U.S. Sees China Political Insecurity Driving Rights Abuses

  • Annual report cites marked increase in repression and coercion
  • Countries step up criticism of rights record under Xi Jinping

The U.S. blames Chinese political insecurity for what it says was a marked increase in repression and coercion in the country last year, including mass round-ups of rights lawyers and the detention of five Hong Kong booksellers.

The assessment was offered Thursday by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Tom Malinowski while announcing the annual U.S. report on human rights conditions in countries around the world. Malinowski, who oversees democracy, human rights and labor, said actions by China’s ruling Communist Party showed unease over growing expectations among a wealthier, better-connected population of 1.4 billion.

"It’s a universal truth that the driver of repression is insecurity," Malinowski told a news briefing in Washington, adding that Chinese citizens "want the same things as people anywhere else." "The government senses that, and it feels insecure, and it cracks down."

The U.S. and other countries have stepped up criticism of human rights practices under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has led broad clampdowns on corruption and political dissent marked by televised confessions, extra-judicial detentions and secret trials. Germany, Japan and the U.K. were among 11 nations that joined the U.S. in expressing concern about the country’s "deteriorating human rights record" in a statement last month to the United Nations High Commission of Human Rights in Geneva. 

China denounced the criticism as "groundless" and an attempt by Western countries to influence its internal affairs. As it has for more than a decade, China responded to the Secretary of State’s annual report by releasing its own summary of perceived U.S. human rights failings, including gun violence, racial discrimination, government surveillance and overseas drone strikes.

Booksellers Case

"Since the U.S. government refuses to hold up a mirror to look at itself, it has to be done with other people’s help," the report said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The U.S.’s most recent report highlighted the detentions of five men who produced and sold books critical of the Communist Party in the former British colony of Hong Kong. Two of the men -- author Gui Minhai and publisher Lee Po -- disappeared last year while outside the legal reach of Chinese law enforcement only to later turn up on the mainland. Gui, who holds a Swedish passport, was reported missing in Thailand, while Lee, a U.K. citizen, disappeared from Hong Kong. 

U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in February published a report calling the case a "serious breach" of China’s agreement to guarantee Hong Kong’s legal autonomy for 50 years after the city’s 1997 return. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed "strong displeasure" in the report and the government has repeatedly promised to respect the handover deal with the U.K.

Lee, who’s also known as Lee Bo, returned to Hong Kong last month and told police that friends helped him travel surreptitiously to mainland China to assist in an investigation and that he wasn’t abducted. Gui has also appeared on Chinese television saying he returned to the mainland voluntarily and -- in a February interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV -- confessing to importing banned books.

The U.S. report also said China had detained more than 300 lawyers and law associates on charges ranging from “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” to “inciting subversion of state power.” Many were held for months without access to attorneys or to their family members, in violation of criminal procedure laws, it said.

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