Moderator China Program, Human Rights Weekend / De Balie, Amsterdam

Expert talk about Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and screening of the documentary film Leftover Women.



DEAR FRIENDS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WELCOME   to the China program of the 8th edition of the Human Rights Weekend.


My name is Jan van der Putten. I’m a former correspondent in France, Latin America, Italy and China for de Volkskrant and other media outlets, and speaker and writer about all things China.


Today we cannot talk about China without speaking about the Corona virus epidemic, which has paralyzed the country and until today has made at least 722 fatal victims, but probably much more. We express sadness for their passing away. We hope the infected persons will soon be cured and that the outbreak can be brought quickly under control. Sadly, the epidemic has unleashed a wave of anti-Chinese racism all over the world. The world has to realize that Chinese people are not the enemies; the virus is. Let’s hope that the Chinese authorities will understand that lack of transparency, censorship, lies, witch-hunts of possibly infected people, and persecution of whistleblowers are completely counterproductive. Two days ago the exiled activist Chen Guangcheng wrote: ‘The Chinese Communist Party has once again proved that authoritarianism is dangerous – not just for human rights but also for public health.’ The Party leaders have to prove that he is wrong. If not, they’ll probably lose their legitimacy.


The China story of the last forty years is about unparalleled economic growth, about massive poverty reduction which lifted 840 million persons out of deprivation, about China’s return as a global power with an assertive presence all over the world. It is also the story of wishful thinking about China’s westernization and democratization, and respect for the rule of law and human rights.


Human rights in China. China’s interpretation of human rights is very different from the western one. Throughout Chinese history, individual rights were never held in high esteem by the authorities. For the Communist Party, human rights are fundamentally social rights in fields like housing, food, health, education, jobs. Individual human rights and universal values should be equally important, but in China they are seen as western values, for which is no place in a totalitarian system and an Orwellian surveillance state.


For human rights activists there is no place in China. They and their lawyers are considered as subversive forces, and treated as such. The reports of foreign human rights organizations are characterized as lies and interference in China’s domestic affairs. For example, the 2020 World Report of Human Rights Watch, that was published last month, would reflect ‘the hypocrisy and deep ignorance of arrogant Western elites who cannot give an objective assessment of other countries' situations’. The report includes an essay highlighting the deteriorating human rights situation in China, which is now a global threat to human rights development. The report should have been presented in Hong Kong by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth, but he was denied entry to the city by the Chinese government.


Our PROGRAM consists of two parts. The second part is the Dutch premiere of the documentary Leftover Women, but first we have an expert talk about pressing human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang Province.


I am glad to WELCOME YAQIU WANG. She is a China Researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York. Yaqiu has a master’s degree in International Affairs from George Washington University. Her articles appeared in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, China Brief, ChinaFile, and other publications.


  1. Before zooming into Hong Kong and Xinjiang: What is the current situation in Wuhan? You yourself have said that the virus crisis is now a human rights crisis. Are people angry with the government’s handling of the crisis? Do you think the epidemic will weaken the Communist Party’s grip over China?

  2. Looking at the broader picture of China in the world today: It seems like China is mastering a divide-and-conquer strategy. What should be the response of the world?


Hong Kong


Hong Kong was a small fisherman’s village when after the First Opium War in 1842 it became a colony of Great Britain. It was a global financial center and the ‘gateway to China’ when in 1997 it returned to China. It became an integral part of the People’s Republic, but with a high degree of autonomy. During fifty years Hong Kong would maintain its way of life. The city never had free democratic elections. Its system was a kind of mix between freedom and authoritarianism, anyway very different from the mainland’s system. The democratic aspects of Hong Kong’s system were freedom of press, of association, assembly and religion, and most importantly independence of the judíciary. This arrangement is called One country, two systems. Two years after the handover of Hong Kong, the same principle was applied when the former Portuguese colony of Macau was handed over to China.

One country, two systems was originally designed for Taiwan, which, however, never accepted the formula – and still less after everything that recently happened in Hong Kong. The repressive actions of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government were decisive for the reelection, last November, of Taiwan’s pro-independence president Tsai Ing-wen.

