United Nations Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth speaks at a press conference at UN headquarters on January 14, 2020 in New York City. Picture: SCOTT HEINS / GETTY IMAGES / AFP
United Nations Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth speaks at a press conference at UN headquarters on January 14, 2020 in New York City. Picture: SCOTT HEINS / GETTY IMAGES / AFP

UN/Beijing — US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a scathing review of the Chinese government, calling on the international community to push back against “the most brutal and pervasive oppression China has seen in decades” in its 2020 annual report.

The organisation's global head, Kenneth Roth, was denied entry on Sunday to Hong Kong where he was expected to launch the report, which covers the global human rights situation but features China prominently.

The report condemns Beijing's treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and warns that China's growing political influence and efforts to censor people abroad pose an “existential threat to the international human rights system.”

“If not challenged, Beijing's actions portend a dystopian future in which no-one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression,” Roth said in the report.

China last month announced sanctions on HRW and other US non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as a countermeasure to the US. Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which supports antigovernment protests in Hong Kong and threatens China with sanctions for human rights abuses.

Beijing says the NGOs are encouraging violent crime linked to antigovernment protests in Hong Kong that have plagued the city for over six months. Roth rejected the accusation.

Chinese state media has also broadly blamed fake news and Western interference for landslide victories against pro-Beijing election candidates in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

On Wednesday US democracy watchdog group Freedom House, which was also hit with sanctions, released a separate report criticising Beijing's efforts to influence media overseas and calling on governments to impose penalties on Chinese officials.

Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, told reporters he would not read either report, adding that both organisations “distort the truth” and have no objectivity.

“Currently, China's human rights' situation is the best it's been in history,” said Geng.

The HRW report, released at the UN on Tuesday, said Hong Kong police have used “excessive force” and have “increasingly restricted freedom of assembly” there. It criticised Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam for refusing to launch an independent investigation into police abuses.

Trump credibility

Beijing has previously criticised HRW over its investigations on surveillance technology and re-education camps in Xinjiang. The UN estimates roughly one-million Uighurs have been previously detained in Xinjiang.

Beijing denies any mistreatment of Uighurs or others in Xinjiang, saying it is providing vocational training to help stamp out Islamist extremism and separatism and to teach new skills.

China has always been sensitive to rights allegations, but in the past year it has become increasingly forceful in rebuking criticisms, which have periodically threatened to derail trade negotiations with the US.

“To avoid criticism of them, the Chinese government is trying with increasing ferocity to use its economic and diplomatic clout to silence critical voices abroad and to undermine global institutions that protect human rights,” Roth told a news conference at the UN.

When it came to countering China on human rights, Roth said several important governments have been “missing in action”.

"[US President Donald] Trump has lost credibility because he so often embraces friendly autocrats, rather than defend the human rights standards that they flout,” Roth said.

“The EU has been diverted by Brexit, it's been obstructed by nationalist members, it's been divided over migration and as a result it's often found it difficult to adopt a strong common voice on human rights,” he said. “Other governments are simply bought off [by China].”

Chinese diplomat Xing Jisheng addressed reporters at the end of the news conference, saying China totally rejected the HRW report as prejudiced and fabricated.

“Hong Kong is a part of China, so given what you said here, I think it is clear to all why you have been barred such entry,” Xing told Roth.

Reuters