GENEVA (Reuters) - In a café lounge at the United Nations complex in Geneva, a Tibetan fugitive was waiting his turn earlier this year to tell diplomats his story of being imprisoned and tortured back home in China.
The 43-year-old Buddhist monk, Golog Jigme, had broken out of a Chinese detention center in 2012, eventually fleeing to Switzerland. But his Chinese government pursuers hadn’t given up.
As Golog Jigme prepared to testify in March before the U.N. Human Rights Council, a senior Chinese diplomat, Zhang Yaojun, was in the crowded café. Zhang stood just a few meters from the table where the bald monk was seated in his saffron robes.
“He just took a photo of me,” Golog Jigme said, gesturing at Zhang, who was standing with his smartphone in his hand. Zhang’s action violated a ban on photography in the halls of the United Nations, except by accredited photographers.
“When I was hiding in the mountains, the Chinese government announced a cash reward of 200,000 yuan (about $31,000) for whoever finds me,” said the monk. “Maybe he wants the cash reward.”
Zhang said later he was simply photographing the scenery and was unaware of the ban.
Golog Jigme’s caustic joke speaks to the disturbing nature of his encounter with Zhang. The surveillance of the monk, Western diplomats and activists say, is part of a campaign of intimidation, obstruction and harassment by China that is aimed at silencing criticism of its human rights record at the United Nations.
Geneva, site of the U.N.’s headquarters for handling rights violations, is a hub of that effort. The primary function of the council, whose rotating members are elected by the U.N. General Assembly, is to review countries’ human rights records.
More broadly, Beijing’s conduct here is an example of China’s growing capacity to stifle opposition in the international arena.
The Communist government’s global reach is growing at a time when it is cracking down on domestic dissent and preparing a new, restrictive law on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in China. In July, Chinese authorities targeted human rights lawyers and activists, detaining or questioning 245 of them, according to Amnesty International.
Photographing and filming critics like Golog Jigme is one tactic. Others include pressuring the United Nations to deny accreditation to high-profile activists and filling up meeting halls with Chinese officials and sympathizers to drown out accusations of rights abuses.
“We are well aware of these problems, which unfortunately happen repeatedly - and are not confined just to China,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. He said he was “extremely concerned by the increasing number of cases of harassment or reprisals against those cooperating with the Human Rights Council.”
Beijing is also barring mainland activists from leaving China and traveling to Geneva, where the rights council last week concluded its third three-week session of the year.
Activists who speak out against their country’s rights record in Geneva have to contend with another signature Chinese tactic: coordinated interference by diplomats and delegates from Beijing-backed non-governmental organizations. These astroturf groups are known as GONGOs, or government-organized non-governmental organizations, a play on the acronym NGO.
China has an army of GONGO officials at its disposal in Geneva, especially when its record is under review. According to a U.N. database, it has 47 NGOs from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau that are allowed to participate in meetings at the Human Rights Council. At least 34 of these are GONGOs, a Reuters calculation shows. These groups are either overseen by government ministries or Communist Party bodies, or have a current or retired party or government official as their head.
“We are well aware of, and disturbed by, the presence of NGOs that are not truly independent – again, from quite a few countries,” said U.N. High Commissioner Zeid. “But the Human Rights Council cannot do anything to prevent them from attending sessions when they enjoy official status.”
China’s campaign is working, diplomats and activists say. The ruling Communist Party has succeeded in evading censure of its rights record at the U.N. in recent years. NGOs and alleged victims of human rights abuses on the mainland are struggling to make their voices heard.
“As long as they feel the political costs of intimidating someone are lower than the benefit of hearing the criticism, the practice will continue,” said Michael Ineichen, a director at the International Service for Human Rights. The NGO supports human rights defenders. The U.N. and member states, he said, must “increase the political costs so it’s no longer beneficial for China to silence people at the U.N.”
Ren Yisheng, minister counsellor in charge of human rights at China’s mission in Geneva, denied his country was engaged in intimidating activists and silencing critics. China is currently one of the 47 rotating members of the council.
