Policy Critique. Human Rights Violations in China

Term Paper, 2021

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents



“Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China”, Article 293
“Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem”
General situation of media freedom in China
China’s position on international treaties

Application and Problems





“This is both a crisis and a big test for us,” said China’s president Xi Jinping during a speech he held in Beijing on February 23, 2020 (Jinping, quoted from Tan 2020). As the global health and economic crisis is not over yet, Chinese authorities have reason to announce that the pandemic is under control in their country: Since the outbreak in 2019 and the first wave in the beginning of 2020, the official number of active cases in China is extremely low (October 18, 2021: 516, Worldometer 2021), given its huge population and seize as well as the country’s central position with direct borders to 14 nations.

The COVID-19 response of China was not generally different than those of other countries – social distancing, contact tracing, lockdown, vaccination – however, Chinas authorities restricted the spread more effectively and prevented the second and third wave that nearly every other country experienced. Primarily responsible for this success was the very early and rigorously implementation of the measures above – however, the costs to achieve the currently low numbers were high. Since the early days of the pandemic until today, Beijing has strictly enforced limitations of civil liberties, accepting – and, as I will show in the following, even intending – violations of human rights and freedom of expression as well as increased inequality and discrimination of marginalized and especially vulnerable groups.

In this Policy Critique I will focus on two laws which criminalize the disruption of the public order in the analogous life and in the cyberspace which can be seen as new kind of public place. I argue that Article 293 of the “Chinese Criminal Law” and the set of cyberspace guidelines known as “Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem” were misused to suppress objective reporting and free speech during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For this I will provide some background information about the original intention of the laws and the problems they were designed to address as well as about the general situation of press freedom in China and its position on relevant treaties of the United Nations (UN). Afterwards, I examine their application and effectiveness during the first months of the Coronavirus pandemic. Using several examples of policies that based on those laws, I will show how they were misused to suppress the freedom of expression of the Chinese population, especially affecting medical staff, journalists, and human rights activists. In the following I will evaluate China’s use of those policies, including potential consequences for neighboring countries and recommended reactions of the international community before I end with a short conclusion.


The “Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China” was first adopted on July 1, 1979, and revised in 1997. The policies I will examine are based on Article 293 of this law which states:

“Whoever undermines public order with anyone of the following provocative and disturbing behaviors is to be sentenced to not more than five years of fixed-term imprisonment, criminal detention, or control:

(1) willfully attacking another person and the circumstances are bad;
(2) chasing, intercepting, or cursing another person, and the circumstances are bad;
(3) forcibly taking away, demanding, or willfully damaging or seizing public or private property; and the circumstances are serious;
(4) creating a disturbance in a public place, causing serious disorder.”

(Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations and other international Organizations in Vienna 2021 1979)

China acknowledges the fact that the internet is a new kind of public place which implies the need for political guidelines for Web content. However, the framework the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which reports directly to the leader of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping, adopted in December 2019, consolidated many separate cyberspace regulations into one coherent system which applies to most internet contents in China. Those “Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem” (Barata and Zhang 2020) took effect on March 1, 2020, and marked a new era of internet control and censorship as it allows an even stronger impact of the CAC.

Whereas Article 293 of the “Criminal Law” was designed to preserve the public order in analogous public places, the new framework should “create a positive online ecosystem” by protecting the “national security and the public interest” from people who cause the disruption of “economic or social order”, the “dissemination of rumors” or the destruction of the “national unity” (Barata and Zhang 2020).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, different policies were adopted and implemented which referred to the “Criminal Law”, Article 293, Paragraph 4, stating that protests against pandemic-related limitations of civil liberties and violations of human rights could be interpreted and sentenced as public disturbance. At the same time, the CAC suppressed the freedom of expression on the internet by using the new cyberspace provisions. As I will show later, the guidelines were not only misused to spread propaganda but also to hinder scientists, health professionals, and media workers to report relevant facts about the COVID-19 pandemic and its political, economic, social, and humanitarian consequences.


“Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China”, Article 293

Originally, Article 293 was designed to maintain the public order by preventing people from physically or verbally attacking other persons as well as vandalizing in public areas or causing other forms of serious disorder. Therefore, it belongs to the group of laws which punish disorderly conducts that might disturb the peace. Those statutes are also known as “catch-all crimes” (FindLaw 2019), a colloquial term which refers to a well-known problem that occurs when disorderly conducts are interpreted and applied: It is relatively easy to use those laws as basis for the criminalization and punishment of all people who behave in an unwanted, disruptive manner. I will show that the current Chinese administration misuses it to prevent and suppress a behavior which is not generally harmful or dangerous for the society but could threaten the stability and the reputation of their own government. In those cases of misguided application, public order and peace are not in real danger which means that the original intention of the law is missed. Instead, completely different, even unjust goals can be achieved by using the mentioned article as pretext, for instance in order to justify a limitation of the freedom of expression at public events or the general prohibition for civilians to hold a rally in the public.

“Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem”

The CAC, Chinas central office for cyber-security and internet regulation, was established in 2011 and reported in its early years to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) before the Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs (since 2018: Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission) overtook the role as its direct supervisor in 2014. This body is responsible to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC) which means that the CAC is directly controlled by the country’s leading party and its leader Xi Jinping (cf. Reuters 2021). This organizational structure shows that cyberspace policies belong to the main priorities of the Chinese government.

The CAC is China’s main body when it comes to the control and regulation of the internet and therefore responsible for the final version of the new “Provisions” which were released on December 20, 2019. They distinguish between internet content which should be prohibited and a second group of information whose digital distribution should be encouraged. According to those rules, “Propagating the [Communist] Party’s theoretical line, policies, and major central decisions,“ “Carrying forward socialist core values, publicizing the outstanding moral culture and the spirit of the times, and fully demonstrating the uplifting spirit of the Chinese nation“ as well as “Increasing the international influence of Chinese culture“ (Bandurski 2020) belong to the latter. On the other hand, content which “harms the nation’s honor and interests,” “disseminates rumors that disrupt economic or social order” and “undermines ethnic unity” (Davis 2020) are strictly forbidden.

The overall thrust of the framework is clear as the first three of the seven criteria for encouraged content are all strengthening the ideological line of Xi Jinping’s CPC. The Articles which refer to prohibited content seem to protect the Chinese culture, reputation, unity, and interests but the wording is so general that they can be applied to many situations in which only the interests of the leading party, not those of the Chinese population in general, are potentially endangered. Objective reporting about governmental responsibilities and mistakes during a worldwide health crisis clearly belong to this category which is why the “Provisions” were used to withhold and conceal COVID-19-related information.

General situation of media freedom in China

Since years, the “Freedom of the Media Index” which is provided by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has ranked China among the very last countries of the world. Ranked 177th of 180 countries listed in 2021, the press freedom situation is described as “very bad” (Reporters Without Borders 2021b). As China was ranked 171st in 2010 (cf. Reporters Without Borders 2016), the situation was worsening continuously during the last decade which is also an effect of Xi Jinping’s presidency. Shortly after he came into office in 2013, he started to tighten the state’s grip on the media, taking already existing surveillance of civilians, censorship, and pro-governmental propaganda to unprecedented levels. Especially the methods to control Web contents are widely ranged and well developed since the huge number of its users makes the cyberspace to a zone of national interest: one the one hand, the Chinese government is eager to prevent a free flow of information by using censorship and filters, on the other hand it takes advantage of the internet as a powerful instrument to control and influence its population, for instance by doing propaganda and spreading biased information and ideological statements (cf. Quiang 2019).

In addition to the reforms regarding the role of the CAC, another important step of Xi Jinping to expand his control was the abolishment of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television in 2018. The former, ministry-level executive agency was replaced by the party-controlled Propaganda Department which gives the Communist Party of China much more power in terms of distributing – and controlling – information (cf. Moynihan and Patel 2020).

Another example is the two years later imposed order of the Chinese cyberspace administration that allows censorship and other direct interventions, for instance the ban of internet content which the CPC declares as “improper” or “sexual provocative” (Barata and Zhang 2020), and the suspension or shut down of internet platforms that breach those rules. Overall, RSF warns that Beijing continues to intensify its ideological control and violation of the freedom of expression, online as well as offline (cf. Reporters Without Borders 2021a).

Its high population, economic strength, and technological capabilities add a geopolitical aspect to this national development, as Beijing’s influence does not stop at the Chinese borders. Indirect effects are likely since other countries in the region look at China as a role model and might be encouraged to expand their media control, too. Moreover, China tries to expand its direct influence on other countries, for example by launching the Digital Silk Road (DSR) as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (cf. Greene and Triolo 2020).