Some in the West imagined already that the Hong Kong model would be an example for the People’s Republic. Wishful thinking. Quite the opposite is occurring: the mainland leaders are trying to impose their authoritarian system to Hong Kong.



  1. Can you explain us why it is so important that we pay attention to
    what is happening now in Hong Kong?

  2. Can you shortly describe the escalation of China’s influence in Hong Kong?

  3. Is there some truth in the Chinese government’s position saying that the uprising is the work of terrorists and interfering foreign powers that want an independent Hong Kong?  

  4. Everyone is wondering: What’s next? Does the democracy movement

in Hong Kong have a shot? Is a military Chinese invasion possible?




Xinjiang is a province in the North Western part of China, in the heart of Central Asia. It’s China largest province, as big as Western Europe. Most of it is desert, semi-desert and mountain, with only less than 10 percent fit for human settlement. 60 percent of the 24 million inhabitants are Muslims. Apart from the Han Chinese immigrants there are 14 ethnical groups and most of them, some 11 million persons, are Uighur. This is a Turkic language speaking people with very deep roots in history. Before they became Muslim, they were Christian. One of them, the monk Rabban Sauma, who lived in a city which is now Beijing, was the first known person from China to travel to Europe, where he met kings, emperors and the Pope, at the same time that Marco Polo arrived at the Chinese imperial court.

In the 18th century Xinjiang was conquered by the Qing dynasty. The Communist Party claims that Xinjiang was always a part of China, although the name itself, Xinjiang, means ‘New Frontier’.

Xinjiang was twice, for a very short time, an independent state, with the name East Turkestan. Some Uighur want regain their independence, the majority wants real autonomy. For China, both demands are out of question. Why? First there is the axiom about the indivisibility of the country, and second, Xinjiang is of crucial importance for China for its oil and gas and for its location near the Muslim states of Central Asia and on the New Silk Road, China’s pharaonic project of global economic expansion. Discrimination against the Uighur and increasing settlement of Han Chinese provoked resistance, followed by an escalating process of repression and more resistance, sometimes in a very violent way. The repression took more and more the form of cultural genocide, with its brainwashing camps and its massive digital surveillance. Let’s watch this video:


Human Rights Watch September 2018 video “China: Muslims Repressed, Monitored”



  1. This video is from September 2018. Has there been any improvement for Uyghurs in Xinjiang in the meantime? Is it true that many of them are now being transferred to factories to do forced labor?

  2. When it comes to the Uyghurs, the Chinese government is reiterating the need to eradicate terrorism. Do they have a point in some way?


 I want to ask Mirali Seley to come on stage. Mirali is a Dutch Uyghur living in the Netherlands.

  1. Mirali, your parents have lived for over 30 years in Xinjiang, you’ve spent your first 6 years there and since moving to Netherlands, you and your family have been actively fighting for the rights of the Uyghur people in China. What does it mean for you to be an Uyghur?

  2. And what is that you, but also we, can do from here to make a difference?


Now we pass to the second part of our program: the Dutch premiere of Leftover Women, a documentary film from 2019 made by the Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia.


‘Leftover women’ is an old Chinese expression, indicating women who at the age of 27 are still not married. Nowadays, the term includes educated, cosmopolitan women who at their mid-twenties are not married and settled.

The expression underscores the fact that China has always been a very patriarchal society. Confucius already spoke about the submissive role of women. A woman had always to obey her husband and even her adult sons. Her tasks of a woman were to get children, preferentially boys, and take care for the family. To give birth as soon as possible was an urgent matter, as the medium lifespan was short and infant mortality high. Women without children were seen as pitiful beings, exactly like childless couples and homosexuals. They are a dead branch of the family tree and are a disgrace for the ancestors, denying them the offspring who could worship them.


In the last decades many things in China have changed. Many women have a job and make a career, but the old biases are very tough. And the clock is even turned back. China is becoming old and grey because of the now abolished one-child policy and the rising cost of living. For a shrinking population there is no room in the Chinese Dream of Xi Jinping. Therefore he wants to push women into marriage and have them at least two babies. And therefore the government has started a shaming campaign against those who are now officially called ‘leftover women’. Let’s watch the movie about them.


zaterdag 08 februari 2020

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