Corona lawfare by the US against China: a useful remedy or an unhelpful distraction?

In essence, this text is an opinion statement. However, in view of the gravity of the issue, we are placing it on the landing page of our site

On April 21st, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt initiated proceedings in federal District Court against the People’s Republic of China and some of its entities, such as National Health Commission, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the local governments of Hubei and Wuhan.[1] While relying on a 47-page complaint, General Schmitt is seeking recovery for the loss of life, human suffering and economic turmoil resulting from the COVID-19 virus as experienced by Missourians. According to General Schmitt, the Corona pandemic was caused by a failure to act by the Chinese authorities. 

The Missouri case is one of several such cases, including class actions, which have been brought in the US against China. The state of Mississippi has since joined the Missouri case. It is unlikely to be successful for the following reasons:  

First, the evidence mainly consists of US media reports which do not contain any views expressed by the Chinese side. Apart from a few Wechat messages, the complaint also does not refer to original Chinese sources. This amounts to hearsay, which is not admissible as evidence under Rule 802 of Federal Rule of Evidence. 

Second, foreign states, like China, enjoy sovereign immunity in US Courts under the US Foreign Government Immunities Act and in accordance with international law. General Schmitt has tried to circumvent this bar in three ways:

1. The complaint listed the Communist Party of China as a defendant, while claiming that “the Communist Party is not an organ or political subdivision of the PRC, nor is it owned by the PRC or a political subdivision of the PRC, and thus it is not protected by sovereign immunity”.[2]

This position is contrary to international law, according to which state immunity extends to all organs, components, and entities of the state, which, of course, also includes the Communist Party. 

Furthermore, the Secretary General of the Communist Party also serves as the head of state, who by definition enjoys the protection of state immunity. The actions challenged in the Missouri complaint are all attributable, either directly or indirectly, to the President of China. 

2. In addition, the complaint has invoked the commercial activities exception to sovereign immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(2) by claiming that the conduct which allegedly caused the pandemic was commercial in nature. These commercial activities allegedly included the operation of the Chinese healthcare system; commercial research on viruses conducted by the Wuhan Institute and the Chinese Academy of Sciences; the operation of traditional and social media platforms for commercial gain; and the production, purchasing and import and export of medical equipment.[3]

The complaint fails to identify which specific activities performed by which entity or entities should be characterised as ‘commercial activities’ within the meaning of this provision. Instead, it limits itself to making sweeping and generalised statements and therefore it does not meet the legal requirements of § 1605(a)(2).[4]

Since the complaint fails to identify concrete activities, it cannot be established whether these activities meet the test developed by the US Supreme Court in Verlinden B.V. v. Central Bank of Nigeria,[5] according to which a foreign state engages in commercial activities when it exercises powers that can also be exercised by private citizens. 

Missouri invokes the third clause of § 1605(a)(2) which confers jurisdiction over actions that are “based upon … an act outside the territory of the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere that causes a direct effect in the United States”. It fails to demonstrate which direct effects the activities it described in general terms may have had in the United States. In Republic of Argentina v. Weltover,[6] the US Supreme Court stated that in order to be ‘direct’ the effect must follow as an immediate consequence of the foreign state’s activity. Missouri has not showed that the activities it listed did have direct effects in the US which could be characterised as the immediate consequences of activities performed by China or its instrumentalities. Furthermore, since all activities complained of took place within China they are covered by the Act of State doctrine, according to which states enjoy immunity for acts performed within their territory. The importance of this doctrine was recognized by the US Supreme Court in Underhill v. Hernandez,[7] where Chief Justice Fuller for a unanimous Court stated that “the courts of one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another, done within its own territory.”

Therefore, the Act of State doctrine provides China with immunity for all ‘commercial’ acts referred to by Missouri. 

3. Finally, Missouri has invoked the tortious conduct exception laid down in § 1605(a)(5) by claiming that the activities which allegedly caused the pandemic amounted to torts occurring in the US. It has not identified any damage or loss of property which resulted from the acts that were listed in the complaint, let alone demonstrated that those occurred in the United States, to which § 1605(a)(5) is limited, according to the Supreme Court in Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess Shipping Corp.[8]

Third, in the unlikely case that the Court would refuse to grant China immunity, the claim would face insurmountable barriers at the merits stage. Thus, the complaint clearly interferes with US foreign policy towards China, which currently amounts to a balancing act involving highly sensitive trade negotiations, and is therefore bound to be declared a non-justiciable political question. Courts traditionally address executive decisions taken in the realm of foreign relations with deference.[9]

Furthermore, the outbreak of the Corona virus, which was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the WHO, is covered by the defence of force majeure, or alternatively, the defences of necessity and distress, which absolve China from state responsibility.  

