21 March to 2 April 2015

In this edition: Oppression of Uighurs; China and IOC; the tentative HK police and Department of Justice; elections in Nigeria, Uzbekistan and Israel; Lee Kuan Yew versus Amos Yee and the future of democracy in Asia; same-sex marriage rights arrive in East Asia

(previous edition of Rights Digest)

· Couple convicted of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’ for growing a beard, wearing a veil, are sentenced to 6 and 2 years

· 25 Uighur teachers, parents and students on trial for ‘endangering state security’ for their involvement in makeshift religious schools

· Uighur refugees in Thailand caught in a diplomatic conflict between China and Turkey

These two weeks showed as much as any other period the harshly oppressive conditions under which Uighurs in Xinjiang live. The Partystate considers any Uighur expression of separate identity to be threatening, especially if that identity is religious. Suppression of expression of separate identity is an outstanding and ongoing feature of the Partystate’s treatment of both Uighurs and Tibetans over the years, but it has gotten even worse in recent times.

In a case that got a lot of attention because of the absurdity of the charges and the harshness of the sentence, a man was sentenced to six years in prison and a woman to two. The actual crime they were convicted of was “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a vague charge that the Partystate has used with increasing frequency. It basically means, We don’t like what you’re doing and think you’re getting a bit uppity. The five women activists arrested before International Women’s Day were charged with the same “crime”. According to the China Youth Daily article that reported the case (and since was removed and has become shrouded in mystery), this charge was associated with the man’s having grown a beard and the woman wearing a veil. They had reportedly “received several warnings” before being charged. Authorities in Kashgar, where the couple was tried, were quoted as saying, “Since the beginning of the year, a certain number of people breaking the regulation on beards, veils and burqas have been prosecuted and sentenced.” It’s unclear what legal standing such a regulation has. Xinjiang authorities have been campaigning against beard-growing and veil-wearing for the past year, linking such practices with extremist activity. The city of Karamay has banned people with large beards or Islamic clothing from riding public buses. Again, the legal underpinnings of such a ban are dubious.

While that case was in the limelight, another got hardly any. In Kotan, four teachers, six students, and 15 parents and people who provided venues for religious instruction were put on trial in a public square for “endangering state security”. The defendants were apparently involved in makeshift religious schools that the Partystate has not approved and therefore considers illegal, but it is unclear what that has to do with “state security” in this particular case. 15,000 people had to attend the trial under an official government order to learn from it; that is to say, the trial chiefly served propaganda purposes as a deterrent. While it was reported that the defendants were found guilty after the two-hour trial, it is unclear whether or not they have been sentenced.

Meanwhile, China and Turkey are fighting over 17 “suspected” Uighurs in Thailand, “suspected” because they refuse to say they’re Uighurs from Xinjiang and instead claim to be Turkish citizens. They were detained in March 2014 by Thai authorities for illegally crossing the border from Cambodia. Turkey has issued Turkish passports to them, recognizing their claim to Turkish citizenship, but China says they come from Xinjiang and should be repatriated to China.

The family of 17—four adults and 13 children—just lost a case they brought against the Thai government for arbitrary detention, even though it appears that the Thai immigration authorities did not follow a Thai law that requires them to seek court permission for detentions lasting longer than a week. The family will appeal the verdict, but meanwhile, they continue to languish, and Thailand appears no closer to deciding what to do with them.

Human rights observers fear that the Thai military regime will opt for closer relations with China and therefore be inclined to accede to Partystate demands that the “suspected” Uighurs be repatriated. They would almost certainly face persecution if forcibly sent to China.

· Yirenping offices raided while IOC evaluation committee visits

· 175 Tibet groups issue report and urge IOC not to grant Olympics to Beijing

The Partystate certainly has a funny sense of timing.

First, in the lead-up to International Women’s Day, it detained five women’s rights activists (as reported in the last Rights Digest). At the same time, the annual UN Commission on Women Session was underway in New York, with a focus on marking the 20th anniversary of the landmark global women’s forum held in Beijing in 1995. It just so happened that prior to the session, states had excised the part of CWS Political Declaration that had to do with protecting women human rights defenders, but the many women’s rights NGOs gathered on the side of the session showed great solidarity for the women, publicized their detention and demanded their release.

Then, in the very week that the International Olympic Committee evaluation committee was in Beijing to assess its application to host the Winter Olympics in 2022, Partystate authorities conducted a nighttime raid of the offices of the NGO Yirenping under dubious legal authority. There is speculation that the raid is related to the case of the five detained women activists. It just so happens that Yirenping is an NGO engaged in fighting discrimination, and prior to the arrival of the IOC evaluation committee in Beijing, the IOC had been trumpeting its new “Agenda 2020” and revised Charter, which includes an anti-discrimination clause (the 6th Fundamental Principle) modeled on the anti-discrimination article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Either the Partystate is oblivious to these ironies or it just doesn’t care what the world thinks. Or maybe it knows most of the world won’t notice or care.