China’s position on international treaties

China signed the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (ICCPR), that includes the human right of freedom of expression, in 1998 but has not ratified it yet (cf. Moynihan and Patel 2020). However, China is a member state of other UN treaties which implicit protect the freedom of expression and which are partly violated by its current actions in the context of pandemic-related restrictions. There is no question that media freedom and the freedom of expression are in times of a worldwide pandemic closely linked to the right to health. Article 12 of the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (ICESCR) guarantees the “right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” which is why member states must take measures necessary for the “prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational and other diseases” (UN General Assembly 2021 1966). The ICESCR was adopted by the Chinese government in 1997 (Republic of China/Taiwan: 1967) but currently, Beijing is violating the treaty as it prevents people from sharing respectively receiving relevant health-related information (cf. Human Rights Watch 2021b). The relevance of accessing such information while a contagious virus is spreading around the world is obvious as their denial put the health and life of people under risk.

Application and Problems

In my analysis of the application of the judicial frameworks I have previously introduced and the criticism that goes with it, I focus on the first year after the Coronavirus pandemic started in Wuhan province in December 2019.

The official Chinese response to the outbreak of the coronavirus was delayed as China’s authorities attempted to conceal the danger of the new disease and withheld relevant information from its population and the international community. Multiple sources reported independently that the government put especially scientists and physicians under pressure to prevent them from sharing information about the severity of the virus (cf. Human Rights Watch 2021a).

However, as the eradication of the coronavirus in its very early days had failed, the government was forced to change its strategy and soon responded in a very strict manner, implementing the first significant containment measures on January 20, 2020 (cf. Liu and Saltman 2020). The government’s actions to protect the public health included measures like social distancing, contact tracing, and lockdowns which made gatherings of large crowds of civilians – including anti-governmental rallies and protests – nearly impossible. Although the significant reduction of social contacts – also known as “zero-tolerance policy” (Li 2021) – helped to prevent mass spread, opponents and critics found that the measures were disproportionally and enforced in an undemocratic manner that violated the civil rights to an unacceptable amount.

One example of the application of Article 293 in order to suppress reports on COVID-19 is the case of Zhang Zhan who was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. The information she shared on her blog during the lockdown in Wuhan were declared as misinformation whereas Zhan herself said all reports were based on first-hand accounts from the local population which she reported with many authentic videos (cf. Davidson 2020). In April 2020, three activists who published previously censored articles on the popular open-source website Github were detained by the Chinese Police (cf. Zhang 2020). Reports of Freedom House and other independent organizations state that those were no isolated cases but symptoms of a system in which the freedom of the press is systematically suppressed, for instance by detentions and harsh jail sentences (cf. Freedom House 2020). Due to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China was once again on top of the list of those countries who imprisoned the most journalists in 2020 (cf. Statista Research Department 2021).

The CAC also expanded its influence on internet contents by using the newly implemented “Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem” in addition to its long-existing control infrastructure. Between January 1st and March 26th alone, the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a network of international and national NGOs, found 897 cases in which the Chinese government sentenced people who openly spoke, wrote and shared information about COVID-19 on internet platforms (cf. Chinese Human Rights Defenders 2020b). In the overall majority of the cases (93%), the punishment was justified with reference to the prohibition of disrupting the public order and spreading misinformation. However, according to CHRD this was only a pretext for preventing people from sharing information about the outbreak of the virus in China which could have harmed its global reputation (cf. Chinese Human Rights Defenders 2020a). Additionally, the Communist Party was trying to cover their information deficits and own mistakes in the context of the pandemic as this would have harmed the image of the party, its leader, and the nation in general, too (cf. Hernández and Qin 2021).

The fact that the government also restricted academic research and publications contributes to my argumentation that the principles to protect the public order and prevent misinformation were misused. Chinese scientists reported anonymously that all academic papers on the coronavirus had come under intense scrutiny as Beijing tried to control the narrative about the origin of the global pandemic. Due to those sources, the government would not have tolerated “any objective study to investigate the origination of this disease“ (cf. Gan, Hu and Watson 2020) as they did not want to be held responsible for a global crisis.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Policy Critique. Human Rights Violations in China
The American University, Washington, DC  (Department for Social Science)
Seminar "Managing Pandemics in Globalized Societies"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
COVID-19, policies, China, human rights violations, Uyghur population, press freedom restrictions, managing the pandemic, COVID-19 governmental response
Quote paper
Ariatani Wolff (Author), 2021, Policy Critique. Human Rights Violations in China, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1161886


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