U.S. report says human rights worsen in China

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Originally published by USA Today on January 13, 2015

BEIJING — A U.S. report Tuesday accused China’s rulers of intensifying their repression of personal freedoms, even as the communist government has proclaimed a commitment to greater human rights.

Freedom House, a Washington advocacy group, said that since Communist Party leader Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, the authoritarian regime has combined new methods with harsh tactics of the past “to dominate online discourse, obstruct human rights activism, and pre-empt public protests.”

The report’s findings — supported by dissidents — are dramatically at odds with the Chinese government’s claims of greater freedoms. Last month, information official Cai Mingzhao said rising incomes and revised laws show China’s commitment to “developing socialist human rights with Chinese characteristics.”

For many rights activists, those characteristics include tightening the restrictions on free speech and using the law to quash possible sources of dissent.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders , a Hong Kong group, recorded nearly 1,000 detentions in 2014 “for exercising and defending human rights,” it said on its website. In 2014, “Chinese activists, writers, lawyers, journalists, artists, and citizens experienced one of the harshest years in government repression and retaliation.”

Last week’s arrest of Guo Yushan, a scholar who helped blind activist Chen Guangcheng flee to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2012, followed the silencing of several other liberal voices in recent months. Founder of the Transition Institute, a social advocacy group, Guo was charged with operating an illegal business nearly three months after being taken into police custody.

“Non-political crimes are used increasingly to punish activities of a political nature,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong researcher for Human Rights Watch. The situation “has steadily become worse.”

Guo, legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who was jailed last January, and veteran rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, arrested last June, are all moderate critics who “adopted less confrontational means to tackle problems and improve society,” Wang said. Targeting them shows authorities will close any remaining “space or loopholes by which people pushed for change,” she said, adding that China “is building a system of repression that will be wider and longer lasting” than what came before.

In December, Transition Institute researcher Yang Zili wrote a letter to a domestic security officer after nine current and former colleagues had been detained. “We don’t understand why a blow like this is being dealt to a (non-governmental organization) such as TI that engages in social policy research. We did not advocate for street action,” he wrote, according to the ChinaChange website.

“When, rather than the shield that protects civil rights and liberties, law is reduced to a weak pretext to be wielded at the pleasure of the proletarian dictatorship, how can we not be afraid?” Yang said.

The Freedom House report follows months of protests in Hong Kong that gradually came to end last month over the Beijing government’s refusal to allow an unrestricted election for a new leader of the former British enclave.

The report said fear of the regime may be diminishing. Rising repression “has also trapped the party in a vicious circle, whereby increasing coercion breeds growing resistance, requiring ever more intense crackdowns,” it said. “As the systems of coercion touch the lives of more Chinese people, Xi and his colleagues risk exacerbating the party’s legitimacy problems,” report author Sarah Cook said.

Activist and journalist Zhai Minglei declared his courage this month to keep struggling despite “an atmosphere of terror.”

“What a carnival it has been these months, a regular old-style purge,” he wrote in a letter to the Beijing police, according to the Hong Kong China Media Project. “You want to lock every intellectual of conscience behind bars, to bury them alive. You don’t realize we are only seeds. Your actions will not destroy us, but will only toughen our resolve.”

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