The upcoming Olympics in Beijing have cast harsh light on human rights violations in China, with a particular focus on Tibet.   The experience of the Golden Venture passengers in their home country raised other troubling questions about China's human rights practices, including some policies that have come under continuing criticism by major international human rights groups. 

Forced Abortion and sterilization in China

The primary Golden Venture human rights issue was China's coercive one-child population control policies.   Almost all of the passengers cited the one-child policy in their pleas for political asylum in the US, including stories of forced sterilization and abortion, and even such harsh practices as late term abortion of fetuses in the birth canal.  

US government officials and attorneys alleged that many of the passengers made up their stories - and independent observers have confirmed that many asylum claims based on dramatic stories of forced sterilization are fabricated. 

However, Clinton administration officials took the position that even in cases when forced sterilization could be proven, the widespread application of the one-child policy by the Chinese government meant that such treatment did not meet the specific criteria for asylum.  The Clinton policy changed the policy that had been put in place under the first president Bush, who issued an executive order mandating that asylum be granted to one-child claimants.

Not surprisingly, the one child policy was strongly opposed by the US right to life movement.   Some of the most ardent critics of Chinese violations have been conservative Republican legislators, such as Sen, Jesse Helms, Rep. Chris Smith and Rep. Henry Hyde.  Their persistent efforts in Congress eventually led to the passage of 1996 legislation that offered a somewhat pyrrhic victory to one-child foes - one-child asylum claims were declared to be valid, but it was further mandated that no more than 1000 one-child asylum pleas be granted each year.

Political and religious persecution of Golden Venture passengers

But forced sterilization and abortion wasn't the only human rights abuse reported by the Golden Venture immigrants.  Some requested political asylum because they claimed they were being persecuted for their involvement in pro-democracy activities around the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

Others were seeking asylum from religious persecution, including Catholics and other denominations that claimed that the authorities persecuted them for their practices and beliefs.

Once again, INS officials challenged the credibility of the immigrants' stories.  The Golden Venture advocates countered that the government's decision to detain and deport the Golden Venture passengers made it likely that even legitimate claims based on credible evidence would be ignored.

China's harsh punishment of returning passengers

And in a final irony, some of the Golden Venture passengers who were deported by the US government reported that the Chinese authorities detained them as they got off the plane and subjected them to severe beatings, extended detention, and high fines.  It's believed that the Golden Venture passengers were singled out to punish them for "embarrassing" China - by fleeing in the first place, and by criticizing China during contacts with the media during the years of their detention in the York, PA county jail and other detention centers around the US.

In the case of Yan Li, one of the immigrants whose story is told in the film, the authorities also forcibly sterilized him upon his return.   In the case of Gui Lin, another character in the film, the fear of being persecuted if he returned to China made the basis for a successful political asylum case and a green card.

The issues today: Olympics protests and Tibet

As global protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay show, there is much continuing dismay over China's human rights record.

The 2008 Summer Olympics were awarded in 2001 to China, a country with a dismal history of human rights at best, and the Games will start this August 8th.  They were awarded to China due to a variety of factors: the International Olympic Committee's desire to grant the most populated country in the world the opportunity to host the Olympics for the very first time, the fact that China had come so close to obtaining the last Summer Olympics in the previous round before losing the Games to Sydney, and, also in the hopes that international scrutiny would compel China to improve its human rights record.

But in practically every country worldwide that the Olympic torch has passed through on its way to China, the flame has been met with protests. What sparked these grassroots demonstrations, beginning from the starting point of Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, through long stretches of road filled with several dozen to several thousand protestors in major international cities, to the picturesque unfurling of banners on the Golden Gate Bridge?

The immediate impetus for these actions was China's violent crackdown on a Tibetan anti-government protest in Lhasa in early March, which resulted in multiple casualties.  The Tibetan government-in-exile reported 203 deaths of protestors, while the number reported by the Chinese government was substantially lower, at 22. There was also a severe and sudden censure of the press in Tibet to prevent them from documenting the actual violence that occurred.  The brief video images that did emerge showed the brutality of the Chinese police striking the monks in protest.   

Swift international denouncement of the Chinese reaction and support for the Tibetans followed. But the outcry has grown to encompass China's worrisome alliances in Darfur and has also spotlighted a myriad of human rights abuses widespread in the country. 