At any rate, Olympics applicants are supposed to sign on to Agenda 2020 as part of the application procedure, though it is unclear exactly what obligations that entails. Some have interpreted Beijing signing Agenda 2020 as meaning it agrees to abide by the IOC’s anti-discrimination criteria as well as other obligations having to do with labor protections and governance. But a country’s record on these matters is not a part of the application evaluation criteria, and according to my reading of the IOC statutes, a prospective host city is really only agreeing to help to ensure that no discrimination occurs during the Games themselves or in direct relation to them. That is to say, Agenda 2020 and the revised IOC Charter have nothing to do with the general human rights situation in the host city, not to mention the country in which it is situated. In this sense, I think HRW may have overstated the commitments the IOC intends to make regarding human rights and is trying to hold it to a standard it has no intention of meeting.

Whatever the case, the IOC’s commitments are so watered down as to not have much significance anyway. And the only two prospective hosts left for Winter 2022 are Beijing and Kazakhstan, so anyway you look at it, the games will be held in a place notorious for abuse of rights. Then we’ve got World Cups coming up in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in the desert winter of 2022. It’s pretty clear that for these international sports organizations, the host’s record on human rights is not a major consideration.

Somewhat more promisingly, in February the formation of a new coalition, the Sports and Rights Alliance, was announced. According to an HRW press release, “The SRA is a new coalition of leading human rights and sports groups, as well as trade unions, including: Amnesty International, FIFPro – World Players’ Union, Football Supporters Europe, Human Rights Watch, the International Trade Union Confederation, Supporters Direct Europe, Terre des Hommes, and Transparency International Germany. They seek to ensure mega-sporting events respect human rights (including children’s and labor rights), the environment, and anti-corruption requirements at all stages of the process – from bidding through construction, preparations to host events, and the hosting of the events themselves.” Sounds good. Hope they’re effective.

The first-ever European Games will be held in Azerbaijan in June. It has a deplorable human rights record, including many prisoners of conscience.

Meanwhile, 175 Tibet groups have jointly urged the IOC to not grant Winter Olympics ’22 to Beijing. They base their request on their recently issued excellent report, “Losing the Bet on Human Rights: Beijing, Tibet and the Olympic Games.” The report looks back on the silly comments IOC officials made in the lead-up to the Beijing 2008 summer games. They thought holding the Olympics in Beijing would lead to improvement in human rights. The aftermath has proven them wrong.

· More than three months later, still no word on conclusion of police investigation into Occupy HK

· Department of Justice prosecutes few for Occupy HK, and so far none for unlawful assembly

· Police take initiatives to “improve crowd control”

· Hats off to Progressive Lawyers Group initiatives

What’s up with the HK police and Department of Justice? They’ve been very silent about Occupy HK recently, whereas they, especially the police, were previously full of bluster. A day after the occupations ended in mid-December, Police Commissioner Andy Tsang announced that an investigation into Occupy HK would be launched immediately and conclude within three months, which would be by March 15. Three months later, there is no word of it. This is after the 48 “arrests by appointment” of high-profile pro-democracy figures in January and February, all of whom were charged with various crimes, refused bailed and were released.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has been slow to prosecute those charged with crimes in connection with Occupy HK. You can argue that it’s been no slower than usual—it often takes months between the alleged commission of a crime and the trial. But still, there aren’t many noises emitting from the Department about prosecutions. It appears to want to take a low-key approach. The question is why. Perhaps just so as to appear as impartial and non-political as possible. Perhaps for lack of solid cases, the police having provided insufficient evidence. Perhaps because it fears such prosecutions could cast a spotlight on the flaws of the Public Order Ordinance, under which the vast majority of demonstrators were arrested. Perhaps in hope that if it waits long enough, pro-democracy enthusiasm will blow over and defendants won’t be able to use their trials as political showcases and rallying points.

