsplashUNITED NATIONS, Jan. 14 (IPS) – China must step up its campaign against those seeking legal redress against COVID-19-related violations and the human rights lawyers and activists who help them protect Human Rights Watch ( HRW) with reports ranging from the alleged arrest in their homes to the chaining of alleged lock-down violations on metal posts.
It does so when the World Health Organization team arrived in Wuhan to investigate the causes of the outbreak, and just like China announced today January 14th its first death related to COVID-19 in 8 months.
In a statement last week, the New York-based rights group said the Chinese authorities had taken cruel measures against their citizens “under the pretext of the COVID-19 lockdown”. HRW said the government is trying to silence its critics through surveillance, intimidation and long sentences.
HRW China researcher Yaqui Wang told IPS that governments and the international community should put pressure on the Chinese government to stop the abuses.
Yaqiu Wang is a China researcher with Human Rights Watch. Courtesy Human Rights Watch Inter Press Service (IPS): You cited international human rights law, which requires that government restrictions based on public health needs be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. According to local reports, are restrictions in China violating these terms?
Yaqiu Wang (YW): Right. The Chinese government took measurements that appeared unnecessarily harsh and did not respect human dignity. For example, officers were seen sealing apartment doors to prevent people from leaving their homes.
Some residents were chained to metal posts for allegedly breaking home instructions. Videos shared online showed residents screaming in desperation from their homes. In Xinjiang, the authorities forced some residents to drink traditional Chinese medicines.
According to international human rights law, the authorities are obliged to ensure access to food, water, health care and assistance with care when imposing quarantines or barriers. During the Wuhan lockdown, you saw many terrifying stories on the Chinese internet: a boy with cerebral palsy died because no one cared for him after his father was quarantined. A woman with leukemia died after being turned away from multiple hospitals on concerns about cross-infection. A mother desperately asked the police to let her leukemia-stricken daughter through a checkpoint at a bridge for chemotherapy. A man with kidney disease jumped to his death from his balcony after being unable to access dialysis facilities.
Remember, these stories are only the tip of the iceberg given the strict censorship that the people of China live under. Government-critical information is quickly removed. Most of the time, people don’t even bother to voice their criticisms or tell their stories because they know they could be punished.
IPS: You expressed concern that human rights abuses are being committed under the guise of public health bans. How do citizens say they are being intimidated?
YW: For example, in the name of fighting false information about the pandemic, the authorities arrested hundreds if not thousands of people for “rumor warfare”, censored online discussions about the epidemic, curbed media coverage and detained citizen journalists.
IPS: How concerned are you about surveillance tactics intercepting citizens’ communication platforms? Are you concerned that citizens will be afraid to speak up and raise concerns?
YW: This is the digital reality of the people in China now. Whatever you say publicly on Chinese social media or privately through Chinese messaging apps, the Chinese government can see. If you criticize the government in private too, you can face harassment or worse, jail. Perhaps the more damaging effect is that many, aware of the risks, censor themselves.
Fear pervades Chinese society that existed long before the pandemic.
IPS: You said residents also fear detention and harsh sentences, including long prison terms, if they speak up. Are these fears based on hearings during the pandemic?
YW: Since the outbreak in Wuhan, authorities have arrested several citizen journalists reporting from Wuhan. A Shanghai court sentenced Zhang Zhan to four years in prison after she was sentenced to quarrel and provoke trouble. The situation and whereabouts of Fang Bin, a Wuhan businessman who was arrested for posting videos of the city hospital, remains unknown. Beijing-based activists Chen Mei and Cai Wei, who police arrested in April for archiving censored COVID-19 information, are staying in a detention center awaiting trial.
IPS: Are there any measures to support citizens who come forward but would require a certain level of anonymity when reporting complaints?
YW: It actually got very difficult. On the one hand, many safer communication tools like WhatsApp and Telegram are banned in China. It is becoming increasingly difficult to bypass censorship and maintain secure communications as unauthorized VPNs are increasingly banned in China. So users have to use domestic apps and these apps are heavily monitored and censored. For example, all WeChat accounts are tied to a phone number attached to your national identity card. The Chinese government has all but eliminated anonymity in the Chinese digital space.
IPS: You are calling for an end to the intimidation and surveillance of those who criticize the government’s COVID response. Given the reality in China, do you hope that you can at least shed some light on what’s going on?
YW: Yes, people outside of China are aware of the abuses inside China. We hope that governments and the international community can put pressure on the Chinese government to stop the abuses.
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