Chinese authorities should stop harassing and intimidating individuals seeking redress for abuses linked to the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response and measures, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Chinese citizens have sought accountability for the government’s initial cover-up of the pandemic and for abuses stemming from lockdowns, including lack of access to medical care and other excessive restrictions.
Human Rights Watch said Chinese authorities committed abuses under the pretext of COVID -19 lockdowns when the pandemic was first discovered in Wuhan last year.
Chinese officials were seen sealing apartment doors to prevent people from leaving their homes. Some residents were chained to metal posts for purportedly violating stay-at-home orders. Videos circulated online showed residents yelling from their homes in despair.
In July and August, authorities imposed similar restrictions on millions of residents in the northwest region of Xinjiang after identifying hundreds of infections. Authorities also forced some residents to drink traditional Chinese medicines.
While the Chinese government appears to have brought the coronavirus under control through these draconian measures, many of those who survived have demanded accountability for the government’s initial cover-up and abuses associated with the lockdowns, such as lack of access to medical care and other life necessities.
Activists and lawyers who assisted those seeking redress said that strengthened surveillance and the near elimination of anonymity in Chinese messaging apps, like WeChat, have helped the authorities to pre-empt activism earlier than they could in previous public health crises.
“The Chinese government’s narrative that it has won the COVID-19 ‘war’ is conditioned on silencing those who speak out about failings in the government’s pandemic response and abuses committed under the pretext of stopping the spread of the virus,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
International human rights law requires that government restrictions on rights for reasons of public health be lawful, necessary, and proportionate. When quarantines or lockdowns are imposed, the authorities are obligated to ensure access to food, water, health care, and care-giving support.
Activists, lawyers, and journalists in China told Human Rights Watch they believe there are fewer cases of people speaking out or seeking redress for COVID-19 related abuses than for previous public health crises or natural disasters involving alleged government malfeasance.
Ever-increasing punishments, including lengthy sentences to people who sought redress in recent years, have also dampened activism.
In some cases, police intimidated relatives of critics, including elderly parents and children, when the critics refused to stop their efforts, people familiar with the cases told Human Rights Watch. The police ransacked one critic’s home and threatened his elderly mother. Police also threatened to expel a critic’s child from school.
The police also warned human rights lawyers and activists not to comment on the coronavirus outbreak on the internet or to assist people seeking redress for COVID-19 related abuses.
Later, officials at justice bureaus across the country summoned human rights lawyers and warned and forbid them from giving legal advice to families of those who contracted COVID-19, speaking to foreign media, and signing petitions.
Since the outbreak in Wuhan, authorities detained several citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan.
A court in Shanghai sentenced Zhang Zhan to four years in prison after convicting her of picking quarrels and provoking trouble.
The situation and whereabouts of Fang Bin, a businessman in Wuhan who has been detained for posting videos of city hospital, remain unknown.
Beijing-based activists Chen Mei and Cai Wei, whom the police detained in April for archiving censored COVID-19-related information, remain in a detention centre awaiting trial. (Source: HRW)