China human rights fact sheet

March 1, 1995

Human rights violations in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remain systematic and widespread. The Chinese government continues to suppress dissenting opinions and maintains political control over the legal system, resulting in an arbitrary and sometimes abusive judicial regime. The lack of accountability of the government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) means that abuses by officials often go unchecked. This fact sheet identifies the most common types of abuses, including arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, severe restrictions on freedom of expression and association and violations specific to women.

1. Controls on Expressions and Associations
2. Torture and Ill-Treatment of Prisoners
3. Lackof Judicial Independance and Due Process
4. Death Penalty
5. Tibet
6. Women
7. Resource List

Controls on Expressions and Associations

The PRC detains individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of association, freedom of religion and freedom of expression, including the right to impart and receive information, and other basic rights. The total number of persons in China detained without charge, sentenced administratively to reeducation or reform camps, or held by other means, solely for peacefully exercising these rights is unknown. However, that figure is estimated to be far in excess of the approximately 3,000 individuals that the PRC currently acknowledges imprisoning for “counter-revolutionary” or political crimes. Many of those detained are held under circumstances that constitute clear violations of due process. Such violations include lengthy detention without charge or trial and depriving defendants of access to legal counsel.

Restrictions on Independent Organizing: Although the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of association and assembly, national regulations severely limit association and give the authorities absolute discretion to deny applications for public gatherings or demonstrations. In practice, only organizations that are approved by the authorities are permitted to exist, and any organization that is not registered is considered “illegal.” In this manner, independent advocacy on labor, human rights, environmental, development or political issues is effectively outlawed. The CCP-controlled labor union and women and youth organizations are the only permitted avenues for organizing in these areas. Unofficial labor groups have been a particular target for suppression. In December 1994, the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court imposed severe sentences of between 15 and 20 years’ imprisonment on three prisoners of conscience, convicted of “leading counter-revolutionary organizations.” The sentences, based on the defendants’ alleged formation of non-government-approved organizations, were the harshest delivered to political dissidents in recent years.

On 4 June, 1994, the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, China promulgated new implementing regulations for the 1993 State Security Law. The repressive new measures threaten the few legal means of operation left to democracy and human rights activists, independent religious adherents and other independent voices, by criminalizing: contact with and funding from foreign organizations defined as “hostile”; the publication or dissemination of “written or verbal speeches” or “using religion” to carry out activities “which endanger state security;” and the creation of “national disputes.” The regulations also give state security officials virtually unlimited power to detain individuals, confiscate property and determine what constitutes a “hostile” organization.

Restrictions on Free Speech and the Media: Although the PRC’s 1982 Constitution guarantees citizens freedom of expression and of the press, its preamble mandates adherence to “four basic principles”– the CCP’s leadership, socialism, dictatorship of the proletariat and Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought. In practice, the PRC employs a wide range of controls that violate the right to free expression and interfere with independent media. These include severe restrictions on contact between foreign news media and Chinese viewed by the government as critical of the regime. An extensive censorship bureaucracy licenses all media outlets and publishing houses and must approve all books before publication.

The primary mechanism of control over the news media and publishing is self-censorship. Chinese journalists, editors and publishers are expected to make the information they disseminate conform to CCP Propaganda Department guidelines. For example, news coverage is required to be “80% positive and 20% negative.” Sanctions for infringements range from official criticism of the coverage to the demotion, firing or imprisonment of the individuals responsible and the closing or banning of the offending publication.

Dissidents who make their opinions known to the foreign media are often subject to threats, detention, harassment, intensive surveillance or imprisonment. During 1994, at least 20 Chinese writers, journalists, editors and publishers were persecuted in connection with their work. Also during the year, foreign correspondents from the British Broadcasting Corporation, Newsweek, Reuters, United Press International, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, U.S. television networks (NBC, CBS) and other foreign media outfits were detained and interrogated by PRC police regarding their work as journalists, including the interviewing of Chinese dissidents and students and filming in Tiananmen Square. Police also banned broadcasts of CNN in Beijing hotels for five days surrounding the fifth anniversary of the 4 June 1989 military crackdown on democracy demonstrators.

