As growing numbers of human rights lawyers are detained, we ask if a new generation of students will fill their shoes.
China is a country in lockdown.
About 60 million people have been in forced quarantine in the central province of Hubei for nearly two months, as the government tries to fight the coronavirus outbreak that began in its provincial capital of Wuhan late last year.
“The case of Li Wenliang is a tragic reminder of how the Chinese authorities’ preoccupation with maintaining ‘stability’ drives it to suppress vital information about matters of public interest,” Amnesty International’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement.
“China must adopt a rights-respecting approach to combating the epidemic. Nobody should face harassment or sanctions for speaking out about public dangers, just because it may cause embarrassment to the government.”
Li, a 34-year-old eye doctor, was one of the first to raise the alarm about what was then a mysterious new virus, expressing his concerns with other medics in a private online chat.
After the post was shared more widely, he was reprimanded by police.
Last month, he died from the disease, triggering a public outcry and demands for freedom of speech.
The virus that causes the disease, also known as COVID-19, is thought to have emerged in one of Wuhan’s food markets late last year, but even as Dr Li wondered about the new illness with his friends, the local government appeared to downplay what was happening.
It was only a few days before the Lunar New Year in January that decisive action was taken.
Transport links were cut, roadblocks appeared, and the province’s 56 million residents were effectively sealed off from the outside world. They were ordered to wear masks, stay indoors and report their body temperatures every day.
The measures were “unprecedented in public health history,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
But in the name of protecting health, China has gone much further.
A facial recognition system that identifies masked people has been developed, apparently with 90 percent accuracy, and apps that decide whether a person poses a contagion risk and should be allowed into malls, subways and other public spaces have extended the government’s already extensive system of surveillance and tracking.
Political commentator Einar Tangen says such moves are essential for a government facing such a crisis, even if they might appear unpalatable to people in Western democracies.
He believes the Chinese expect their government “to take control of the situation.”
The government has also sought to control the narrative of the outbreak – showcasing health professionals toiling against the odds, hospitals built in hyper-speed and smiling patients cured of the disease.
Those who try to tell a different version of the story risk trouble.
Sharon Hom, executive director of China Human Rights in China, an international NGO, says access to information along with restrictions on content and dissemination of information, remain as key tools of social control in China.
Since the outbreak began her organisation has tracked a number of cases where people who posted critical reporting of the authorities’ “inadequate responses” to the handling of the epidemic appear to have been “disappeared”.
The Chinese human rights lawyer, Chen Qiushi, was taken away on February 7 and apparently “put under quarantine” for 24 days. There is no publicly available information on his situation. Quishi became well known for his coverage of the Hong Kong protests as well as the coronavirus outbreak.
Another citizen journalist, Fang Bin, a businessman from Wuhan, has not been heard from since he disappeared in February, while Li Zihua, a former CCTV7 journalist, disappeared on 26 February when a group of unidentified men came to his home and took him away.
“Quarantine becomes arbitrary detention when there is no doubt or legal reason a person is forced to be in a particular place and not allowed to apply for judicial review,” said Ford Liao, professor of law at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan.
Such tight control over information can also make it more difficult for citizens to navigate their way through a difficult time, and undermine their trust in the authorities.
“The Chinese government is not providing people with the information they need to help them in this crisis,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
Richardson says that Chinese officials have defaulted to past practice, “covering up worrying information and going after whistleblowers rather than swiftly providing accurate information to allow people to make decisions that could help efficiently limit the spread of the virus.
“We may never know the full toll the virus took as censors work to silence those affected and prosecute peaceful critics.”
A recent report by the Toronto-based cyber-research group Citizen Lab found that Chinese messenger app WeChat and the video streaming app YY blocked keyword combinations that included criticism of President Xi Jinping and policies related to the virus, part of the tightening of media control under Xi.
Internet platforms are obliged to provide information to the Chinese government to facilitate the crackdown on dissent and social movements.
“There is no law protecting access to information in China,” Liao said.
Tangen argues that the Chinese understanding of human rights is fundamentally different from the understanding held by people in Western countries. For people in China, the government’s strong measures are simply “a state doing what it is supposed to do,” he says.
According to Tangen, in China the welfare of the community is more important than individual rights.
“The idea that the Chinese government is trampling on human rights in the management of the virus is nonsense,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ambassador Zhou Jian, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Qatar, said in a statement: “Every measure we take is to prevent the people from the virus, and save people’s lives to the best we can. The only principle is that nothing is more important than people’s lives and interests. Prevention and control became the top priority of all levels of governments.”
The statement further said: “The WHO has said that China has adopted the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history. UN Secretary General Guterres also praised the Chinese people for sacificing normal lives and contributed to the world.”
In theory, the Chinese legal system does provide for the protection of certain rights and freedoms.
The second chapter of the 1982 Chinese Constitution – “The Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens” – includes freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of demonstration, the right to education, freedom of religious belief.” The privacy of correspondence is also respected.
Article 38 of the Constitution states: “The personal dignity of citizens of China is inviolable.”
But according to Amnesty’s Bequelin, the Chinese constitution, unlike other constitutions, is not a bedrock document. Constitutional law cannot be invoked in judicial proceedings, he says.
“Whereas it could be legitimate to suspend rights in a public health emergency or because of national security considerations, governments would generally justify such rights-suspension, but the Chinese government does not engage in such a ‘justification’ process,” he said.
According to the Chinese government, the declaration of an epidemic is all that is needed to justify human rights violations flowing from the management of the outbreak, he says.
Teng Biao, a legal academic and human rights activist currently based at Hunter College in New York, says that human rights exist only “on paper” in China.
According to Biao, human rights have occasionally been recognised by the lower courts in China but only in matters that are not political in nature and that do not threaten the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The courts play an important role in upholding the position of the Chinese government. According to Bequelin the absence of judicial independence in China is a major obstacle to the recognition of human rights by the courts.
China has continued a crackdown on critics that had been accelerating under Xi.
Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai was given a 10-year jail term at the end of last month for “providing intelligence overseas”.
Gui, a Swedish citizen, published and sold books critical of Xi from his shop in Hong Kong before he was disappeared from Thailand in 2015, appearing in China a few months later to “confess” his alleged crimes on state television. After being freed he was then taken from a train on which he was travelling with two Swedish diplomats.
“If there is one thing Xi Jinping will be remembered for it will be his targeted efforts to eradicate independent civil society,” said Human Rights Watch’s Richardson.
China Human Rights’ Hom says that as a UN member state and signatory to human rights conventions, China is bound to international standards and reporting to international expert bodies.
On Sunday, the UN subcommittee on prevention of torture issued an advisory on the treatment of people who have been put under compulsory quarantine because of the coronavirus.
The committee says that while quarantine is for the public benefit, it should not result in the ill-treatment of those affected or restrictions on movement that appear to have no end.
Fewer cases are being reported in Hubei with each passing day.
But while the time was considered right on Tuesday for Xi to make his first visit to Wuhan, the people of Hubei still do not know when the quarantine that has governed their daily lives for nearly two months will be eased.