China’s persecution of human rights activists was “unusually severe” in 2014, according to a report released Monday by an overseas-based rights group, which said President Xi Jinping had intensified a campaign last year to “purge universal values” in the world’s most populous nation.
Harassment of activists “was as severe as it has been since the mid-1990s,” China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in its annual report, adding that the government had moved to further restrict the already shrinking space for civil society to operate in the country.
“The second year under Xi Jinping’s rule was even more draconian than the first,” Renee Xia, CHRD international director, said in a statement accompanying the report, titled “Silencing the Messenger: 2014 Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China.”
“We see the unfolding and taking hold of Xi’s strongman policies toward any dissent, especially organized dissent.”
Though Xi pledged to “rule the country with law,” his government both ignored the law and manipulated the legal system to deny the public’s right to exercise basic liberties, CHRD said, adding that those who challenged the system were punished through torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, intimidation and other forms of mistreatment.
According to the report, nearly as many confirmed cases—about 1,000—of arbitrary detention of rights activists occurred in 2014 as in the previous two years combined, with police detaining more than 200 around the 25th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on Tiananmen Square and amid pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong during the fall.
More human rights lawyers—at least nine—were detained in 2014 than in any other single year since the early 2000s, it said, adding that authorities also targeted the lawyers who represented them.
Additionally, detained rights activists experienced a systematic violation of due process, with many cases involving “unreasonably” prolonged pre-trial detentions, restricted access to lawyers, and deprivation of medical treatment, CHRD said.
The group highlighted China’s attempt to obstruct nongovernmental organizations from asking the U.N. Human Rights Council to inquire about the case of activist Cao Shunli, who died in police custody in March last year following efforts to pressure the government to abide by its international obligations on the protection of human rights.
The government further intensified its “systematic oppression” of ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans, and worked to bolster its control of China’s restive western regions as part of what it called “anti-terrorism campaigns,” the report said, noting the life sentence handed to moderate Uyghur economics professor Ilham Tohti in September.
“A central way to try to control these groups has been for authorities to clamp down on their free expression and media communications,” it said, adding that of the 44 journalists reportedly imprisoned in China at the end of 2014, more than half are ethnic Uyghurs or Tibetans.
Meanwhile, CHRD said, Christians and other faith communities continued to face persecution meant to cut down on the growing popularity of their spiritual practices.
Authorities tightened control over the media, increased surveillance of the Internet and further restricted online and cellular communications in 2014, it said.
Nongovernmental organizations and other independent institutions felt greater pressure from authorities, while a number of them were shut down and affiliated individuals were detained.
CHRD called on the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is meeting in Geneva this month, to investigate the Chinese government’s “systematic and gross violations of human rights under Xi Jinping’s leadership.”
The group also urged China to release all rights activists; protect the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association; ensure legal protections for rights lawyers and detainees; and end impunity for officials who torture or mistreat activists in detention.
It also said China should ensure that civil society members can participate in U.N. human rights activities free of harassment; end suppression and discriminatory policies against ethnic minorities; and ensure that all Chinese citizens can exercise freedom of religion.