In the meantime Republican Senator Tom Cotton (Arkansas) and Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw (Texas) have introduced legislation to amend the Foreign Government Immunities Act, which, if enacted, would deprive China of immunity in Covid-19 cases.[10] This it would do with retroactive effect to January 1st, 2020, while it would also apply to cases which are already pending, such as the suit brought by Missouri. Congress is prohibited from passing such ex post facto laws by Article 1 § 9 of the US Constitution. In addition, even if a later act can set aside an earlier act under the lex posteriorrule, it cannot revoke the Act of State doctrine, because it has constitutional underpinnings. This was made clear by Justice Harlan for an almost unanimous US Supreme Court in Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino.[11] Justice Harlan emphasised that the separation of powers prescribes the immunity of foreign states for acts performed within their territory. Since the Act of State doctrine has its 

basis in the Constitution, it can only be set aside or amended through a Constitutional amendment and not through an Act of Congress. 

It will be clear from the above, that these initiatives will go nowhere. However, it should be borne in mind that the cases have not been brought to achieve victory in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion. They are meant to discredit China in order to draw attention away from the handling of the corona pandemic by US authorities in view of the November elections. Therefore, the cases are not part of regular litigation but of lawfare. To beat the virus, close cooperation across borders is necessary. Lawfare is not going to help. 

Tom Zwart: Professor of Cross-cultural Law, Utrecht University, Director of the Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Qinxuan Peng: Researcher, China Top Think Tank-Wuhan University Institute of International law


2 Par. 19 of the Complaint. 

3 Par. 40 of the Complaint.

4 Hoban v Sovereign Republic of Peru, 204 F. Supp. 3d 1368 (S.D. Fla. 2016); Harris v Vao Intourist, Moscow, 481 F Supp 1056 (1979, ED NY).

5 461 U.S. 480, 10 S.Ct. 1962, 76 L.Ed.2d 81 (1983).

6 504 U.S. 607, 112 S.Ct. 2160, 119 L.Ed.2d 394 (1992).

7 168 U.S. 250, 18 S.Ct. 83, 42 L.Ed. 456 (1897).

8 488 U.S. 428, 109 S.Ct. 683, 102 L.Ed. 2d 818 (1989).

9 E.g. Regan v. Wald, 468 U.S. 222, 104 S.Ct. 3026, 82 L.Ed.2d 171 (1984).


11 376 U.S. 398, 84 S.Ct. 923, 11 L.Ed 2d 804 (1964).

CCHRC participates in “Guaranteeing the Right to Life in Epidemic Prevention and Control” Conference

CCHRC’s Peter Peverelli has participated in the conference on “Guaranteeing the Right to Life in Epidemic Prevention and Control” organized by the Human Rights Institute, Southwest University of Political Science and Law, May 9, 2020. The Chongqing-based participants attended physically, while those from other parts of China or abroad participated online. The conference was an overall success, in terms of richness of content and from a technological perspective. The screen shot shows how well the physical and virtual participants could interact.

Screen shot made during the conference

CCHRC has reported on some of the public discussions about the various ways governments are trying to cope with the COVID-19 epidemic that have been going on our New/opinion page. The May 9 conference was the first international academic conference discussing a broad spectrum of political and philosophical aspects of the impact of a pandemic as the world is experiencing right now.

The remainder of this item is a summary of the topics discusses kindly provided by the Human Rights Institute.

The May 9 conference was the first meeting in a series of international seminars on “Global epidemic prevention and control and human rights protection”, under the guidance of China Society for Human Rights Studies, featuring “Guaranteeing the right to life in epidemic prevention and control”. The conference consists of two topics, “The value hierarchy and legal protection of the right to life” and “Guaranteeing the right to life of vulnerable groups in the context of the epidemic”. COVID-19 is undoubtedly the first worldwide catastrophe that mankind has faced together. The reason why we call it a catastrophe is it will take countless fresh lives.

Facing such an unprecedented epidemic, to save the lives of those who are helpless is the primary task that all human should work for. Fifteen experts and scholars from five countries attended the conference, which provided an in-depth discussion on six issues, including the concept of “life first”, the nature of the right to life, the balancing of the right to life and other rights, the protection of vulnerable groups, the positive responsibility of governments and scientific prevention of the virus. While this meeting brought together the above-mentioned consensus, the participating scholars also offered some wonderful understandings from their respective fields.

I. With regard to the first subtopic, “The value hierarchy and legal protection of the right to life”, the professors have discussed from different perspectives.

