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(New York) – The Chinese government stepped up its repression of human rights defenders and abused police and state powers in the name of national security, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016. Since President Xi Jinping assumed power in March 2013, his government has stepped up its hostility toward peaceful dissent, freedoms of expression and religion, and the rule of law.

A police officer guards a corridor that is forbidden for visiting journalists to see during a government-organized tour of the Number One Detention Center in Beijing, Oct. 25, 2012. Alexander F. Yuan / AP

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

“President Xi Jinping has vowed to eradicate corruption, maintain economic growth, and promote the rule of law in China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “But Xi’s ‘China Dream’ has been a nightmare for rights advocates as they face Orwellian laws, indefinite detention, and torture, with little hope for redress. Their dire plight is only made worse by the world’s inaction.”

In 2015, senior Chinese leaders imposed a more hardline ideology, blaming “foreign forces” for social discontent in the country while emphasizing the supremacy of the Communist Party. The government enacted multiple measures to curtail free speech on the Internet, in institutions of higher education, in traditional media, and within the party. The government’s attempts to restrict “foreign influences” and freedom of religion included a high-profile campaign to demolish churches or remove crosses from them in Zhejiang province, an area with a strong tradition of Christian influence.

The Chinese government drafted or passed a slew of new laws that cast public activism and peaceful criticism of the government as state security threats; strengthen censorship, surveillance and control of individuals and social groups; and deter individuals from campaigning for human rights. These include the State Security Law, passed on July 1, 2015, the draft Counterterrorism Law, the draft Cybersecurity Law, and the draft Foreign NGO Management Law.

Since President Xi came to power, the authorities have detained and prosecuted hundreds of human rights defenders. Between March and April 2015, police held five women’s rights activists for planning protests against sexual harassment on public transport on International Women’s Day. Since their release on bail, all five have been subjected to monitoring and harassment. Between July and September, authorities interrogated some 280 lawyers – the backbone of China’s human rights movement – in a nationwide sweep; nearly 40, including Beijing lawyers Wang Yu, Li Heping, and Wang Quanzhang, remain detained or forcibly disappeared and at risk of torture. The government has provided no information on their whereabouts.

International attention to the deteriorating rights situation in China was woefully inadequate. With the exception of the draft Foreign NGO Management Law, which received broad international condemnation, most governments continued to rely on occasional statements about individual cases and closed-door bilateral human rights dialogues of limited utility. The Chinese government had not provided meaningful cooperation with the United Nations Committee Against Torture’s review, which describes China’s ill-treatment of suspects “deeply entrenched.”

“Despite extraordinary risks, people across China continue to push for a fair judicial system, access to information, and the ability to hold those in power to account,” said Richardson. “Those who fearlessly promote rights are key to China’s future and deserve far greater global support.”

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