A panel including Peter Yang, son of Guo Feixiong, imprisoned Chinese “barefoot lawyer” and civil rights activist; Dr. Gyal Lo, academic expert on China’s mass use of boarding schools to eradicate Tibetan identity and culture; Frances Hui, first Hong Kong activist granted political asylum in the US, Director of ‘We the Hong Kongers’ organization; Kalbinur Sidik, Uyghur activist, witness to Chinese reeducation camp atrocities, survivor of forced sterilization; and moderator Yang Jianli discuss the human rights abuses inflicted by the Chinese Communist Party at the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for their remarks.
Moderator: Yang Jianli
Good morning, dear friends.
In 2016, on this very stage, I said, “Long live the troublemakers.” Today, I want to say, “Long live the freedom fighters.”
Exactly one week ago, the Chinese government sentenced my friend and a prominent human rights defender, Guo Feixiong, to 8 years in prison. His “crime” was publicly appealing to China’s leadership for permission to leave China to go to the United States to spend the last minutes with his dying wife. I leave to his son Peter to tell the story of his father and his family.
One month earlier, the Chinese government handed down to another two friends, two prominent leaders of China’s citizen movement, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, prison sentences of 14 and 12 years, respectively. Their “crime” was a private meeting and a public statement criticizing Xi Jinping’s Covid policy.
These three cases are but the tip of the iceberg of the Chinese Communist Party’s, the CCP’s, persecution of the people of China. We have lost count of the numbers of people languishing in China’s prisons for “crimes” of exercising basic rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Indeed, human rights violations have skyrocketed in China since Xi Jinping came to power. Under his rule, China continues to leave large fingerprints on the canvas of human events. Regarding human rights, these fingerprints place China at the scene of countless activities, both domestic and international, all thoroughly outside of the norm of a civilized, responsible world power, it so desperately claims to be.
To review China’s despicable human rights record, we need look no further than the communities that my fellow panelists represent today.
Tibet faces new and worsening challenges from the CCP’s repressive rule. Threats to Tibet’s linguistic, religious, and cultural heritage have increased staggeringly in recent years. Now, as an example, an estimated 80 percent of all children in Tibet are separated from their families and educated in a massive system of colonial boarding schools. This cultural genocide is a deeply troubling manifestation of the CCP’s ongoing program of forced assimilation of ethnic and religious minority groups.
In 2019, sixty years after Tibet, an autonomy under the 1951 forced agreement of “one country, two systems,” was fully colonized by Communist China. Hong Kong, another autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework, was to be plunged under the national security law. It has practically lost its freedom, the rule of law, and civic culture, becoming another Shanghai in the political sense. This is a political genocide.
Millions of Uyghurs are suffering from unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the CCP. This includes forced sterilization of young women, enforced separation of families and placement of children in state orphanages, and mass incarceration of more than one million people since 2017 in detention centers and forced labor camps. Uyghurs are also being transferred to factories in China proper and used as modern-day slaves.
The case for genocide against the Uyghur people has been made through documentation of evidence by credible international human rights and academic institutions, as well as from numerous profoundly intimate and chilling first-person accounts. Today, we will hear one of them.
Now, I want to return to the three imprisoned democracy leaders mentioned at the beginning. For each of them, the current incarceration is not their first.
For Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, this is the second time. For Guo Feixiong, Peter’s father, this is the third imprisonment. This demonstrates that despite the extreme darkness, many in China have continued their fight for a brighter China. But their efforts and their sacrifices are often under-appreciated, with many observers concluding that China will remain authoritarian indefinitely. But the perseverance and determination demonstrated by these brave freedom fighters and the dramatic White Paper Movement of late last year have shown that change is possible.
That change, however, requires international focus and international support for the courageous people who struggle and demand freedom and democracy on a daily basis.
Thank you for providing us the opportunity to speak truth to power. Indeed, as freedom-loving individuals, organizations and countries develop their strategies and policies with regard to engagement with China, they should listen to the people, who share their values, the same values. Not only that, but also continue fighting on the front line for these values.