1. The common position of human society for “life first”

According to Professor Han Dayuan of Renmin University of China, the so-called supremacy of life means that the value of life is higher than everything else, and life is the measure of all things, and there is nothing in the world more precious than life. Professor Zhuo Zeyuan at the Central Party School believes that epidemic prevention and control must be aimed at maximizing the protection of life. According to Professor Qi Yanping at Beijing Institute Of Technology, advocating that the right to life is paramount and essential to the cultivation of humanity, the promotion of ethics and the identification of the way for development. Professor He Zhipeng at Jilin University believes that, in the broader society of the future, respecting life and health and prioritizing these rights in situations where the life and health of social groups and the individual’s own claims are in conflict is an effective means to protect human rights more practically. Professor Cheng Zhimin at Hainan University argues that the attention we have paid to the right to life so far is not in place, and that perhaps too much attention has been paid to rights that appear to be more advanced, while ignoring the basis or ontological significance of the right to life.

Professor Liu Huawen at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences believes that the right to life and health is not a simple human right and needs to be given higher attention and protection. Professor Li Zhongxia at Shandong University believes that the right to life as a fundamental right is the foundation of the constitution, the highest fundamental right, and is related to human dignity. Prof. Zhang Yonghe, a professor at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, believes that we must value the life of each individual, which is about the bottom line of humanity, and if we cannot keep this bottom line, we will not be a real human.

2. The right to life, not just a negative right

According to Professor Chang Jian of Nankai University, the right to life must not be understood only in a negative sense, but should be further extended to a positive sense. Professor Han Dayuan at Renmin University of China believes that in modern society, the right to life cannot depend only on the right to freedom, but needs to be realized through the active function of the state. According to Qi Yanping, a professor at Beijing Institute of Technology, in this battle against the epidemic, it is clear that the right to life, which needs to be discussed, must be discussed in the context of the universal connection and balance of social conditions. According to Professor He Zhipeng at Jilin University, if we refer to the theory of natural rights, it could not explain the arbitrariness of people’s actions or errors of judgment, especially the perception of their actions’ consequences, which may put themselves and society in danger. Zhang Han, a PhD candidate at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, believes that the criteria for classifying positive and negative rights are not absolute, and we cannot just focus on the negative obligations of the state, but must also require the state to fulfill its positive obligations.

3. Active responsibilities of the government 

Jayanath Colombage, Director of Pathfinder Foundation of Sri Lanka Center for Indo-Lankan Initiative and Law of the Sea discussed the relationship between the government and the right to life. He believes that the Sri Lankan government and the Chinese government have many similarities in understanding the right to life. The Sri Lankan government also follows the concept of “the right to life first” to formulate anti-epidemic measures. Professor Han Dayuan at Renmin University of China believes that the right to life is a right with legal effect, which on the one hand creates the obligation of the State to protect citizens’ right to life and on the other hand provides positive conditions for the protection of the right to life. Prof. Cheng Zhimin at Hainan University believes that life is not just being, but well-being, it must be a good life. The government’s inaction actually violates the social contract it is supposed to assume and results in a zero-sum game.

According to Professor Zhuo Zeyuan at the Central Party School, the government’s compulsory measures to protect people’s right to life in the epidemic, are just a guarantee of the right to life for the each person in the society, as well as the right to life of others. Professor Liu Huawen at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences believes that China’s current epidemic prevention work has achieved a stage-by-stage victory and has two distinct characteristics: “people-centered” and “scientific prevention and control, according to law”. Zhang Han, a PhD candidate at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, believes that the state only performs its duties in the sense that it does not violate the “right to life”, which in fact does not fully perform its obligations, so we still needs to ensure the people’s minimum material supplies through positive actions in order that they can maintain the life they are all entitled to.

II. The second sub-topic, “Guaranteeing the right to life of vulnerable groups in the context of the epidemic”, was discussed from a different perspective by the professors.

1. Protection of vulnerable groups in epidemic prevention and control 

According to Professor Zhuo Zeyuan at the Central Party School, there is a complex structural relationship between the right to life of individuals and the right to life of others. The right to life of every human being is not something that can be exercised or enjoyed arbitrarily for the sake of the lives of family members, neighbours, colleagues and strangers.Christian MESTRE, Honorary Dean & Professor at University of Strasbourg,from a legal approach, believes that the protection of vulnerable groups in epidemic prevention and control must focus on the shortcomings of their ability to withstand aggression, while Muhammad Naseem, Director of University of Lahore Center for Sustainability Research and Practice, believes that the epidemic prevention policy in Pakistan faces a complex situation. There are many types of social groups. How to protect their right to life is an important part of epidemic prevention and control.

Professor Chang Jian at Nankai University believes that under the epidemic, the protection of vulnerable groups mustnot only be based on established rules, but also increase the supply of needed resources. Professor Han Dayuan at Renmin University of China believes that the words and ideas of “life is priceless, life is equal and life is dignified” should be reflected in the concrete practice of preventing and combating epidemics. 