The vast majority of the 1,519 pro-democracy demonstrators arrested since July 1 last year (516 on July 1, 955 during Occupy HK, 48 afterwards) have been either released without charge or had charges dropped against them after refusing bail. Of those formally charged, several were given compensation after the charges were dropped. One Next Media reporter was recently acquitted of assaulting a police officer. So far, no high-profile figures have been prosecuted. Of the eight Occupy HK related convictions so far, four were of yellow ribbons, two of blue ribbons, and two for computer-related offenses. All of the yellow ribbon convictions have been for assaulting police officers (4) or threatening the family of a police officer (1) or attacking a government website (1). There have been no prosecutions for unlawful assembly, even though it’s usually a relatively straight-forward charge: All you have to do is prove the accused was present at an assembly that the police had declared unlawful. Though the HK government repeatedly refers to Occupy HK as ‘the illegal “Occupy Movement”’, it has yet to test that assertion in court.

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Meanwhile, rather than the independent investigation into police actions during Occupy HK that many pro-democracy activists and human rights groups have called for, the police are taking steps to strengthen their “crowd control” capacities, which could very likely have negative implications for freedom of assembly. They are purchasing new water cannons, planning to ask for money to increase the number of officers in the Police Tactical Unit, which was widely criticized for its brutality during Occupy HK, and changing command structures regarding surveillance of protests with an eye toward being better able to identify those taking part in activities of which the police do not approve. Officers have also been ordered to enforce the flawed Public Order Ordinance strictly. Given draconian police practices in reaction to Mong Kok Gao Wu demonstrations and the recent anti-parallel trade demonstrations, such orders are nearly tantamount to encouraging abuses. Overall, rather than taking the necessary steps to regain the trust of the HK people, many of whom they attacked with disproportionate force, they seem to be regarding “the people” as more than ever the enemy and preparing for another battle. As ever, at issue is the extent to which they’ve been corrupted as a political tool with the main purpose of defending the regime, as opposed to being a true law enforcement agency in all areas of their work.

Lastly, a shout out to the Progressive Lawyers Group, which has been amongst the most active of the many civil society groups to grow out of Occupy HK. In finely worded statements backed up by publicity campaigns, it’s taken pro-Partystate groups to task for attacking the independence of the judiciary; criticized the Hong Kong government for breaching its own laws against political advertisements in broadcasting and demanded that such advertisements in connection with electoral reform be withdrawn; and organized a submission campaign to the now-closed second round of public consultation on electoral reform, telling the government in no uncertain terms that its plans are not in accordance with the Basic Law and that therefore the whole electoral reform process needs to be restarted.

· Iffy democracy: For first time ever, challenger unseats incumbent in Nigerian presidential election (but challenger is an erstwhile military dictator)

· Fake democracy: Dictator of Uzbekistan re-elected for fourth time

· Right-wing democracy: Netanyahu re-elected

If I tell you that the result of the Nigerian presidential election is that for the first time ever, a challenger unseated an incumbent, you’ll say, Great, democratic progress. If I tell you the challenger is a former military dictator who claims to be a “born-again democrat”, you’ll say, Hmmm. The jury is out on Muhammadu Buhari, the winner. He’s definitely a long-time political insider, which doesn’t give much cause for hope, considering how corrupt and dysfunctional Nigerian politics are. But the out-going government of Goodluck Jonathan has been so woeful, Nigeria has nowhere to go but up. And so, hope springs eternal. Nigeria has the biggest population in Africa. It matters. We want its flailing democracy to succeed.

And just for reference, it was Buhari in his previous incarnation as military dictator who jailed Fela Kuti.

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Before the result was announced, Nobel Prize winner and political conscience of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka, had some choice words about the election, which he considered devoid of content, outrageously expensive, and fueled by funding from obscure and dubious sources. Whatever you think of his words, Soyinka has to be the coolest looking old man around.

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While Nigeria’s election was problematic, Uzbekistan’s can safely be called fake. Islan Karimov was “re-elected” for the fourth time. A typical Central Asian strongman, he’s been in power since 1989, when Uzbekistan broke away from the collapsing Soviet Union. The Partystate presumably loves this sort of “election”. It would be its wet dream for HK. Everything’s relative, I guess: Uzbeks can vote for their dictator, whereas in HK, we would have two or three Partystate-approved candidates to choose from, a greater selection of dictator’s factotums.

While in many ways, Israel has a robust and dynamic democracy, in other ways, it seems to have ground to a kind of halt, to have stalled. With Benjamin Netanyahu re-elected, Israel remains firmly right-wing, indeed, has become even more so, with Netanyahu’s Likud party increasing its share of Knesset seats from 18 to 30 and probably achieving a coalition parliamentary majority of 67 seats out of 120. (Previously, his coalition had 58 seats, less than half, and had to rely on right-wing religious orthodox parties to pass legislation.)