Suppression of Religious Freedom: The PRC prohibits all religious activities outside establishments registered under the official branches of four state-recognized religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam), established by the PRC government during the 1950s, through which Chinese and Tibetan religious adherents are required to practice their faith. Individuals conducting or participating in public worship without government authorization, including Catholics loyal to the Vatican and Protestants who worship in house churches, have been arrested, detained, placed under close police surveillance or internal exile, fined and, in some cases, tortured. PRC police have also confiscated religious literature and church property, and human rights organizations have documented the closure of hundreds of house churches since 1989.

China’s laws restricting contact with foreign coreligionists, prohibiting parents from exposing children under the age of 18 to religion, and outlawing nongovernment-controlled churches violate the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. In January 1994, the PRC government increased restrictions on religious practice by foreigners in China through State Council Decrees 144 and 145. Decree 144 states that foreign nationals may bring in religious materials only “for their own use,” and bans materials deemed “harmful to the public interest.” The decree also prohibits evangelizing, establishing religious schools and other missionary activities. Decree 145 gives authorities substantial leeway in restricting religious activities deemed harmful to “national unity” or “social stability,” and limits the practice of religion by foreign nationals to state-sanctioned places of worship.

Torture and Ill-Treatment of Prisoners

Torture of detainees is endemic in Chinese detention centers and prisons. Although China became party to the UN Convention Against Torture in 1988, the government has not taken effective measures to diminish the risk of prisoners being tortured or ill-treated. Despite strong evidence of torture in several cases of death in custody, state prosecutors have refused to release autopsy results to families or to initiate investigations. In many detention centers, beatings, inadequate food and poor hygiene appear to be a routine part of the process of eliciting confessions and compliance from detainees. Such treatment is applied to ordinary prisoners as well as political detainees.

According to prisoner reports, methods commonly used by guards include: beatings using electric batons; rubber truncheons on hands and feet; long periods in handcuffs and/or leg irons, often tightened so as to cause pain; restriction of food to starvation levels; and long periods in solitary confinement. Furthermore, corrupt authorities at detention centers, prisons and labor camps have extorted large sums of money from families of detainees for the state’s provision of “daily supplies” and “medical expenses.”

Despite continuing efforts by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations, PRC officials have not agreed to allow open and unannounced visits to prisoners. PRC authorities acknowledge that there are some 1.2 million prisoners and detainees in China.

Lack of Judicial Independance and Due Process

Few legal safeguards exist in China to ensure fair trials, and the judicial system is controlled at every level by CCP political-legal committees that may determine the outcome of cases before the court hears evidence presented at trial. Legal scholars within China have called for an end to this widespread practice of “verdict first, trial second.” With the political-legal committees exercising extensive control, detainees are highly unlikely to receive fair, impartial hearings that are free from official manipulation.

China’s Criminal Procedure Law provides for detainees to have access to lawyers no later than one week before trial. However, even this minimal protection is not always observed. Prisoners typically cannot call witnesses for the defense or question witnesses against them. In politically sensitive cases, lawyers have been instructed that they may enter a not-guilty plea only if they get approval from the judicial administration. Even in death-penalty cases, appeals are usually cursory, and defendants may have only several days to file an appeal.

Arbitrary Detention: In addition to judicial convictions, PRC authorities consistently use administrative procedures to detain hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Tibetans each year.

Individuals sentenced administratively by police are not charged or brought before a judge, thereby denying them access to a lawyer and the right to defend themselves. The majority of these individuals are ordinary people, but democracy and human rights activists, independent religious adherents and worker-rights advocates are also frequently detained in this way.