There is no difference in the value of life from a freshly born baby to a 100+ year old person. According to Professor Qi Yanping at Beijing University of Technology, it is actually a matter of choice between the critically ill patients. To choose one necessarily means to give up another’s right to life, and the choices available here are often fraught with contradictions. Professor Qian Jinyu at Northwest University of Political Science and Law believes that in the context of large-scale urbanization, the primary task and key to the prevention and control of the corona virus epidemic is to ensure that the prevention and control of urban epidemics is effective and the right to survival and security of the urban vulnerable groups can be guaranteed.

Professor Li Zhongxia at Shandong University believes that epidemic prevention and control may result in interventions on the right to life, such as abandonment of the elderly, treatment of patients with other diseases, etc., which need to be carefully weighed by the principle of proportionality. On this subject, Prof. Zhang Yonghe, a professor at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, believes that there is no way to draw a line between the weak and strong in terms of life. A civilized society is the one in which the weak can be best protected, and only if the weak can be equally protected, can anyone be expected to be protected as well.

2. Careful weighing of the conflict between the right to life and other human rights

Peter Peverelli of the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in Netherlands, argues that it may be difficult to resolve conflicts on fundamental rights among different cultures only standing at their own positions. According to Professor Han Dayuan at Renmin University of China, when the value of the right to life conflicts with other rights and freedom, China insists on the goal that life first and the right to life first, and has made tremendous investments regardless of the cost.

Professor Qi Yanping at Beijing Institute of Technology believes that life and the right to life are in a complex system supported and maintained by external resources, energy, systems and conditions, and that life and the right to life cannot be paramount when divested from this social system. Professor Chang Jian at Nankai University believes that under the special circumstances of a major epidemic, the protection of the right to life will face a series of conflicts, including conflicts between the protection of the right to life and other means of realizing human rights, conflicts with other means of realizing the public interest, and conflicts between different subjects and different stages of realization. Professor He Zhipeng at Jilin University believes that in the situation of rights conflict, human rights can be well protected only if they are ranked according to the fundamental, important and influential nature with scientific basis and careful consideration, which is scientifically proven, convincing to the public and truly effective in administrative services.

3. Scientific epidemic prevention

Professor Chang Jian at Nankai University believes that in the course of China’s fight against the corona virus epidemic, resources can be reasonably allocated and efficiently utilized through the establishment of a hierarchical and categorical management mechanism to reduce costs and expenses; the development of Internet technology provides many feasible alternatives to interpersonal communication in the field; and in order to resume production and livelihood activities in the context of the long-term prevention and control of the epidemic, China has established a regularized epidemic prevention and control mechanism. Professor Han Dayuan at Renmin University of China believes that the development of modern science and technology should be viewed rationally, and that science and technology is a double-edged sword in any case, bringing convenience to human beings on the one hand, and “disaster” to human life on the other, challenging human lifestyle and dignity. Professor Liu Huawen at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences believes that to scientifically understand and respond to the epidemic, fundamentally, it should be based on scientific understanding, not on ideology or political system.

In those presentations, we also found that there were different cultural perspectives, different views on life and different epidemic prevention and control measures.

1. Different dimensions of the “life first” concept

From a philosophical perspective, Professor Cheng Zhimin at Hainan University explores the ontological meaning and sociality of the right to life, and based on this, he proposes a demand for a political system. Prof. Han Dawuan at Renmin University of China and Prof. Li Zhongxia at Shandong University argue from the perspective of the right to life as a fundamental constitutional right. Professor He Zhipeng at Jilin University discusses the priority of “respect for life and health” from the perspective of conflicting rights. Professor Zhuo Zeyuan at the Central Party School discusses the meaning of the right to life from the perspective of epidemic prevention and control. I, on the other hand, explores what we should really think about humanity and life based on the commensurability of the two systems of rational perception of life. Professor Qi Yanping at Beijing Institute of Technology, starting from the legal arguments of the right to life, pointed out that in practice of the rule of law, the legitimacy of the right to life claim needs to be based on the normative logic and harmony.

2. Multiple attributes of the right to life

Peter Peverelli of the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in Netherlands explores the different approaches to the value of life between Sweden and China from a different cultural perspective, using the 7-Dimension Cultural Model. And Professor He Zhipeng at Jilin University believes that the right to life is under the theory of natural rights, there are certain misunderstandings. Professor Han Dayuan of Renmin University of China argues from the dichotomy between the “right to freedom” and the “right to society”. Qi Yanping, a professor at Beijing University of Technology, believes that in the theoretical discussion of the fight against the epidemic, it is clear that the primary and main focus is the treatment of biological life in a narrow sense. According to Professor Chang Jian of Nankai University, the right to life is, in a positive sense, the “right to live”. Zhang Han, a PhD candidate at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, believes that there is a certain “gulf” between the right to life and the right to subsistence.