Current Human Rights Violations

International humanitarian groups and civil liberties watchdogs report the following human rights abuses in China:

  • One Child-Policy                                                                                    
    China continues to enforce its one-child policy, including forced abortions and sterilizations.  For the past three decades, the Chinese government has restricted couples from having more than one child in urban environments (unless both parents are only children), and surburban couples and minorities are allowed only two children.  Violators are met with local governments exerting pressure for the women to have abortions and sterilizations at worst, and hefty fines at best.  This has resulted in a significant imbalance of boys to girls, at a ratio of 119 to 100, far above the norm of other countries.  It is also a chief claim for Chinese refugees seeking asylum in the U.S.

  • Press censorship                                                                                
    China maintains a tight rein over national broadcasters and print media, and obstructs the freedom of any and all press.  Reporters Without Borders listed China a lowly 163rd on their list of countries ranked by degree of press freedom (slightly above Iran and North Korea).  The Foreign Correspondents Club of China reported that 180 foreign correspondents were detained, harassed, or attacked in China in 2015.  After the Tibetan crackdown in March of 2008, reporters were not allowed into the country or were tossed out by local law enforcement.

  • Internet and phone monitoring 
    China continues to filter foreign content on the Internet, and may be using technology provided by U.S. companies such as Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google.  Cellphone textpages are also allegedly being checked.

  • Show of Force Against Protests
    There is not much patience for any major forms of protests in China, as the March 2008 crackdown in Lhasa showed.  Images from Tiananmen Square from 1989 and the Chinese military's bloody battle against democratic reform seekers, with several hundred mostly college students being killed, are hard to erase, and sadly personify the submission of human rights for Chinese citizens.

According to Human Rights Watch, China is a major human rights violator in the following areas:

  • Repression of ethnic minorities. China continues to use the "war on terrorism" to justify policies to eradicate the "three evil forces" - terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism - allegedly prevalent among Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim population in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Uighurs who express "separatist" tendencies are routinely sentenced to quick, secret and summary trials, sometimes accompanied by mass sentencing rallies. The death penalty is common. In Tibet, Chinese authorities still view the Dalai Lama, in exile in India since 1959, as central to the effort to separate Tibet from China and view Tibetan Buddhist belief as supportive of these efforts. Suspected "separatists," many of whom come from monasteries and nunneries, are routinely imprisoned.

  • Controls on religious freedom. China does not recognize freedom of religion outside the state-controlled system in which all congregations, mosques, temples, churches and monasteries must register. The government also curtails religious freedom by designating and repressing some groups as "cults," such as the Falun Gong.

  • The death penalty and executions. The government does not publicize figures for the death penalty, but it is mandated for no fewer than 68 crimes. China executed at least 470 people last year -- more than any other country in the world, according to an annual report on the death penalty by the human rights group Amnesty International.  They also reported that five countries carried out 88 percent of all known executions worldwide: China (470 people), Iran (317), Saudi Arabia (143), Pakistan (135) and the United States (42).)

  • HIV/AIDS rights advocacy obstruction. Measures to address China's HIV/AIDS crisis are hampered as local officials and security forces continue to obstruct efforts by activists and grassroots organizations to contribute to prevention and education efforts and to organize care giving.

  • Use of house arrest system. Numerous human rights defenders and government critics have been harassed, detained and subject to house arrest. Cited examples include:
    • Yang Chunlin, a land rights activist, was arrested in July and charged with subversion for his role in organizing a petition titled "We want human rights, not the Olympics"
    • Lu Gengsong, a former lecturer turned activist who documented illegal eviction cases and official collusion, was arrested in August on suspicion of subverting state power.
    • The same month environmental activist Wu Lihong was sentenced to three years' imprisonment under ill-defined business fraud charges; his wife reported he had been tortured while held incommunicado.
    • Yang Maodong, a Guangzhou-based land rights activist arrested in September 2006 and still awaiting trial, also reported that he had been repeatedly tortured in detention.
  • Ties with rights violators. China's close relations with countries linked to severe, ongoing human rights violations are also a serious source of concern. China maintains relations with and provides aid to regimes including Sudan, the site of egregious human rights violations in Darfur, and Burma, whose military junta violently suppresses civilians. Most recently, China had tried to ship arms to Zimbabwe, which neighboring African countries turned back. China has also not ratified the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, which it signed in 1998.