The most common forms of administrative detention are:
1) “reeducation through labor,” under which police, without trial, can send individuals to labor camps for up to four years; and
2) “shelter and investigation,” under which police can detain people without charge or trial for up to three months, a time limit that is routinely ignored.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that the practice of “reeducation through labor” is “inherently arbitrary” when intended for “political and cultural rehabilitation.” According to PRC government sources, 100,000 people are sent to “reeducation through labor” camps and one million are “sheltered” each year.

Conditional Releases with Continued Deprivation of Rights: The PRC infrequently has released political prisoners of conscience before the completion of their sentences, predominantly as a result of international pressure. However, those released have been forced into exile, subjected to continuing police surveillance and harassment or, in some cases, detained again for alleged violations of the restrictive conditions of parole or new “crimes” of free expression. Many former prisoners of conscience are not granted the identity cards necessary to gain employment or travel without express official permission.

Death Penalty

During the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of the death penalty in China. This growth in the number of death sentences and executions is partly due to anti-crime campaigns launched by the government. Defendants can be put to death for criminal offenses, including nonviolent property crimes such as theft, embezzlement and forgery. In 1993, 77% of all executions worldwide were carried out in China. On a single day, 9 January 1993, 356 death sentences were handed down by Chinese courts; 62 executions took place that day. During that year alone, 2,564 people were sentenced to death. At least 1,419 of them are known to have been executed. The total number of death sentences and executions is believed to be higher. Defendants do not always have access to lawyers, and when a lawyer is available, he or she usually has no more than one or two days to prepare a defense. Death sentences have been imposed based on forced confessions and are often decided in advance of the trial by “adjudication committees,” thereby circumventing defendants’ rights to a fair and public hearing and presumption of innocence.


In Tibet, hundreds of Tibetans have been incarcerated for peacefully expressing their political and religious beliefs. Conditions in prisons are reported to be dismal, with numerous accounts of torture and ill-treatment. In particular, PRC law enforcement officials have perpetrated violent acts against Tibetan women in detention centers and prisons. Buddhist nuns and lay women have been subject to torture or violent, degrading and inhuman treatment, including assault, rape and sexual abuse. In June 1994, one Tibetan nun died while in custody, reportedly as a result of a beating by guards. PRC authorities also have severely restricted religious practice; out of the 6,000 Buddhist monasteries that were destroyed by the PRC since its 1949 invasion of Tibet, only a few hundred have been rebuilt.

PRC policies, including population transfers of hundreds of thousands of Chinese into Tibet, threaten to make Tibetans a minority in their own land and to destroy Tibetans’ distinct national, religious and cultural identity.


The Chinese Constitution and other laws provide equal rights for men and women in all spheres of life, including ownership of property, inheritance and educational opportunities. Equality between the sexes has been a part of the CCP’s agenda from its early days, and women’s rights are perceived to be in a separate category from human rights. Therefore, women’s organizations in China, even though they remain under CCP control, are able to advocate effectively on some issues involving abuses of women’s human rights. However, when women’s rights or interests conflict with Party or government policy, the latter takes precedence. This means, for example, that abuses related to the family planning policy are not reported in the media or discussed publicly. Information about other issues, such as the extent of domestic violence, trafficking in women or abuses directed at lesbians, is effectively prevented by the CCP’s injunction that most news should be positive. Thus, the controls on freedom of expression and association, which so affect democracy and human rights activists, have a strong impact on women’s human rights as well.

Violence Against Women: According to some researchers, spousal abuse is far too common and, in many parts of the country, still socially acceptable. However, comprehensive statistics about the extent of domestic violence are not available or have not been made public. The official All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) has been studying this problem and seeking solutions.

Few battered women have the opportunity to escape abuse, because shelters and other resources are not available. Women are under considerable social pressure to keep families together regardless of the circumstances. Legal action is not taken against batterers unless the victim initiates it, and if she withdraws her testimony, the proceedings are ended.