3. Diversified protection of vulnerable groups

Professor Christian Meister of the University of Strasbourg, France, sheds light on the crisis of legal protection of vulnerable groups in the context of the epidemic, based on the shortcomings of their resistance to the virus. Professor Zhang Yonghe at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, based on the idea of equality of life for all, opposes the classification of the weak and the strong. Professor Chang Jian of Nankai University, on the other hand, discussed the protection of vulnerable groups from the perspective of resources supply. Professor Zhuo Zeyuan at the Central Party School, based on the social connection to the life of family, neighbours, colleagues and strangers, pointed out that the right to life of every person is not something that can be arbitrarily exercised or enjoyed. Professor Qi Yanping at Beijing Institute of Technology argues that the protection of vulnerable groups cannot be isolated from the mutual support of specific social conditions. Professor Qian Jinyu at Northwestern University of Political Science and Law argues that the discussion starts from the dilemma of large-scale urbanization governance. Professor Li Zhongxia at Shandong University, on the other hand, believes that the prevention and control of the epidemic may result in interference with the right to life, such as the abandonment of the elderly, the treatment of patients with other diseases, etc.

4. Cautiously inspecting epidemic preventive measures

A diversified society provides different perspectives for us to look at these issues. Prof. Li Zhongxia at Shandong University and Prof. Qian Jinyu at Northwest University of Political Science and Law, respectively, conducted researches on the guarantee of the right to life in epidemic prevention measures from the perspective of risk society and urban governance. Professor Liu Huawen at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for his part, viewed the epidemic from the perspective of “morality, law and nature”, arguing that the global spread of the epidemic posed a worldwide challenge and that the successful response to the epidemic depended on how to overcome the shortcomings in the fight against it. According to Professor Chang Jian of Nankai University, there are three pathways to resolving conflicts over the right to life in major epidemics: a rules-based pathway can provide a prioritization of rights and interests, a resource-based pathway can provide the resource conditions needed to resolve these conflicts, and a mechanism-based pathway can provide an integrated solution that takes into account rights and interests. Professor Qi Yanping at Beijing University of Technology argues that the legitimacy of the claim on realistic right to life does not lie in its abstract and absolute priority, but in its reasonable acceptability arising from its mutual support with specific social conditions and its logical self-consistency within the legal framework.

Overall, this discussion has elicited so many reflections, both theoretically and in practice, that contribute to the discussions about guaranteeing the right to life. The epidemic is not over, nor is our thinking about life. At this time when all mankind is living together, we need to join hands to fight the epidemic, and there are still many issues in epidemic prevention and control that deserve our consideration. Our discussions have just begun and we are looking forward to the next seminar. However, in spite of the success of this conference, we are looking forward to the next time we can all meet in person again and interchange formal discussions with informal one during the breaks, lunches and dinners.

CGTN, the international edition of China Central Television also covered this conference.

CCHRC’s Peter Peverelli discusses culture at the School of Law of Central South University

Dr. Peverelli, on invitation by Prof. Mao Junxiang, held a guest lecture at the Law School of Central South University in Changsha, Hunan Province, China on January 7. He talked about his ongoing project to make Fons Trompenaars’ 7-D(imensions) Model, that has been developed for cross-cultural business, applicable to cross-cultural human rights issues. Peverelli has lectured about this work at seminars in China and Europe. This time in Changsha, Prof. Mao had organised a more informal session with a group of his PhD candidates and colleagues during which he could discuss the model on the basis of recent events in non-Western countries that have been criticised by Western governments and NGOs as non-complient with the UDHR. Peverelli’s central proposition was that most discussions about culture and human rights held so far share one major weakness: they lack an academic model of culture. As a result, the discussions seem to repeat themselves, without making much progress. With the 7-D model, we can calculate the cultural profile, i.e. the set of basic assumption people use to make sense of the world. We can then compare any two or more cultures and pinpoint on which dimensions they are more different or similar. This can explain the different interpretations between cultures about concepts like rights, obligations, freedom and other key concepts related to human rights. The insight thus gained can be the key to breaking open the above-mentioned stand-off in the academic and political discussions about human rights.

Update 3/8/2021

Dr Peverelli has in the mean time published his co-authored book ‘Has China Devised a Superior Path to Wealth Creation? The Role of Secular Values‘. This book analyses every aspect of China in terms of its unique set of basic cultural values.

CCHRC’s Tom Zwart interviewed by CGTN

During the 2019 South South Human Rights Forum held earlier in December, Tom Zwart of CCHRC was interviewed by the China Global Television Network, or CGTN, as part of the regular column Dialogue. Prof. Zwart’s partner in this dialogue was Prof. Shi Anbin of the School of Journalism and Communication of Tsinghua University. The dialogue has been uploaded on Youtube.

On the CGTN web site, you can see parts of a similar dialogue with Prof. Zhang Wanhong from the School of Law at Wuhan University held during the first South South Human Rights Forum in 2017.

