Human Rights Watch mourns the death of Robin Munro, who joined Human Rights Watch in 1989 as China researcher and Hong Kong office director. His eyewitness reporting on the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in Beijing helped the world understand and respond to the Chinese government’s violent repression.
Munro passed away in Taiwan on May 19, 2021.
While working at Human Rights Watch from 1989-1998, Munro did pathbreaking research on China’s psychiatric abuse of political prisoners, abuses in orphanages, and organ harvesting of convicts. He also broke new ground reporting on Inner Mongolia, the laogai (“reform through labor”) detention system in Xinjiang, and repression of Catholics in Hebei province. While researching the first major report on China’s Three Gorges Dam, Munro unearthed a government coverup of the collapse of a different dam several years earlier through malfeasance and shoddy construction.
“Robin Munro was a powerful advocate for human rights in China who played a pivotal role in helping dozens of dissidents from China resettle abroad and pursue their activism,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “He was a colleague whose passion for research, the truth, and justice inspired us all.”
He was the lead researcher on groundbreaking reports, including Detained in China and Tibet: A Directory of Political and Religious Prisoners (1994); Death by Default: A Policy of Fatal Neglect in China’s State Orphanages (1996); and Dangerous Minds: Political Psychiatry in China Today and its Origins in the Mao Era (2002).
Munro, a prolific writer, and George Black, in 1993, co-authored Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China’s Democracy Movement, which traced the lives of three leading Tiananmen activists to explain the genesis of pro-democracy movements.
After leaving Human Rights Watch, Munro studied at the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), where he continued his research on abuses of psychiatry and earned a doctorate. Throughout his career as an activist, journalist, and scholar, Munro was known for his meticulous research, repeatedly fact-checking and re-interviewing sources. After SOAS, Munro joined the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, founded by Han Dongfang, one of the Tiananmen leaders Munro helped escape to freedom. He stepped down from the organization in 2011.
Munro inspired and mentored subsequent generations of scholars and activists, giving them time, attention, and advice. He read drafts of manuscripts and journal articles, debated political trends inside China, offered advice on advocacy strategies, and always had recommendations about great music and stereo equipment (old-style valve amplifiers were, in his view, de rigueur).
Munro, who was from Scotland, always proudly listed among his professional experience his stint as an Edinburgh bus driver. He liked to joke that learning Chinese might mean finally being understood in at least one language. He always brought warmth and support to discussions, encouraging people whose human rights were already secure to deploy those rights in service of helping others.
“For Human Rights Watch and especially its China team, Robin was a hero, a role model, and an extraordinary friend,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “He will be deeply missed as a scholar and an activist, but his legacy will live on in our work, and in the lives of so many he kept out of China’s prisons and supported at critical moments.”
Human Rights Watch sends condolences to Robin’s longtime partner, the writer Paolien Huang.