Abduction and Trafficking of Women: Trafficking and sale of women as brides or into prostitution is a serious problem in certain parts of China, and Chinese women have been sold into brothels in Southeast Asia. The PRC government has enacted various laws to combat the sale of women, but the statistics released by the government do not reliably indicate the scale of the problem. PRC officials stated that there were 15,000 cases of kidnapping and trafficking in women and children in 1993. Yet according to one estimate, 10,000 women were abducted and sold in 1992 in Sichuan Province alone.

Until recently, the authorities have not prosecuted men who purchase women as wives; thus, the trade has continued unabated. Official action to rescue victims of trafficking is generally initiated only if a complaint is made by the woman or her family. Local officials often turn a blind eye, even formally registering marriages into which the woman has been sold.

Discrimination in Employment and Education: The PRC ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1980 and enacted the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests in 1992. However, open discrimination against women in China has continued to grow during the period of reform of the last 15 years.

According to PRC government surveys, women’s salaries have been found to average 77% of men’s, and most women employed in industry work in low-skill and low-paying jobs. An estimated 70 to 80% of workers laid off as a result of downsizing in factories have been women, and, although women make up 38% of the work force, they are 60% of the unemployed. At job fairs, employers openly advertise positions for men only, and university campus recruiters often state that they will not hire women. Employers justify such discrimination by saying that they cannot afford the benefits they are required to provide for pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants.

The proportion of women to men declines at each educational tier, with women comprising some 25% of undergraduates in universities. Institutions of higher education that have a large proportion of female applicants, such as foreign language institutes, have been known to require higher entrance exam grades from women.

Although China has a law mandating compulsory primary education, increasing numbers of rural girls are not being sent to school. Rural parents often do not want to “waste” money on school fees for girls who will “belong” to another family when they marry. According to official statistics, about 70% of illiterates in China are female.

Violations Resulting from Family Planning Policy: The Chinese Constitution mandates the duty of couples to practice family planning. Since 1979, the central government has attempted to implement a family planning policy in China and Tibet that the government states is “intended to control population quantity and improve its quality.” Central to this initiative is the “one child per couple” policy. Central authorities have verbally condemned the use of physical force in implementing the one-child policy; however, its implementation is left to local laws and regulations.

To enforce compliance, local authorities employ incentives such as medical, educational and housing benefits, and punishments including fines, confiscation of property, salary cuts or even dismissal. Officials also may refuse to issue residence cards to “out of plan” children, thereby denying them education and other state benefits.

Methods employed to ensure compliance have also included the forced use of contraceptives, primarily the I.U.D., and forced abortion for pregnant women who already have one child. In Zheijang Province, for example, the family planning ordinance states that “fertile couples must use reliable birth control according to the provisions. In case of pregnancies in default of the plan, measures must be taken to terminate them.” As an official “minority”, Tibetans are legally allowed to have more than one child. However, there have been reports of forced abortions and sterilizations of Tibetan women who have had only one child. There are also reports of widespread sterilization of certain categories of women, including those suffering from mental illness, retardation and communicable or hereditary diseases. Under previous local regulations superseded by the 1994 Maternal and Infant Health Care Law, such sterilization was mandatory in certain provinces. Under the new law, certain categories of people still may be prevented from bearing children.

Violations Against Female Children: The one-child policy, in conjunction with the traditional preference for male children, has led to a resurgence of practices like female infanticide, concealment of female births and abandonment of female infants. Female children whose births are not registered do not have any legal existence and therefore may have difficulty going to school or receiving medical care or other state services. The overwhelming majority of children in orphanages are female and/or mentally or physically handicapped.

The one-child policy has also contributed to the practice of prenatal sex identification resulting in the abortion of female fetuses. Although the government has outlawed the use of ultrasound machines for this purpose, physicians continue the practice, especially in rural areas. Thus, while the average worldwide ratio of male to female newborns is 105/100, Chinese government statistics show that the ratio in the PRC is 114/100 and may be higher in some areas.

This fact sheet was prepared by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. It is based on information provided by Amnesty International-USA, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Human Rights in China, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Puebla Institute and the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights. The accompanying resource list provides contact information for these organizations.

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