CCHRC participates in the 2019 South-South Human Rights Forum

The 2019 South-South Human Rights Forum was held in Beijing on Tuesday. Over 300 officials and scholars from more than 80 countries, regions and international organizations are attending the two-day forum. Under the theme—“diversity of civilizations and global development of human rights,” the forum is hosted by the State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The CCHRC participated with a large delegation, including the participants of the seminar in Changsha held two days earlier (see previous item). Parallel sessions were held on:

  • Path of Human Rights Development under the Background of the Diversity of Civilization;
  • Building a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind and Global Human Rights Governance;
  • The Right to Development; The Belt and Road Initiative Promotes the Realization of the 2030 Agenda;
  • China’s Contribution to Global Human Rights Cause since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China

The number of participating nations was considerably larger than during the first South South Forum of 2017. The entire global south was represented, with the most prominent representation from African nations. Delegates were typically senior government advisors, including a number of former state ministers.

A clear development could also be seen in the contents of the speeches. Those of 2017 were still relatively general, emphasising the rights of the southern nations. Several of this year’s contributions were specifically criticising former colonial powers and the attitude of Western nations, in particular the US. Very outspoken was the address Mr Mushahid Hussain Sayed, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Pakistan Senate, who blasted recent US criticism on China’s anti-terrorist policies in Xinjiang. This view is consistent with the views vented by Pakistani representatives to the UN as reported in the News/opinions page of our site. Another conspicuous speech was that by Ms Bouthania Shaaban, Political and Media Advisor of the Syrian president, who directly blamed the US for the suffering of so many Syrians during the past few years. These are all opinions virtually banned in Western media.

The importance of the Right to Development was another topic shared in many contributions to both the plenary and parallel sessions.

Prof. Wim Janse of the Faculty of Theology of the Vrije Universiteit and member of the CCHRC delegation was interviewed by CCTV, you can see (a Chinese version of) that interview here.

Prof. Wim Janse of VU Amsterdam interviewed by CCTV

This was the second time that this bi-annual event was held. For more information, see the web site of the Forum.

CCHRC co-organises Seminar in Changsha, China

The CCHRC, jointly with the Central South University Human Rights Center, the National High-Level Think Tank Wuhan University Institute of International Law, has organised the International Seminar on International Human Rights Mechanisms from a Cross-cultural Perspective in Changsha, China on December 8, 2019. The seminar was attended by appr. 70 participants from all continents. The papers presented at the seminar were grouped under four main topics:

  • Global Human Rights Governance from a Cross cultural Perspective
  • Building a Global Community of Shared Future and Global Human Rights Governance
  • Developing Countries and International Human Rights Mechanisms
  • Western Countries’ Human Rights Diplomacy Trend and International Human Rights Mechanisms
  • Reform of International Human Rights Mechanisms from a Cross cultural Perspective

A salient feature of the CCHRC delegation to this seminar was the high number of young scholars, for several of whom this was their first visit to China.

A diverse group of scholars with a shared interest in cross-cultural human rights

Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus visits the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre

On Friday 7 November the Dutch Justice & Security minister, Ferdinand Grapperhaus, visited the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre.

The minister delivered the opening speech during the conference entitled ‘Wrongful convictions, an international concern’, which the centre co-organised together with the European Innocence Network and the Knoops Innocence Project.

International human rights

During the conference attention was paid to the question how international human rights can be used to prevent wrongful convictions and to overturn them. Minister Grapperhaus stressed that preventing and overturning wrongful convictions is part of the right to a fair trial, as guaranteed by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The minister emphasised that the criminal justice system is being run by people, which means that human error is inevitable. Therefore, innocence projects are an important part of providing justice. Some of the speakers called for the recognition of a ‘right to innocence’ at the international human rights level.


The conference was attended by 120 participants from all over the world. Among them were many lawyers and academics who are involved in innocence projects aimed at overturning wrongful convictions. Those included Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, who set up the very first Innocence Project in 1992 at Cardozo Law School in the US. The floor was also given to some of those whose convictions have been overturned. Two of them, Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle, were exonerated only a few days before they were supposed to be executed.

Li Bin and Yolanda Chu, two lawyers working at the Dong Fang Law Firm in Beijing, were the guests of honour. Dong Fang is the most important and the oldest public interest law firm in China, which defends the rights of those who have been wrongfully convicted. Dong Fang Law Firm is a partner of the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre. Li Bin and Yolanda Chu discussed some successful attempts to rectify miscarriages of justice.

Interdisciplinary cooperation

Dr Jasper van Kempen of the Law Faculty delivered a presentation on the activities of the Gerede Twijfel (Reasonable Doubt) project which researches potential miscarriages of justice. Prof. Tom Zwart and Dr Congrui Qiao of the centre reflected on measures taken recently in China to strengthen the rule of law and to prevent miscarriages of justice.