Now, let’s hear our extraordinary speakers. Let me begin with Peter.
On China: Peter Yang
I am here today, speaking for my father, Yang Maodong, who is more known for his pen name, Guo Feixiong. He is a writer, a publisher, and a self-taught legal activist, or “barefoot lawyer,” who championed freedom and democratic values in China. But because China is not free, and because China is not democratic, he’s been in prison for the majority of my life; 12 out of the last 21 years. And just a few days ago, he was sentenced to another 8 years in prison. I haven’t seen him in person since I was 5 years old and I don’t know when or if I’m going to see him again. This is my story – our story – of how the CCP tore our family apart.
When I was young, I didn’t know him as a human rights activist. I only knew him as my dad. When my mother was out of town, he would take care of me. One day, he just stopped coming home. I found it strange that he would disappear like that.
When I was six, I was eager to go to elementary school with my friends – but my mom told me I was not allowed. I was sad and frustrated. A year later, I found out officials denied me education because of my father’s human rights activism.
As the Chinese government kept persecuting us, my father decided that we should move to the United States. I was only seven at the time, and I barely spoke a word of English, but I was able to pick up the language and adapt quickly. During that time, my father was serving a 5-year sentence after publishing a book about a recent Chinese political scandal. In prison, he was beaten, shocked, and deprived of sleep for over a week, and tortured repeatedly.
When he was released in 2011, we talked over the phone a lot. He encouraged me to exercise and to read about Chinese history and Chinese literature. Come August 2013, he stopped replying to our messages. We were worried he was detained again, but the Chinese authorities were completely silent until a month later when they announced he was imprisoned for gathering crowds to disrupt social order. This time he was sentenced to six years. His health deteriorated, he couldn’t trust the food he was given because he felt ill after eating. He began a hunger strike in protest. My mother was so worried that she reached out to American officials to send a request to the Chinese government for a prison transfer. It worked; he was transferred to another prison where he was treated better. His sentence ended three years later in 2019.
I was 18 then. I was much more interested in understanding his character, and his beliefs. I wondered how he stayed motivated to keep working even after he was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned without a fair trial. He told me he’s driven by his sense of duty, his honour, non-violence, and fairness. And even after everything the CCP has done to him, he is loyal to his Chinese identity. He’d constantly remind us that we might live in America for now, but we are Chinese. He is a Chinese activist who wants to reform China to make it a better place. He doesn’t just want to Westernize China.
In January 2021, I was 19 years old, my mother was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. My sister and I were shocked and devastated, especially because for the last 11 years in America, she’d effectively been a single mother raising us. My father was desperate to see her, so he sent a letter of request to the government to visit her. Of course, the Chinese government denied his request. But it did not deter him. He reached out to his contacts in the U.S. to get her into the best hospitals possible. He asked for donations and fundraised online to help us pay for her cancer treatments.
Chemotherapy was very hard on her, but she endured. She really wanted to see her husband again. She believed that with his tenacity and his connections, he’d make it happen. Just as she was starting her second round of chemo, he got his passport and a visa corrected to come to the U.S. It gave my mother so much hope. But when he got to the airport, they wouldn’t let him on the plane. He protested and he was arrested and put in jail for a few days. When my mother heard this, she was devastated.
As my mother’s condition worsened, my dad had to take more drastic measures. He started speaking to famous activists about being denied the right to visit his wife, but then, we stopped hearing from him. A month later, in January, she passed away, without ever getting to speak to him again or knowing his whereabouts. She spent the last month on Earth without her husband.
When my mother was alive, she’d always been his advocate. She was a doctor in China, but in the U.S. she worked minimum-wage jobs to feed and house us. And in her spare time, she’d do everything she could to get him out of jail. Now, with my mother gone, it’s up to me to fight for my father’s freedom.