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It’s not only that he won, but how he won that’s troubling. He appealed to right-wing voters and said that if he was re-elected, he would never allow a Palestinian state. With typically Macchiavellian lack of principle, after he won, he backtracked, but the prospects for peace remain poor with him in office. He also said he would continue the settlement program in the occupied West Bank, though it is unequivocally illegal under international law and makes the prospects of a peace with Palestinians appear even more remote. He also had plenty of nasty things to say about Arab Israelis. In other words, a real piece of work. Sometimes we democracy fundamentalists hide our faces when we see what democracy looks like in practice….

· Lee Kuan Yew versus Amos Yee

I was hoping to avoid mentioning Lee Kuan Yew at all, but then they went and arrested Amos Yee.

It was hard enough to see all the adulation for Lee Kuan Yew pour in from around the world upon his passing. Lee Kuan Yew stands for what I despise, the authoritarian development model, whose assumption is that in order to develop economically, a strong government must have strict control over society, with all the infringements on civil and political liberties that entails. In order to buttress this model, in later years he advanced an extraordinarily flimsy dogma about ‘Asian values’, how Asians were supposedly different from Westerners and therefore had little need or desire for things like democracy and human rights, based as they are, pace Lee, on individualism, whereas Asians are supposedly collectivist by nature. They (and Lee) do like that Western thing called capitalism, however, which in theory and practice departs about as much as you could imagine from such traditional ‘Asian’ philosophies as Confucianism, which in most manifestations disparages trade. It’s not Asians who like “Asian values” but Asian dictators. They should be called “Asian dictators’ values”.

Be that as it may, the man is taken seriously, presumably for making Singapore prosperous. Even crediting him with that gets my goat. Wasn’t it primarily Singaporeans who made Singapore prosperous, in the same way that, today, once Chinese were given a modicum of economic freedom, they went out and made China prosperous? In what sense can that be down to the government? In his excellent Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, Joe Studwell argues convincingly that the main reason Singapore and Hong Kong became prosperous was that they were less corrupt than neighboring countries and therefore safer places to park and launder money. So Lee Kuan Yew might take some credit for Singapore’s prosperity insofar as he made it less corrupt, though of course at great price, such as income inequality and economic injustice, profits accruing disproportionately to the elite, both foreign and Singaporean.

While Lee Kuan Yew said Asians don’t much like democracy and few developing countries that are democratic have managed to develop, Japan, South Korean and Taiwan all emerged out of dictatorship to become democracies, and all are just as prosperous as Singapore. So in that sense, Singapore is the real backward country because unlike the ‘Asian tigers’ with which it competes and is often compared, it never made the political transition, and that is certainly down to Lee Kuan Yew. Even Singapore’s large neighbor, Indonesia, has been making impressive strides in its transition to democracy, leaving Singapore even further behind.

Truth be told, though, Lee Kuan Yew did put his finger on a main issue for East, Southeast and South Asia: democracy or not? Across the region, it hangs in the balance. Thailand’s going the wrong way. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma have been the wrong way for some time, Malaysia too, though perhaps somewhat less so. The Philippines is taking uncertain steps forward. Sri Lanka appears to be making a significant transition from a dark period with the election defeat of the autocrat Rajapaksa. India’s the biggest democracy in the world, if a messy and highly imperfect one. China, of course, is the big question mark at the heart of it all—the way it goes will influence the whole region.

It’s all about what sort of societies we want. So, Asia, is it Lee Kuan Yew’s way, or the way of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan? How many of you really want to be Singapore?

Stepping into the fray of this debate is Amos Yee, the Singapore teenager arrested for posting a video critical of Lee Kuan Yew on Youtube. I couldn’t help but think the arrest was a more fitting tribute to the spirit of Lee Kuan Yew than all the fine words that appeared elsewhere. Over the years, both his government and his family sued most of the large international periodicals published in Singapore. They managed so successfully to ‘tame’ local media that they then decided to shift their focus to bloggers such as Amos Yee. So sadly petty and vindictive as to arrest a teenager mouthing off, so lacking in confidence that their ideas can appeal to an electorate on their own terms, not simply by crowding competing ones out. Singapore and Asia deserve a better future than the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, and I hope the people of Singapore and Asia will stand up and demand it. It could be one day Singapore will be regarded as a relic thanks to Lee Kuan Yew and his successors.

Shibuya District in Tokyo became the first place in East Asia to legally recognize same-sex marriage. Granted, it’s just one district, but ya gotta start somewhere! Social attitudes towards LGBT rights have become a lot more accepting in many East Asian places in recent years, from Taiwan, which probably leads the way, to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and mainland China. But political decisions leading to greater equality trail social attitudes by a wide gap. Let’s hope the decision of Shibuya District is a sign of things to come.


2 April 2015

Written by

Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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