US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticised China on Tuesday for a catalogue of alleged human rights abuses over the past year, even as he pledged that the US would address its own human rights failings as part of a broader global promotion of civil liberties.
Blinken made the commitment at the unveiling of the State Department’s annual report on human rights around the world.
The report devoted almost 50,000 words to its assessment of China’s human rights record, including blistering critiques of Beijing’s treatment of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang and Tibet; its increased censorship amid the coronavirus pandemic; and its efforts to increase control over Hong Kong.
As is often the case each year, the publication of the report was preceded just days earlier by Beijing’s own assessment of the human rights situation in the US.
The Chinese government’s report zeroed in on accounts of police brutality, the failed federal response to the pandemic, and gun violence across the country, charging that Washington’s image as a “democratic beacon” had been damaged by the violent storming of the Capitol on January 6.
“We know we have work to do at home,” Blinken told reporters on Tuesday, in particular citing systemic racism in the US.
“That’s exactly what separates our democracy from autocracies: our ability and willingness to confront our own shortcomings out in the open,” he said. “The way we confront our challenges at home will give us greater legitimacy in advocating for human rights abroad.”
Yet while welcoming “constructive scrutiny” of the US human rights record from advocacy groups, the media and other democratic governments, State Department official Lisa Peterson said that Beijing’s assessment “does not appear to be in good faith”.
This year’s human rights report, a State Department mainstay for 45 years, amounts to the Biden administration’s first public and in-depth assessment of China’s human rights record, which continues to be a sticking point in bilateral relations.
In the report’s preface, Blinken restated his assessment – inherited from the now-departed Trump administration – that the Chinese government had committed “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” in its treatment of Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in the far western Xinjiang region.
Ahead of the report’s release, Peterson, the acting head of the department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labour, confirmed that the administration believes genocide and crimes against humanity continue in the region.
“We can’t ignore this and we must meet such actions with serious consequences,” she said.
The dire assessment of China’s human rights situation aligned with what Blinken called a broader downward trajectory in global freedoms, one that had been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“All of these alarming trend lines are being worsened by Covid-19, which autocratic governments have used as a pretext to target their critics and further repress human rights,” Blinken said.
While it reviewed actions in some 200 countries and territories, this year’s report continued to devote some of its longest sections to China and Russia, reigniting criticism that the document serves to further the geopolitical objectives of the administration when it comes to adversaries.
Beijing bristles at any critique of its human rights record, and consistently frames allegations by the US as politically motivated.
Asked whether the report was effectively creating “an alliance of autocracies” against the US, Blinken denied that the administration sought to “contain China or keep it down”.
“What we are about is standing up for basic principles, basic rights, and a rules-based international order that has served us and countries around the world very, very well,” he said.
The report comes amid rising global criticism of China’s policies and actions in Xinjiang, with the scrutiny increasingly focused on claims of widespread, state-coordinated forced labour in the region.
Those allegations of forced labour have prompted US lawmakers to write legislation that would prohibit imports from Xinjiang; the US administration to ban some Chinese exporters; and global companies to extract their supply chains from the region.
On Monday, a United Nations panel said it had information tying more than 150 companies around the world to alleged human rights abuses against Uygur workers.
In Hong Kong, the report said, the Chinese Communist Party had “systematically dismantled” the city’s political freedoms and autonomy; it termed the central government’s actions as a “violation of its international commitments”.
The State Department was particularly critical of the sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong, which it said established national security organs “with sweeping powers and negligible public oversight”.
The broadly defined law has prompted a number of arbitrary arrests, restrictions on citizens to criticise the government, self-censorship and even changes to school curriculums, according to the report.
Because its scope was limited to the 2020 calendar year, the report did not mention Beijing’s latest move to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system.
Approved by Beijing’s top legislature on Tuesday, the sweeping measure cuts the number of directly elected seats in Hong Kong’s legislature from half to about one-fifth, and gives greater powers to the committee that selects the city’s chief executive.
The past year had also seen a rise in electronic surveillance in public places and online censorship across China, the report said, indicating an effort by authorities to monitor an “increasing percentage of daily life”.
Infringements of freedom of expression were particularly evident in authorities’ efforts to control the media coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, the report said, citing an analysis by China Digital Times, a US-based publication, that almost 500 people were charged over public comments about Covid-19 in just the first three months of 2020, when the pandemic was most out of control in China.
Two citizen journalists who covered the outbreak, Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi, have disappeared from the public eye following on-the-ground reporting they conducted in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.
Another citizen journalist, Zhang Zhan, was sentenced to four years in prison in December on the nebulous charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
The report also raised the case of Ekpar Asat, a Uygur journalist and entrepreneur who was reportedly detained in Xinjiang in 2016 after participating in a State Department leadership training programme.
Throughout 2020, Chinese employees of international media outlets also reported increased harassment by authorities, according to the report, which highlighted the case of Haze Fan, a Bloomberg employee who was detained in December on suspicion of “endangering national security”.
The State Department said it had “no direct evidence” of government-sanctioned organ harvesting in China, despite long-standing allegations of such practices by advocacy groups, including Falun Gong practitioners.