Two months after her death, the government finally announced his imprisonment for inciting subversion to state power. Upon hearing of her death, he started a hunger strike to protest China’s refusal to let him see her. They force-fed him in prison. The only person he could see was his lawyer. He has lost a ton of weight. He’s a man of average height, but by August 2022, he was just down to 48 kilos or 105 pounds.
That same month, we contacted officials and diplomats from several countries. They recognized his innocence and pushed Chinese officials to release him from prison. China mostly ignored these demands. They say he is in prison for subverting state power. But the truth is, he is in prison because he spoke up about being denied the right to visit his dying wife. Think about how cruel and inhumane that is. Every day in prison he suffers. As a committee that values human rights, we must take action. Every time he’s been imprisoned, he’s been tortured so badly that he has no choice but to start a hunger strike. And just this week, he was sentenced to another eight years in prison, in a blatantly unfair trial. He is planning to appeal, but he needs international help. He needs your help.
So I ask you, to speak up, to take action, on behalf of my brave father, Guo Feixiong, and defend the rights of this human rights defender.
On Tibet: Dr. Gyal Lo
Dear brothers and sisters,
In 2015, I finished my PhD in Sociology of education at the University of Toronto and I returned to Tibet. Late next year, I got a phone call from my brother. He said, “Gyal Lo, I need you to come home to check on my two granddaughters. Strange things are happening with them and I don’t know how to interpret it.” On a Friday afternoon, I went to pick up my two grandnieces from their boarding school.
But this was not just any boarding school; it was a boarding preschool. They were only age 4 and 5 years old. And this was an entirely new policy in Tibet. When those two little girls got home, I closely observed them and the way they interacted with their family. They didn’t hug anyone. There was no emotional exchange. They were silent, distant, almost like strangers or guests in their home. And I’m here to tell you, today, that all of this is by design.
China’s mandatory boarding schools will destroy Tibet’s culture and identity if they are not stopped.
Like a gardener, ripping out the tree from the ground, the CCP is trying to completely cut off Tibetan children from their cultural roots in order to eradicate us forever.
Around 1995, when I was teaching at university, I noticed my undergraduate Tibetan students were speaking Tibetan fluently in class, but when they turned in written assignments, their grammar was strange. I asked why, and they said, “This is the way we learned from our school.” So I got their textbooks and realized that they were poorly translated from Chinese textbooks. I thought, “We must write our own textbook!” I organized a group of people, principals, professors, and students to ask, “How should we teach child literacy in Tibet?” Together, we came up with an outline and then it was my job to write the book. I collected oral history from different villagers, transcribed it, and edited it.
In 1999-2000, when we distributed the book to schools around Tibet, the kids were so happy. And their parents kept asking to borrow the books. Parents said, “Wow, your school is teaching this? You have to go every day.” Their enthusiasm and pride in our culturally relevant textbook and in our own language majorly increased daily attendance.
In 2009, when I heard a rumor that China was planning a mandatory preschool program in Tibet for children ages 4 to 6, I thought we must get ahead of this. “Let’s bring everyone back together to discuss what we’d want as a mother-tongue-based curriculum and give our recommendations to the Chinese government.” But I was in Canada when Xi Jinping announced a new preschool policy. It wasn’t until I saw my grandnieces that I realized that their boarding preschool curriculum was worse than everything we could’ve imagined.
So for three years, I traveled across eastern Tibet, visiting more than 50 boarding preschools, meeting with students, principals, and local people. And what I witnessed was nearly identical to my grandnieces’ experiences. Students are forced to speak in Mandarin. Teachers can only use CCP-approved textbooks.
Everyday, it’s lessons like this. So when these 4 and 5-year-old children go home, they have almost nothing in common with their parents. Nothing to talk about. Almost like they were raised in a foreign country.
When I asked my brother, “What would happen if you don’t send the girls to the boarding preschool?” He teared up, and said, “The girls will be blocked from getting an education for the rest of their life.” Even if most Tibetans don’t agree with this policy or Beijing’s curriculum, they have no choice. This is why 1 million Tibetan children are in boarding schools today. And this number means that 3 out of every 4 school-age Tibetan children now live separated from their parents and in the control of the Chinese state.