Presentation on Criminal Defence Practicing in China

On 7th November, 2019, the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre invited Dr. Bin Li and Ms. Yolanda Chu to give a presentation on the topic of law practicing in China. Both speakers are attorneys at the Dongfang Law Firm in Beijing. Professor G.J. Alexander Knoops added his response from the perspective of European Legal System. Professor Tom Zwart and other Dutch-based scholars attended the meeting.

 Mr. Li kicked off his speech by a brief introduction about criminal cases’ new features in China. Firstly, the standards for approving the arrest have become strict. Such move attempts to reduce the risk of miscarriage of justice from the very beginning, protecting the right to liberty. And the acquittal rate has kept a decreasing trend. On the other hand, along with the economic  development and the change of criminal policies, the authorities have taken a tough stance against certain crimes. This includes, organised crimes, pollution crimes, and financial crimes.


 Then three cases were selected to elaborate some challenges lawyers encountered in practice. One concerns a case of contract killings, in which six suspects were involved. The first defendant, a real estate developer, initiated the murder mission, which was subsequently assigned to another defendant until the last one finally dropped the mission. The last suspect made a phone call to the target, attempting to make a deal with him, and this was how the plot was found out. However, due to some illegalities when collecting evidence by the police, the court excluded the testimony of suspects and an important evidence, the cell phone. Without the communication records and content, the relationship between six defendants was difficult to be identified, and the court therefore acquitted them. Not until the second appeal made by the prosecutors did the court finally admit the cell phone as evidence, and found the six defendants guilty.

In criminal cases, it is unusual that the court refuses resolutely the admission of evidence on the basis of the illegalities. Instead, the common practice is rather more like this: If the defence lawyer argues about exclusion of illegal evidence, the prosecutors will submit a statement from the investigators, stating that the evidence in question was acquired in accordance with the law. As a result, the court is usually in favour of the prosecutors, based on the reason that the defendant fails to prove his argument. However, in the instance case, the court somehow changed the usual practice, and excluded a critical evidence which could determine the result of final conviction. As the victim’s lawyer, Mr. Li held that the due process should not be abused to criminalise the innocent, nor let the criminals slip away. The exclusion of illegal evidence demands further clear rules for implementation, in order to prevent rent seeking of the judiciary.

     The second case is related to the loan fraud,  which triggered both criminal and civil lawsuits at the same time. A major problem the case showed is which lawsuit shall get the priority. The court is accustomed to dealing with criminal crimes before the civil disputes. However, in the instance case, even the “victim”, the bank, preferred the case to be trialled as a civil one, because it believed this was a better way to get the money back.

     Currently, China has not had regulations to define the criminal-civil overlapping cases, nor the principles to deal with such cases. As the defendant lawyer of the case, Mr. Li argued that when facing such cases, the criminal crimes did not necessarily prevail over the civil disputes. In certain circumstances, the choice should be made on the basis of such considerations: which would be a better protection of litigant’s interests, and which could solve the disputes in a more justice and effective way.

     When it comes to the third case, it invokes the question of defining crimes and illegal acts. The case concerns a company’s insurance defrauding by using false materials. Mr. Li represented the accused company, and made his arguments based on two points. First, the company found out its agent’s making up materials and reported it immediately to the insurance company. Second, because of the company’s report, the accused did not get the money based on the false claim. However, the prosecutors used the illegal sanctions issued by the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission as the evidence to support the charge of insurance fraud crime.

     In the instance case, because of the overlaps between the crimes and illegal acts, it is evitable to take reference from those illegal acts of the accused, and thus make impacts on the judicial judgement. However, the defence lawyers shall not give up on this. In spite of the overlaps, the authorities’ decisions on the illegal sanctions do not necessarily determine whether the acts in question are crimes. Bearing this in mind, when facing such kind of cases, the lawyers should analyse the situation objectively and in a detail way. When resorting to some flexibility and creativity, it may find some new defence points.

    Mr. Knoops made comparisons with cases overlapping criminal and civil fields in the Netherlands. Such cases usually are tackled in two ways. One option is the victim may add his or her compensation claim to the criminal proceedings, and the court will make the judgment of the conviction as well as the compensation. The other option is similar to the case mentioned by Mr. Li, that it would become a choice between civil or criminal lawsuit. Furthermore, Mr. Knoops elaborated the exclusionary rule and its implementation in Europe.

     Mr. Zwart added his comments on the terrorism cases in the Netherlands. The Dutch government also faces problems of balancing its counter-terrorism strategies with human rights protections. Mr. Zwart shared the experience of his participating in several cases related to alleged terrorism here.

     In addition to making comparations of the law practicing between China and Europe, the audience showed their interest in the Chinese criminal justice system, especially about how it actually works, as well as its on-going reform.

