Human Rights Watch released a scathing report Wednesday slamming the Chinese government for crafting an “Orwellian high-tech surveillance state” at home and deploying its growing economic clout to silence its critics overseas, while an official with the group criticized Japan’s response to alleged rights abuses as “lukewarm.”
The report, which covers the global human rights situation but begins with a keynote essay by the group’s executive director, condemned China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in its far-west Xinjiang region and warned that China’s growing political influence and efforts to censor people abroad poses an “existential threat to the international human rights system.”
Beijing has previously criticized HRW over its investigations on surveillance technology and what China calls “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. The United Nations estimates roughly 1 million Uighurs have been detained in Xinjiang. Beijing denies any mistreatment of Uighurs or others in the region, saying it is providing vocational training to help stamp out Islamist extremism and separatism, and to teach new skills.
Wednesday’s report also addressed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, saying that police have used “excessive force” and have “increasingly restricted freedom of assembly” there. It criticized Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam for refusing to launch an independent investigation into abuses by the police.
China’s Foreign Ministry responded later Wednesday, calling the report biased and fact-distorting.
The blistering criticism took aim at the shifting foreign policies toward China of “several governments” that the group said in the past “could be depended upon to defend human rights at least some of the time.”
Although the report did not name any of the governments, a Tokyo-based HRW official characterized the Japanese government’s response to rights issues in China as “lukewarm.”
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, responding to a question at a December news conference about China’s treatment of Uighurs, said “it is important that universal values in the international community, such as freedom, respect for basic human rights and rule of law are upheld in China.”
Last July, Japan was the only Asian nation among a group of 22 at a regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council that called on China to halt its suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
“It’s true the Japanese government has been somewhat vocal on China-related issues such as the Hong Kong protests and the mass surveillance and detention of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang region,” said HRW program officer Teppei Kasai.
“However, as it did at the Human Rights Council in July, Japan should take more concrete steps in addressing China’s human rights issues instead of resorting to lukewarm criticisms that possess little to no political impact.”
Kasai suggested that one avenue Tokyo could pursue would be a full-throated backing of a U.N. fact-finding mission to Xinjiang — a move that would almost assuredly anger Beijing.
The two Asian powers have a complicated relationship that involves deep-seated historical grievances, interdependent economies and growing security concerns. Ties had turned icy in the early 2010s amid a row over disputed islands in the East China Sea. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has overseen a gradual thaw in relations, making improved ties a top foreign policy goal of his administration and courting Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom Abe has invited for his first state visit to Japan this spring.
In the Japan section of the report, HRW criticized what it said was the country’s “long overlooked ‘hostage’ justice system, in which criminal suspects are held for long periods in harsh conditions to coerce a confession,” citing the high-profile arrest of former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn in November 2018.
While Ghosn was detained for 108 days and then another 21 days for financial misconduct allegations, HRW said “he was granted bail quickly compared to other equivalent cases, apparently due to the international criticism.”
Speaking at a livestreamed news conference at the United Nations in New York on Tuesday, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said Ghosn’s case “illustrates the enormous pressure that the Japanese criminal justice system places on defendants to confess.”
While noting that he was not defending what Ghosn may or may not have done or his flight, Roth said Japan’s judicial system enables “endless interrogation without lawyers present.” In Ghosn’s case, he was not allowed to speak to his wife, he added.
“A criminal justice system that is so determined to put pressure on suspects that the vast majority confess is not a justice system but a confession system,” Roth said.
“This is an opportunity … for there to be real serious scrutiny of the way that the Japanese government runs its criminal justice system.”
Ghosn fled to Lebanon late last month while on bail ahead of his trial in Japan.
The Japan section also saw the group take issue with Tokyo’s position on rights issues in Myanmar and Cambodia, where the government has worked to increase its influence as a counterweight to China despite rampant abuses.
Kasai urged the Japanese government to “be consistent in its criticisms of overseas human rights issues instead of cherry-picking which governments to be tough on.”
“Its inconsistency in upholding human rights in its diplomacy, or a ‘values-free diplomacy,’ is illustrating how Japan is prioritizing economic ties over the human rights of people in said countries,” he said.