As an educator, I can tell you that China’s pedagogy is very advanced. They’re brainwashing an entire generation of Tibetan kids so successfully that they won’t know how to practice their own language, culture, and religion in their homeland. The Communist Party is trying to force our Tibetan children to become Chinese. If this continues, then China will end Tibetans’ 5,000-year-old civilization.
In September 2020, after so many years of advocating for the right to receive a Tibetan education in Tibet, I began to face serious political consequences. I tried to fight this, but a well-known lawyer recommended that I leave quietly, right away, before I’m in physical danger. I was shocked. It felt so sudden. But I packed up all my things and had one last dinner with my family. I told them, “I can’t stay here anymore. It’s possible we won’t see each other for the rest of my life.” But I couldn’t bear to tell my 80-year-old father the truth so I just said, “I have to go, but I’ll be back soon.”
Today, I live with my wife and daughter in Canada. And I have watched the Canadian Prime Minister, Parliamentarians, and even Pope Francis apologize for forcing Indigenous kids into Residential Schools. And yet today – in 2023 – China is intentionally recreating this genocidal system in Tibet, and at nearly 10 times the scale. The only thing that will stop Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party is international pressure and sanctions.
We must force them to end this practice, or Tibet will cease to exist.
Thank you very much.
On Hong Kong: Frances Hui
I want to start with a statement that you may find confusing or even controversial, which is Hong Kong has never been free. First, it was part of the Chinese empire. Then, it belonged to the United Kingdom for 150 years. And even in 1997 when the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong to China, the people of Hong Kong were not consulted or included in the negotiations. Hong Kong has never been free.
I was born in 1999, just two years after the handover, when Hong Kong became part of China as a “special administrative region.” China promised “one country, two systems,” so that Hong Kong will not change for 50 years, and Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. To this day, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have tried to paint a picture, to make the world believe that Hong Kong is a free society. That it is an international financial center protected with the rule of law. But the people of Hong Kong have woken up to these lies and we are fighting for our democracy.
My story starts when I was 10 years old and I saw a documentary on TV about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I saw soldiers shooting at unarmed citizens and driving tanks into the crowd. I saw students, covered in blood on makeshift stretchers, rows of bodies covered in sheets, and a man curled up on the sidewalk in the fetal position with his skull cracked open. It’s shocking no matter how old you are, but especially as a 10-year-old. So, I went to the annual vigil on June 4th. Hong Kong was the last place in China that could honor the victim. It was my first experience seeing people freely gathered to express themselves. And it left a profound impression on me about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, both values that define Hong Kong yet cease to exist in mainland China.
In the summer of 2014, when I was 15 years old, the CCP announced a new election scheme to narrow the people’s already-limited rights to elect our Chief Executive. Student leaders like Joshua Wong called on students to walk out of classrooms and take to the street and let their voices be heard. I joined the walkout with thousands of students. We rallied in front of the government building headquarters and eventually occupied Hong Kong’s busiest highway. That day, police launched 87 tear gas canisters toward students and peaceful demonstrators; they chased us, beat us, pushed us back, again and again. But we didn’t give up. We wore helmets and goggles, held umbrellas to shield ourselves from pepper spray. All we could think about was standing our ground against police aggression.
I was beaten with a police baton and I was pepper sprayed in the face. As I was standing in the midst of tear gas smoke, I looked at all the people fighting alongside me for the same democratic values. I saw there was a community built up where strangers looked out for each other and became neighbors in tents. We were all there to defend our home and our freedom because we are Hong Kongers. I am a Hong Konger. And although we never achieved universal suffrage, this movement completely changed my life and the landscape of Hong Kong’s civic society.
