Human Rights Violations in China: A Historical Timeline

The history of China is fascinating. It would take a lifetime of study to truly understand the journey this remarkable 3,000 year old civilization has taken from 2100 BC to now. It has made countless contributions to technology and culture. Many who have traveled there can recount the splendid architecture and natural beauty of the cities and land.

Unfortunately, since the middle of the 20th century, China has also come to be known for a troubling timeline of human rights abuses carried out on its citizens. Modern China took shape in the wake of World War II. Civil war broke out in post-war China and in 1949, the People’s Republic of China, a communist state, was established.


Mao Zedong took control of China in 1949 after the civil war. He initiated a brutal campaign to completely destroy the entire class of private landowners and promote the collectivization of all land into state hands. Former landlords were persecuted: imprisoned, beaten, and executed. The scope was unimaginable, with millions killed and millions placed in prison camps.

This culminated in the “Great Leap Forward,” intended to modernize China. The initiatives undertaken by the state resulted in the torture and killing of countless peasants, and brought on a famine which killed many millions.


During the later 1960’s, Mao was fearful that his authority was waning. He initiated a “cultural revolution” to purge the society of those who he deemed inadequately supportive of his vision. He wanted to awaken the revolutionary spirit of young Chinese people. 

Children were encouraged to take to the streets and inform on parents, teachers and professors who did not exhibit the appropriate level of support for communist ideals.

Again, millions were killed. Millions were imprisoned and tortured. Mao encouraged the use of humiliating “struggle sessions” where the accused were humiliated and forced to confess their counterrevolutionary sins.


The violence of the Cultural Revolution continued well into the 1970’s. After Mao’s death in 1976, there was somewhat of a backlash. Political figures who relished in their abuses against the people were minimized, and some level of public dissent was even tolerated for a time in the later 1970’s.


Interestingly, the Chinese Communist Party officially denounced the cultural revolution in 1981. They minimized the once cult-like status of the late party leader Mao. Life in China largely stabilized during most of the 1980’s. 

Economic life improved for most Chinese people. There was a higher level of free expression permitted. China opened to the west, and foreign media content was enjoyed by many of its citizens, shaping new ways of thinking.

That expression came to an abrupt end during the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. Many born after the cultural revolution had come of age in a very different era than their parents. Now as university students, they gathered in the center of Beijing to call for a greater level of democracy in China.

Millions across the globe watched news coverage of this protest, supporting the students in the cause of greater freedom. It became an embarrassment for the Chinese Communist Party, and something had to be done.

On June 4th, 1989, a media blackout was imposed. Chinese troops fired into the crowds, causing mass panic. Many remember the powerful image of “Tank Man,” the nameless, courageous Chinese man who stood in front of a People’s Liberation Army Tank, blocking its path. 

“Tank Man” is one of the most powerful and loved figures in Chinese history. The CCP’s obvious and embarrassing attempts to cover up the crime of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, where thousands of people died at the hands of the Chinese Communist Government, reflect the dangers of authoritarianism and government control of information.

When the dust settled, thousands had been arrested, and though the death toll is a closely guarded secret, it is possible thousands were killed.

1990’s to today

After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, life in China returned to relative calm. Jiamg Zemin took power soon after the massacre, and ruled over a relatively tranquil time from 1989-2002. Zemin was succeeded by Hu Jintao who ruled until 2012.

Though life improved in China during this time, the government continued to engage in policies that suppressed free expression of political beliefs. Imprisonment in China is often arbitrary and without what many in the west would consider a fair trial.

Additionally, particular groups have been targeted for oppression because of the perception they could foster their followers to drift away from Communist Party beliefs, and perhaps prove corrosive to the iron hold the party has on the country.

Falun Gong

Many in America have seen pamphlets and informational booths promoting freedom for followers of “Falun Gong.” This relatively new religious movement in China grew in size and influence in the 1990’s, and was targeted for suppression by the Chinese Communist Party, with several of the founders and followers placed in prison.


Tibet came under the control of China beginning in the 1950’s. Tibet’s relationship with Beijing has ebbed and flowed over the decades, with periods of relative sovereignty as well as periods where they suffered the brutality of the Communist party. 

Tibetans have historically followed the Dalai Lama, a religious leader. The Dalai Lama was forced into exile in the 1950’s and has not returned since.

Tibetan monks will from time to time demonstrate for independence from China. This cause is often supported by western celebrities like Richard Gere, The Beastie Boys, and Brad Pitt. The demonstrations have at times been met with violent repression by the Chinese.

China is actively killing, punishing, and forcing into labor camps thousands upon thousands of Uyghur Muslims.  Without free speech, all other rights are subject to government control. The Chinese government is committing these horrible acts, and then lying about it. Source:


An issue that has recently come to the forefront is the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China. This ethnic group has deep historical ties to a region in northwest China. Some Uyghur’s have advocated for independence from China. 

In turn the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to quell this separatist sentiment with a campaign of brutality and oppression. These actions were often carried out under the color of “preventing violent terrorism.”

More than a million Uyghurs have been placed in detention camps without any form of trial or legal process. The details of human rights abuses carried out in these camps are shocking. There are reports of torture, rapes, forced abortions, forced labor and sadistic brainwashing techniques.

China’s control over media and journalism has prevented the true scope of these crimes from being known. Additionally, China’s role in the global economy has prevented world leaders from doing much of anything to sanction China for their human rights abuses.

The Future

The importance of China as a trade partner for most major nations, including the United States ensures that whatever human rights abuses they engage in, they’ll most likely get away with it. 

Unless the leading nations of the world are prepared to sacrifice, enduring higher prices and a more limited supply of certain items; or to adapt their economy to manufacture goods themselves or with less oppressive trade partners, China will largely be able to dictate its own human rights policy.