Ren said China was the victim of a double standard in Geneva. “I seldom hear the (European Union) criticize the U.S. for ... police brutality, Guantanamo, surveillance, the discrimination against minorities,” he said in an August interview at the Chinese mission. “I seldom hear the U.S. criticize the EU or other developed countries. Whenever they take the floor, they always focus on developing countries, including my country.”
Actually, Beijing is feeling less pressure from Western governments at the U.N. these days. No nation has brought a resolution against China since the Human Rights Council was formed in 2006. In the council’s predecessor body, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, 11 resolutions were brought against China from 1990 to 2005. Beijing blocked them all, except in 1995, when a resolution was brought to a vote but rejected, according to Human Rights Council spokesman Rolando Gomez.
Joachim Ruecker, Germany’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, is the current president of the council. He said he’d heard of reports of harassment of activists by China before he became president in January. But since taking up his new post, he said he had not been confronted with any new allegations regarding China.
Asked about the photographing of Golog Jigme, Ruecker said: “This case was not brought to my attention. If I do receive such complaints, or any other such case which might be perceived as an act of intimidation, I would follow up accordingly.”
Under President Xi Jinping, China is conducting what activists say is the worst domestic crackdown on human rights in two decades. Close to 1,000 rights activists were detained last year – nearly as many as in the previous two years combined, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international NGOs.
The number of activists barred by China from going to Geneva is also rising. In 2014, authorities prevented 10 people from traveling to the U.N. by refusing to issue passports, confiscating travel documents or threatening reprisals, according to Thomas Shao, an independent Chinese rights activist in London. Six were blocked in 2013 and four in 2012, he said.
One of the activists prevented from attending in 2013 was veteran rights advocate Cao Shunli. She was detained in September that year at the airport as she was leaving Beijing to head to Geneva for a training session.
The next month, authorities told Cao to sign an official arrest document charging her with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” though she refused to sign it, the watchdog group Human Rights in China said soon afterward. That June, Cao had organized a sit-in outside the foreign ministry in Beijing, demanding that activists be allowed to participate in preparing China’s human rights report to the U.N.
Cao suffered from liver disease and later contracted tuberculosis in detention, according to her lawyer, Wang Yu. Her family and lawyers complained she was being denied essential medical care. On March 14 last year, her family arrived at a military hospital in Beijing to learn that the 52-year-old activist had died. Her death rocked China’s fledgling rights community.
The Chinese mission’s Ren said Cao refused medical treatment. She was barred from traveling because she organized protests outside the foreign ministry, said Ren. “By gathering so many people to provoke that trouble and make social disorder,” Ren said, “she had already violated the law.”
In March last year, China blocked a request by NGOs for a minute’s silence at the U.N. in Geneva to commemorate Cao’s death. One Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said China successfully used its economic leverage to convince countries to oppose the idea.
“This gave China a new level of confidence about what they can do (at the rights council) if their core interests are at risk,” said the diplomat, who has observed Chinese officials snapping pictures of NGO members.
Beijing also exerts pressure on the U.N. to deny accreditation to high-profile activists outside China.
Two U.N. officials, who spoke on condition they not be named, said Beijing regularly urges the U.N. to bar at least 10 activists from attending the Human Rights Council sessions. Beijing brands these people as “splittists, terrorists or criminals,” one of the officials said.
Those on Beijing’s black list, the officials said, include the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and two leaders of the World Uyghur Congress, Dolkun Isa and Rebiya Kadeer. The most recent instance was ahead of September’s council session, they said.
The two U.N. officials said the organization tells Beijing that these activists do not pose a security threat. This year, Isa said he attended sessions in March, June and September, but Kadeer did not.
Ren said China sends a “note verbale,” or diplomatic communication, to the council when it sees that Kadeer or Isa are attending. China has evidence that the World Uyghur Congress is linked to terrorist activity and this constitutes a “threat for the Council,” he said. Council spokesman Gomez said the U.N. had “never prevented” the Uighur body from attending meetings in Geneva. The Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority that resides largely in western China.