In 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed an extradition law that would violate our judicial independence to allow anyone in Hong Kong to be extradited to China and put on trial under Chinese law. Millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets and came up with the five demands: The extradition law to be repealed, justice for peaceful protesters who were detained, attacked, or died from police aggression, and the right to elect our own officials as promised in the Basic Law. Once again the government ignored people’s voice, and increased state violence against protesters. Police started shooting bullets straight into the crowds, they took siege of a university campus, blocking thousands of young protesters from food and medical assistance unless they surrendered. Throughout the movement, 11 people had died from committing suicide, dozens of others disappeared, and over ten thousand people were arrested. Our city was deeply wounded. We were left together, glued together, by pain, anger, and tragedy.
And as the final insult to the people of Hong Kong, China imposed the National Security Law in 2020 to criminalize any individual under secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces, facing up to life sentencing in Hong Kong or mainland China. Immediately I was warned that I was on the government’s shortlist of people who’d be arrested. I was only 21 years old but I had to make this life-altering decision in 48 hours. I was torn just from thinking, should I stay in Hong Kong or leave? Would I really get life in prison? In solitary confinement? Or would it be better for me to leave Hong Kong and be a voice for my friends in prison?
Late at night, I decided to get on a plane and I still remember, as the plane took off I was looking out at the lights of Hong Kong through the window thinking, “This might be the last time I’ll see this beautiful city – My home.”
Within weeks, they’d imprisoned 47 of the most inspiring leaders from the movement and now they are facing the possibility of life behind bars. Media outlets were forced to shut down and journalists like Jimmy Lai was put in jail. So many Hong Kongers were forced to flee the city they call home.
In 2021, I secured asylum in the United States. Meanwhile, there are thousands of political prisoners in Hong Kong, with the youngest only 13 years old. The words “political prisoners” and “political asylee” are two labels that I never imagined would apply to Hong Kong people. But I am afraid this is the reality of Hong Kong today, a reality that the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government both try to cover up.
And even when I am in the US where I’m supposed to be safe, me and my friends have been bullied, intimidated, threatened by the CCP. The same has happened to Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Taiwanese, and Chinese dissidents all over the world. We cannot accept the status quo, we must hold China accountable and let Hong Kong be Hong Kong. CCP’s authoritarianism is one of the biggest threats to world order and democracy, working next to other bad actors like Russia, Iran, and Burma just to name a few. I don’t want to ask the question about why China is still on the UN’s Human Rights Council because many of us have asked that question in the past too many times now, and it is still what it is. But the least that the International Community can do is to advocate for the release of political prisoners in Hong Kong and alleviates their suffering. It only takes all of you sitting here today – world leaders, journalists, activists, and people of conscience – to say their names. Say Jimmy Lai’s name; say Joshua Wong, Gwyneth Ho, Owen Chow’s names. Raise their public profiles, make them famous, and put pressure on the CCP to release them.
On Uyghur Persecution: Kalbinur Sidik
Right now, there are over 3 million people in concentration camps in East Turkistan. The government will say that those numbers are exaggerated, that they’re re-educating Muslim terrorists and political dissidents. But it is a lie. I’ve worked inside those camps and I’m here to tell you what I witnessed with my own eyes. By the end of my story, I think you’ll agree – there’s only one word to describe what’s happening in China: Genocide.
I’m a Chinese language teacher from East Turkistan, what the CCP calls “Xinjiang.” And after 28 years of teaching, on February 28, 2017, the president of my school called me into his office and said, “Go to the party committee office tomorrow at 1:30 pm. You have an important meeting.” I asked what about it, but he didn’t know.
I showed up and recognized a few other teachers from our district. The Party Secretary of the Regional Education Department, Song Li Ying, closed the door and said, “We’ve just started a new semester and we’ve gathered a number of illiterates for you. Starting tomorrow, March 1st, you’ll teach the national language, Mandarin Chinese, to them at designated locations. When you go there, don’t tell anyone what you saw, what you heard, or what you knew. Keep it very confidential. Don’t mention it to the school leaders, principals, or even your coworkers, friends, and your family members.” I thought that was strange, but before I could ask, Song Li said: “Kalbinur teacher, your daughter is in the Netherlands, right? The Netherlands and China have very close relationship.” I knew what it was – a threat. I had no choice but to accept their offer and stay quiet. So I signed my name and stamped my fingers with ink.
