Last month's announcement of a Nobel peace prize for the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, together with the approaching award ceremony on 10 December, have driven official tolerance for peaceful dissent in China to a new low.
Just ask Zhao Lianhai. On 10 November, a Beijing court sentenced Zhao to a two-and-a-half-year prison term on charges of "provoking disorder" for exposing the government failure to assist the thousands of child victims of China's melamine-tainted milk scandal of 2008.
Zhao's crime? Helping to establish a grassroots advocacy group, Kidney Stones Babies, which rallied parents of victims to demand compensation and the designation of an official day of remembrance for the six deaths and approximately 300,000 children sickened by tainted dairy products.
Zhao isn't alone. The nongovernmental organisation Chinese Human Rights Defenders has documented at least 100 incidents since October 2010 in which Chinese citizens have been harassed, interrogated or detained in connection with their support for Liu's Nobel victory. They include Liu Xiaobo's wife, Liu Xia, who has been silenced since 18 November, when the government cut her internet and phone links. On 9 November, Beijing police prevented China's leading human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping and legal scholar He Weifang from boarding a flight to an international legal conference The reason? Fears they would attend the Nobel peace prize award ceremony in Norway.
The appointments of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in 2003 raised hopes that a new generation of leadership would spur greater liberalisation. The opposite has occurred. China's prisons are littered with high profile dissidents. Some don't even get the relative protection of a jail sentence.
Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who took on some of China's most controversial causes including defending miners and religious minorities like the Falun Gong and underground Christians, was the victim of an enforced disappearance in February 2009. Gao re-emerged in his Beijing apartment in early April 2010 but vanished again days later, apparently back into official custody. Gao's location, health, and circumstances remain unknown.
In China today, even activists who serve out prison terms on politically-motivated charges can be denied freedom. Chen Guangcheng, convicted in December 2006 on trumped-up criminal counts after he led a campaign to stop forced abortions and sterilisations in Shandong province, completed his sentence on 9 September. Chen returned home to house arrest, banned from receiving visitors and subjected to intrusive electronic surveillance.
These proliferating abuses have overshadowed the cases of once-high-profile political prisoners. Take Hu Jia, a civil society activist sentenced to three-and-a-half years' imprisonment in April 2008 for "incitement to subvert state power" and for activities including co-writing a letter in September 2007 entitled "The Real China and the Olympics". The letter detailed specific and wide-ranging government human rights violations and urged the international community to hold Beijing to the human rights commitments it made when bidding to host the Games.
These cases don't just expose the government's empty rhetoric about its commitment to the rule of law. They are also a reminder of the narrowing space available to Chinese activists and whistleblowers who seek the rights, freedoms and protections embodied in China's laws and constitution.
Why is this happening? Growing intolerance could be a sign of increasing confidence and arrogance as China's economy continues to roar and its international status grows. The leadership is also likely concerned about the 100,000-odd annual public protests, the sharp criticism of government policies that go viral via the internet, and the growing urban-rural wealth gap.
The relentless squeeze on civil society activists has occurred while the US, EU and others have downgraded human rights in their dealings with China. Human right issues are increasingly an afterthought, marginalised by bilateral dialogue on trade, broader economic issues, and negotiations on vexing international issues including Iran or North Korea. But the US and others are taking the most short-sighted approach. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, learned this early in her tenure when she announced that the US would no longer allow human rights issues to interfere with other issues on the US-China agenda.
But both the US and the EU have been unable to avoid raising difficult cases such as Liu Xiaobo and have praised Liu's Nobel peace prize despite the Chinese government's furious insistence that routine stifling of constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms are an "internal affair." Such dismissals ignore the fact that Zhao Lianhai's efforts, and those of other brave Chinese whistleblowers, aim to both protect Chinese consumers from toxic products as well as keep them out of the export chain
As President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao prepare to hand the reins of power of the ruling Chinese Communist party to new leaders in 2012, they need to be pressed to recognise the wisdom of allowing citizens to speak uncomfortable truths rather than to silence them. Just days after the announcement of Liu Xiaobo's Nobel peace prize, a group of 23 senior Communist party officials and intellectuals issued a public letter that praised the Nobel committee's "splendid choice" of Liu for a Nobel peace prize, urged his immediate release and an end to the "invisible black hand" of official censorship.
The Chinese government would be wise to heed these calls.
Phelim Kine is a researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.