The U.N. takes measures to protect some China critics. Isa of the World Uyghur Congress said he was shadowed by a U.N. guard during his visit to the council in October 2013, when China was under scrutiny as part of a periodic review of its rights record. Two veteran U.N. security guards confirmed that Isa is one of the Chinese activists who are regularly assigned special protection.
For those activists who make it to Geneva, the Chinese state is never far away. Besides Golog Jigme, seven other activists who have spoken out against human rights abuses in China told Reuters they have also been photographed without their consent at the council.
A foreign passport is no protection. Ti-Anna Wang, a Canadian citizen, is the 26-year-old daughter of jailed Chinese dissident Wang Bingzhang. She said she was unnerved in March 2014 when an official from the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture, one of Beijing’s GONGOS, photographed her during a meeting of the council.
“He had a tablet that was hidden inside his jacket and the camera part was pointing out,” Wang said.
The Tibetan culture association describes itself as an NGO. But according to its website, many of its top executives are also government or Communist Party officials. In 2010, Jia Qinglin, then a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, China’s supreme ruling body, told the association’s members that they had to “expose and criticize the reactionary nature of the Dalai (Lama) clique splitting the motherland.”
Two letters reviewed by Reuters show that in Ti-Anna Wang’s case, the U.N. council took action.
According to a letter dated March 24, 2014, a Chinese delegate of the Tibetan association, Yao Yuan, had his accreditation revoked by the U.N. for taking the pictures. The lack of a response from China to that letter prompted a second letter two months later, saying that Yao’s badge and accreditation would “remain revoked until further notice.” Wang isn’t referred to by name in the letters, which were written on official U.N. stationery.
The China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture did not respond to questions about the incident.
Activists say China is sometimes using sheer numbers to stymie criticism. Ineichen, of the International Service for Human Rights, said he watched a Chinese diplomat “directing individuals who were posing as NGO staff, to basically occupy as many seats as possible,” at a review last year of China’s record on economic, social and cultural rights.
It was three hours before Golog Jigme was set to deliver his speech at a side event of the Human Rights Council session when he spotted Zhang photographing him in the Serpentine café. The café is situated two floors below the domed room where the council meets.
After snapping the picture, Zhang walked away and bought a sandwich, taking it outside to a terrace. The following day, as Zhang emerged from a council session, a Reuters reporter approached the Chinese diplomat and asked him about the incident. He denied photographing the Tibetan. Zhang said he was simply taking a panoramic shot of the space and was unaware it was against U.N. rules.
Zhang said he was based in Beijing but declined to give his title. He is listed as first secretary in the Department of International Organizations and Conferences in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to the roster of delegates for the Human Rights Council session that Beijing submitted to the U.N.
“I meant no harm,” Zhang said, taking out his phone and quickly swiping through the stored images. “I did not take his picture, I can definitely tell you.” He declined to show Reuters the images.
Ren offered a different explanation: “The Serpentine bar has a big glass window,” he said. “He might be taking the view of Mont Blanc. Who knows? I mean, there happened to be a monk sitting there.”
In Geneva, Golog Jigme was the first to speak at the side event. Two Chinese diplomats and a representative from a Chinese GONGO were in the audience. The monk described how he was detained and tortured.
The State Council Information Office in Beijing did not respond to questions about Golog Jigme’s arrest or his allegations of torture.
After Golog Jigme spoke, rights activists followed with speeches criticizing China’s treatment of Tibetans, Uighurs and ethnic Mongolians.
The moderator then called for questions. Liu Huawen, a representative from an organization called the China Society for Human Rights Studies, raised his hand.
“We should not just talk about your story, but we better have solid evidence and resources and information,” Liu said in a challenge to the monk’s account. Other countries also deprive criminals of political rights, Liu said.
Founded in 1993, the China Society for Human Rights Studies describes itself as the “largest national NGO in the field of human rights in China.” It’s headed by Luo Haocai, a former vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top parliamentary advisory body.
Liu told Reuters he did not have much contact with the Chinese mission in Geneva. “We are not so stupid as to bully minorities,” he said.
Edited by Peter Hirschberg and David Lague.