The next morning, a police officer picked me up and drove me to the designated location. It was a four-story building inside a compound with walls covered in barbed wire and a series of strong, electric doors. The policeman tapped a card to let me in and a female worker asked, “Teacher, are you ready? We can bring in the students.” I said yes. On the right of the corridor, they unlocked 3 doors, one with an electronic keypad, one with a regular padlock, and a third intertwined by wires. She shouted, “Class is starting, class is starting!” and I saw the 97 so-called illiterate students coming out of their cells. They were older adults with chains on their hands and feet. My heart started pounding. I felt total despair and hopelessness. But I was surrounded by armed police. “My name is Kalbinur,” I said, “I will teach you the national language starting today” and then I quickly turned to the board to start writing Chinese vowels – because I knew if I looked at them much longer, I would break down crying. Later in the lesson, I noticed eight surveillance cameras in the room, 2 monitoring me from the top of the board. It was the longest and scariest hours of my entire teaching career.
At 12 o’clock, we went outside and the female workers said they were going to distribute the detainees’ food. “I want to help, too,” I said. They agreed. They started scooping out rice soup, but it was almost entirely water. I started handing out Chinese buns, one piece per person. I gave two elderly people an extra piece and didn’t think it would be a problem until someone yelled, “A bun is missing!” There was a momentary panic – but a worker said it must have been the kitchen’s mistake. She told me everything is carefully counted and asked me not to help again because I almost put them in danger. I was horrified.
As the weeks passed, there was a constant influx of new prisoners. I taught six to seven hours a day, to a different group every hour. From the numbers printed on their uniforms, there must have been over seven to eight thousand detainees. They didn’t shower. Each floor had just one toilet and there was a limit to use them. And they slept on the cold concrete floor.
One time, I went to pour myself a cup of tea and a worker came running at me, shouting, “Hey teacher, don’t drink that!” I asked why, but she didn’t have a good reason. I started suspecting the water. Even the most healthy inmates were losing weight dramatically. Over time, many of my students disappeared – they allegedly died on the way to the hospital.
After 6 months, my contract ended and I was so relieved, but then, I was called for a new job. Starting September 1, 2017, I’d teach at the women’s camp in Tougung. It had 6 floors with at least 20 cells per floor, roughly 10,000 inmates in the building. At a simple glance, the women looked like men: Wearing orange vests with numbers printed on them. Every Monday, they would administrate unknown medication. As a result, 90 percent of the women, who are aged between 18 to 48 years old, would stop menstruating. My Chinese friend told me that they would bring the women into an interrogation room and force them to confess to crimes they’d never committed. Then four to five police officers would rape the girl, one after another. They’d take an electric rod and stick it into her vagina or rectum to torture her.
I was supposed to teach at the women’s camp through March, but in November, I got sick and when I went back to my school in February I was forced to retire with the excuse that I didn’t complete my duty. Two months later, I got a message from the neighborhood committee and the police informed me that I had to go to the police station in Xiangloyan hospital to undergo a sterilization surgery. All women aged between 18 and 59 must be subjected to birth control procedures and if you don’t get it done you and your family would be punished.
In October 2019, with my own efforts, I left for the Netherlands where my daughter lived. I started testifying in February 2020 after I gave interviews to international media such as The Guardian, BBC, CNN. My family started receiving threats, including my husband. On February 18, 2021, I got an unexpected call on WeChat from a Chinese police officer. He passed the phone to my husband who was angry. He said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you. From today forward we’re divorced.” I knew immediately that he was being forced to say that by the police. Then, one month ago, I found out that my older brother passed away. He went to the hospital for a cold and the next day he died under mysterious circumstances. The CCP won’t just ruin your life, they will go after your entire family too.