Violations related to the Olympics

As the Olympic Games approach, Human Rights Watch is on the alert in China for:

  • Forced evictions and school closures. The construction of facilities for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing has involved forced evictions of thousands of citizens in and around Beijing, often without adequate compensation or access to new housing. The pre-Olympic "clean-up" of Beijing has resulted in the closure of dozens of officially unregistered schools for the children of migrant workers.

  • Labor rights abuses. Thousands of migrant workers employed on Olympic and other construction sites across Beijing do not receive legally mandated pay and benefits including labor insurance and days off, and are often compelled to do dangerous work without adequate safeguards.

At the same time, specific to the Olympics, Amnesty International just issued a report, "China: The Olympics Countdown" which calls on the Chinese government to:

  • give immediate access to Tibet and surrounding areas to UN investigators and other independent observers;

  • cease arbitrary detention, intimidation and harassment of activists;

  • end punitive administrative detention;

  • allow full and free reporting across the whole of China for all journalists;

  • free all prisoners of conscience;

  • reduce the number of capital crimes as a step towards abolition.

International Official Reaction

European countries were affronted by the disregard for Tibetan human rights by China and some heads of state have decided to boycott the opening ceremonies in Beijing.  British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were the first to decline their invitations, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy awaiting a European Union decision to see if he should do likewise.  Even Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, will be missing at the start of the games.  The only prominent world leaders who are sure to attend are China's President Hu Jintao and President Bush.

Though the U.S. had customarily been one of the first to decry any sign of international human rights violations, mysteriously, the U.S. State Department has removed China from its top 10 list of countries with the worst human rights records.  It is still "deplorable" in its disregard of human rights, but there was no explanation given as to why it was erased off the list where it sat for previous years.  Possible reasons may be that the U.S. government did not want to aggravate the Chinese government in this important Olympic year (after all, they are a steadily growing economic superpower with a population of 1.3 billion and an annual GDP growth rate of 10% these past 30 years), or perhaps it was to reward them for their recent cooperation on North Korean and Sudanese diplomatic issues in the United Nations.

In the annual report on more than 190 countries, the State Department did say that China's "overall human rights record remained poor" in 2015. China, the report said, tightened media and Internet curbs and increased controls on religious freedom in Tibet and the Xinjiang region. The report said China's abuses also included "extrajudicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labor."

Despite this, the State Department dropped China from a list of 10 countries that it deemed the worst offenders: North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and Sudan.

The Chinese government retaliated with their official assessment of the U.S. on its human rights record.  Their annual report, entitled "The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2015," included the invasion of Iraq, deaths of civilians in Afghanistan, secret prisons and the torture of detainees.

"The United States has a notorious record of trampling on the sovereignty of and violating human rights in other countries," it stated.

Chinese Reaction

The Chinese government reaction to criticisms of their human rights record is their sudden pro-China public relations campaign with official press releases, their mobilization of students and anti-protestors along torch relay routes, and outright dismissal of any charges of wrongdoing.  They also have invited the press to Tibet to watch the relay of the torch and are relaxing some controls on the media.

Many Chinese nationals have been insulted by these protests and view them as a form of jealousy against China's growing economic power by the West in what should be their moment of Olympics pride.  The New York Times reports that Chinese students in American universities have been angered at the criticism lobbed at their government.

Conciliatory Steps

But there have been signs of improvement in human rights on China's part, on par with its growing economy, as it becomes increasingly concerned with its position in the global arena. Chinese officials met with representatives of the Dalai Llama to discuss the current situation in Tibet, and although this was more for diplomatic publicity, it was the start of a dialogue.  In recent years, it has become a key player on the United Nations Security Council in negotiating matters with North Korea, the Sudan and even Iran.  China has donated substantial amounts of food and aid to countries in need.

China has been assailed mightily these past few months as it struggles to build the world's longest bridge and to polish its architectural accomplishments in time for the Olympic Games.  Some Chinese may feel as if the world has turned against them in what they thought would be their moment of international glory.  But this dramatic international focus brought about by its hosting of the Olympics will hopefully benefit China in creating a true and lasting cultural revolution in human rights to match the rest of the democratized world.  Or, as Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the I.O.C., said of the awarding of the 2008 Games, they could open ''a new era for China."