Human Rights

China human rights work: it’s emotionally draining, but country is the story of our lifetime, says Amnesty researcher

William Nee says there have been modest improvements in the country’s human rights record, but the road ahead remains long and daunting

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 4:01pm

China’s human rights record comes under constant international scrutiny, from harassment of democracy campaigners to freedom of religion to women’s rights.

In February last year the European Parliament condemned what it called human rights abuses in the country, and a month later a dozen governments led by the United States signed a statement denouncing China’s “deteriorating record” at the UN Human Rights Council.

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Despite improvements, the outlook for fundamental human rights under the leadership of President Xi Jinping has been described as “dire” in Amnesty International’s World Report 2017.

Founded in 1961, the London-based non-governmental organisation studies the human rights situation in more than 150 countries, and campaigns for compliance with international laws.

Their Hong Kong base is responsible for most of the organisation’s research and campaigning in East Asia.

William Nee is a China researcher at Amnesty, based in Hong Kong. He moved to the city in 2007, having worked on the mainland for rights NGO the China Labour Bulletin, before moving to Amnesty in 2014.

Describing China as “the story of our lifetime”, he says everyone should attempt to understand the country and the progress being made there, but also to see the scale of the human rights challenges still needing to be tackled.

What do you do on an everyday basis for Amnesty International?

I have been a China researcher at Amnesty International since January 2014, so we cover the whole gamut of human rights issues. Right now I am the death penalty project coordinator.

Amnesty has an annual death penalty report for every country in the world, China in particular, because it executes and sentences to death more people than the rest of the world combined, we think.

Other than that we do a lot of work related to human rights defenders and the challenges they face, which we choose based on the situation on the mainland in terms of the crackdown on human rights defenders, whether that is lawyers, petitioners, news gatherers or religious practitioners, and so on.

For the most part we don’t travel to the mainland because for a lot of the more sensitive work we think it may cause human rights defenders more harm than good if we went there to meet them. So we do most of that work from Hong Kong.

I also follow Hong Kong developments and the Tibetan regions. I am the main person on our team responsible for monitoring the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

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What one human rights issue are you most passionate about?

Among China specialists a lot of people know what is happening to Uygurs – people who live in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. But I don’t think a lot of people realise how bad it has become in the past year.

There is a new Communist Party secretary there who has massively increased the number of security personnel, placed so-called police stations around and put surveillance cameras everywhere. They have a DNA database of Uygurs and they have anti-extremism regulations that are policing this hardcore anti-Islam, anti-Uygur-identity policy. They have set up many arbitrary detention facilities called political study centres, or re-education and transformation centres, where, even if you have a friend who has been abroad, or you’ve studied religion or been found praying, you can be sent to these facilities without going through a court.

I travelled in the region many years ago and I knew some Uygurs when I was living in Beijing. My impression was that things weren’t great but overall they weren’t that bad, so to see how things have deteriorated over the last seven years, and particularly over the last year or two, has just been really heartbreaking. There is no one to give them an international voice so, to the extent possible, we try to highlight their issues and what is going on there.

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What are the main challenges in human rights work?

There is no “global cop” so to speak. How do you encourage governments to make the changes needed to improve human rights? That is something we struggle with and are always trying to figure out the best strategy for. One of the things we want to do is get the most credible, factual information possible to document the violations of human rights so that people can get at least some semblance of justice.

China is very, very reluctant to have its human rights record scrutinised and they will fight tooth and nail against it, spend billions and billions of dollars to shield it. But at the same time, in the long run you could argue that China has made, or is making, gradual improvements.

Part of that is due to the incredible scrutiny and pressure from the international community, and part is also, of course, due to domestic pressure. Probably more is due to domestic pressure.

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What improvements has China seen in relation to human rights?

When they abolished re-education through labour, which was a system in which police would arbitrarily send someone to detention without going through the courts – this is something the international community had spoken up about for years and they finally abolished it.

I think most people are concerned that there are replacements for some of the ways they used to sentence people, such as re-education camps, or misusing criminal detention, so it is not to say everything is peachy clean, but overall that was a significant step forward.

Despite four decades of asking for simple information about the death penalty and executions – from the UN, the international community, and people themselves within China – the government is still not being transparent. That’s the bottom line.

