Cao Shunli

Courtesy of openDemocracy

(New York) – Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government and Communist Party have unleashed the harshest campaign of politically motivated investigations, detentions, and sentencing in the past decade, marking a sharp turn toward intolerance of criticism, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015.

“Under President Xi, China is rapidly retreating from rights reforms and the Party’s promise to ‘govern the country according to law,’” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Repression of critics is the worst in a decade, and there appears to be no end in sight.”

In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.

In 2014, the government imposed tighter curbs on the already limited space for media, internet, academia, and cultural expression. Authorities also cracked down on civil society activities – persecuting, arresting, and sentencing rights activists, lawyers, and critics, including many prominent ones; some of these individuals’ staged confessions were broadcast on national television. The Party has investigated or detained tens of thousands of government and Party officials for alleged corruption, often holding them in the Party’s own extra-legal detention system, known as shuanggui.

A number of high-profile cases this year reflected a renewed zeal for silencing prominent activists. In June, Pu Zhiqiang, one of country’s best-known lawyers, was arrested on public order grounds. His lawyer fears that three additional charges will be brought against Pu as the procurator considers his indictment. In September, a court in Xinjiang sentenced Uighur economist Ilham Tohti to life in prison on spurious charges that he was a “covert separatist” who had coaxed his students into stirring up inter-ethnic conflicts. Seven of his students were tried in late 2014. Liu Xia, the wife of the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, continues to be held under extra-legal house arrest.

The most significant legal trend in 2014 has been the government’s effort to further strengthen an already powerful, unaccountable state security apparatus. It adopted an overly broad counter-espionage law and the publication of a draft counterterrorism law that equates peaceful dissent with terrorism, strengthens control over civil society groups that receive foreign funding, and appears to target specific ethnic minority groups.

The Chinese government’s hardline approach was particularly discernible in Xinjiang and Tibet, areas that are nominally autonomous. Indiscriminate anti-separatism campaigns fueled rising tensions, resulting in several clashes on the Tibetan plateau – including at least one in which security forces used live fire against unarmed demonstrators – and a marked increase in violence in Xinjiang. In separate incidents Uyghur assailants attacked crowds, detonated bombs, and targeted Urumqi’s South train station, causing dozens of casualties. Security forces used lethal force in almost all incidents, as well as in a series of poorly documented clashes in southern Xinjiang in which dozens of people the government labeled as “terrorists” were killed.

On August 31, the central government issued a decision allowing all eligible Hong Kong voters to cast a ballot in the chief executive elections, but retaining control over the process by which candidates are chosen. This decision violates basic human rights guarantees and reneges on the promise of the basic law, the territory’s constitution. The Hong Kong government’s use of teargas and pepper spray against initial groups of people protesting Beijing’s decision triggered massive demonstrations, followed by sustained “occupation” of thoroughfares in Hong Kong. The government refused to meaningfully engage with the main organizers of the movement, and police repeatedly used excessive, and at times brutal, force against demonstrators to clear protest sites. The Chinese government banned an undisclosed number of students and protesters for traveling to the mainland, cancelling their “home return” permits, and detained more than a hundred people in China who had expressed their support for the demonstrators, often through internet postings.

This year’s World Report also flagged weakening international concern about human rights abuses in China. Some, including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, instead praised the government for “its contributions to the promotion of … human rights.” China continues to refuse meaningful engagement with UN human rights mechanisms and voted down resolutions spotlighting abuses in Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Ukraine. China repeated its calls for “political solutions” in Syria, Sudan, and South Sudan in 2014, but took steps that prolonged human rights crises in all three.

“China under Xi Jinping is escalating hostility to human rights and democratic pressures, at home and abroad, yet the international community remains largely silent,” Richardson said. “Abetting the systematic suppression of basic freedoms is a short-sighted and dangerous policy, one that only encourages Beijing’s growing intransigence.”