Researchers affiliated with the Centre speaking at a China-focused panel in Lund

The Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre (hereafter, “the Centre”) is committed to bringing together and developing researchers from multiple academic disciplines to study the sources, scopes and contents, and mechanisms for safeguarding human rights and fundamental freedoms in various cultures. QIAO, Congrui, a post-doc with the Centre, has initiated a China-focused panel at the sixth annual conference of the World Interdisciplinary Network for Institutional Research that took place at the Lund University in Sweden from 19 to 21 September 2019.

The conference panel was a collaborative effort with JING, Chao and WANG, Chenyu, two Ph.D. candidates at the Law School of Utrecht University, that sought to make sense of rather under-explored topics concerning law and governance transitions in modern and contemporary China. The three researchers presented their papers to an attentive international audience on 21 September, which were titled, respectively: “Dispute over the Status of Tibet underInternational Law – From Sovereignty to Suzerainty” (by Chenyu), “Controlling the Government in China: Principles and Practices” (by Congrui), and “Impact of China’s National Security Law upon Human Rights” (by Chao). 

In specific, Chenyu shared his major findings that on the basis of sovereignty theories available to his study, he has focused on (in)divisibility as the key component to approach sovereignty, compared the similarity and difference in how (in)divisibility was dealt with under the European and Asian sovereignty and suzerainty systems, and in these lights, explained why Tibet was a vassal State under the suzerainty of China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Congrui’s topic was about how to control government, i.e. controlling the exercise of government powers, incontemporary China where the practice of holding government actions accountable to the law has been emerging since the 1990s. She delved into three principles: transparency, impartiality and proportionality of government decision making and implementation, and explained how these principles had been applied by adjudicative bodies in resolving disputes over government actions. She also identified new challenges to those principles arising from the implementation of the Social Credit System.

Chao’s paper adopted the comparative and human rights approaches to understanding China’s national security framework. He analysed the contents of the National Security Law that served as a leading legislation to build thenational security legal system in China, and compared them with administrative and criminal legislations relevant to the national security issue. Thereafter, he sumamrised the powers granted to and measures taken by China’s security authorities, and assessed inherent challenges therein to rights protection based on the international human rights standards.

The conference, consisting of around 170 scholars from many disciplines including anthropology, economics, law, history, philosophy and sociology, is a renowned platform for researchers sharing a common concern – how to understand the nature, function, evolution, and impact of institutions significant to humankind. This year’s theme,”Institutions for Inclusive Societies: Global & Comparative Perspective”, was a timely response to the rise of new growth poles and the emergence of new institutional dynamics that have been challenging the old divide between the developed and developing world.

Judicial Challenges and Reforms in Europe and China: A Dialogue between Utrecht-based Scholars and Shaanxi Court Delegates

A Chinese delegation consisting of five senior judges has expressed their eagerness to learn how European courts tackled internal and external pressure, inter alia, organisational, enforcement and political challenges, and to that end, met Utrecht-based law scholars to discuss about judicial challenges and reforms on 3 June 2019 in Utrecht. The meeting wss co-organised by the Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre.

Mr. PhilipLangbroek, Professor of Justice Administration and Organisation, shared his recent study on the Interplay between Court Administration, Performance Accounting and Judges’ Work. He introduced to the delegation that budgeting and accounting procedures are part of democratic governance. Yet, they need to be scrutinised in the proportion of judicial independence and impartiality. He then explained how detailed the accounting of the court’s performance is and should be, and how that affects the court’s functioning and judges’ work in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. 

Mr. Tom Zwart, Professor of Cross-cultural Law, spoke about Judicial Strategies to Secure Administrative Authorities’ Compliance with Court Decision. He analysed that in a rule of law system, administrative authorities are supposed to abide by court decisions. However, court judgements cannot be enforced without the goodwill of the administrative authorities concerned. He outlined judicial strategies developed in several jurisdictions for ensuring administrative authorities’ compliance, and discussed how they may be useful to China’s administrative courts.

Mr. Jing Chao, a PhD candidate at Utrecht Law School, presented his work on Balancing National Security and Rights Protection: Cases in Europe. He explained that under the European Convention on Human Rights, states can invoke national security considerations to reduce rights protection. He then introduced how the European Court of Human Rights interprets the three-layer test of rights reduction and restriction in the context of national security, and explained what implications may be relevant to China.

Head of the court delegation, Mr. Gong Fuwen, Vice President of High People’s Court of Shaanxi Province, responded to the three discussants and detailed similar challenges faced by the Chinese courts, particularly the delayed court enforcement, heavy workload of judges in handling the increasing financial cases, and challenged judicial authority in administrative cases. Thereafter, the delegates answered questions about the education and training of judicial staff in China, and the application of international trade dispute resolutions in China.