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None the less almost every credible scholar on the death penalty thinks that from the height of executions in the 1980s, when they were carrying out strike hard campaigns and executing tens of thousands, to 2007 when the Supreme People’s Court regained the authority to review all death penalty cases, the number of executions and death penalty cases per year have been significantly driven down.

Is there one case that has stuck with you?

On the positive side, there was the case of a poet named Langzi (real name Wu Mingliang) who is based in Guangzhou. He was involved in writing an anthology of poems commemorating late dissident Liu Xiaobo’s death. He was criminally detained about two months ago. I met him a few years ago. He’s a really fun-loving, artistic guy who loves to drink. When he was arrested it really shocked me, so when he was released that was a really positive feeling.

On the other hand, there was the crackdown on lawyers in 2015. One lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, is still in detention. It’s been amazing to see his wife, Li Wenzu, on social media essentially become an incredible voice for human rights for her husband, but also for a lot of the people in the crackdown. They have a son who is roughly the same age as mine, so it’s tough to think how she is raising her son without the help of her husband.

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What are your thoughts on recent internet access crackdowns and the increase in censorship in mainland China?

It’s incredibly concerning. They have always had censorship, which is bad enough, but it has massively increased. In 2013 they targeted the so-called big Vs – the verified accounts with millions of followers – on Weibo and largely killed off one of the main public discussion places. At one point it was a vibrant space for discussion of public affairs and policy, but then they detained and scared off many of those big Vs.

In recent years there has been more censorship of WeChat. Group administrators can be held liable for the content people in their groups put out.

One of the core aspects of human rights is the ability to access and exchange ideas. News organisations are more closely monitored, the internet more tightly monitored, companies are being called to be responsible for censorship. All of this is creating a really frightening model for how censorship can be combined with the tools of modern technology.

It’s not only worrying from the point of view of China and Chinese human rights defenders, but this is something that could easily be rolled out to other countries and really should be of global concern.

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What is it about China that interests you?

I lived in mainland China for six years – in Zhengzhou, Beijing and Shanghai – and so I’ve developed a huge love for the culture and have wanted to see China improve its human rights situation.

I think China’s direction is the story of our lifetime, in the sense that their economy now is the world’s second largest, its clout in the international community and organisations has grown exponentially, and is almost certainly going to increase over the next few decades. I think everybody should try to understand what’s happening in China and see all the progress it has made, but also understand the human rights challenges that are still there.

Can working in human rights be emotionally draining?

I think it can be very emotionally draining, and one of the key things you see in human rights work is that a lot of people suffer from burnout. A lot of the most brilliant human rights researchers I have known will work for a few years and then do something else. I know a guy who is now running a cafe in Thailand, and another woman who is now doing Chinese medicine.

It is difficult. If there is a positive outcome, we ask if it was due to a one-to-one correlation, because of us, or was it a combination of factors? We see quite a few cases where someone is released from criminal detention and that is really gratifying. But overall a lot of the progress we see is going to be long-term changes, so I think it’s important to find ways to be able to cope with the stress and switch off and have other interests – not pin all your hopes, or your whole identity, on seeing immediate positive changes. Otherwise it would be difficult to cope with the failures.

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Do you have a release?

I have my family. I like running, which is a personal way to get away and de-stress. I’m interested in other areas of the world – I try to research and understand more than just what is going on in China. That is also useful for seeing the bigger picture.

What are your thoughts on Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ formula?

I think it is something that is coming under much greater stress and is being chipped away at through many small actions. Everyone talks of the boiling the frog metaphor. I think the system is definitely under stress: people in Hong Kong and in the international community need to be as vigilant as possible to try to uphold core human rights in the city.


What is your favourite Chinese delicacy?

Sichuan hotpot – I love the spice.

What one superpower would you have and why?

I would have Spider-Man’s ability to shoot webs, because my son’s favourite character is Spider-Man.

Do you have a life motto?

My favourite motto, I always say, is “keep moving forward”. Even if you’re not making progress right away, as long as you’re taking baby steps, you’re going in the right direction.

What is your favourite place in Hong Kong?

Lantau Island, where I live.

Where is the most random place you’ve travelled to?

I would say maybe Bosnia, which was wonderful. It was a long time ago – 2003 – so there were still UN soldiers there after the war.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

When I was a little kid, for a few years I dreamed of being a professional basketball player. I played but was quickly disabused of that. Maybe in the fourth grade I realised it was not really feasible!

What is the one thing you couldn’t live without?

My smartphone, because I am addicted like everyone else.