China's human rights situation is currently the worst that has been seen in a quarter-century, a Chinese rights group said in an annual report released on Monday.
The Hubei-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch group described a "worsening and regressive human rights situation," and a domestic security regime that is more oppressive than anything seen in the past 25 years.
"The stability maintenance regime is getting stricter and stricter; you could say it's getting more and more brutal, more and more inhuman," Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch founder Liu Feiyue told RFA.
"[Last year] was the cruelest we have since since 1989, which is cause for extreme concern," he said.
During 2014, the nationwide system for keeping track of critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party was upgraded to the status of a national-level policy, Liu's report said.
This nationwide surveillance system now actively targets civil society for control and suppression, and has strengthened 'grid' surveillance to exert and maintain social control, it
In March 2014, premier Li Keqiang announced a rise in the domestic security, or "stability maintenance," budget to 205 billion yuan (U.S. $33 billion) at an annual parliamentary session inside the Great Hall of the People.
Across the country, rights lawyers, writers, journalists, academics, NGO activists, political dissidents and rights activists were targeted with often violent measures under the system, according to the report.
It documented 2,270 cases in which the authorities had implemented "stability maintenance" measures against such targets, which can include house arrest, phone tapping, enforced 'holidays' and criminal detention by state security police, 2,270 times during 2014, the report said.
Online, media controls
The government also stepped up control over online content and the media, further limiting freedom of expression, it said.
Police commonly used public order offenses like "illegal gathering," and "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," as catch-all charges for stability maintenance purposes, the report said.
"Police are increasingly abusing their powers of detention to limit the personal freedom of citizens," the report said, adding that in addition to beatings of those deemed troublemakers, state security police have a number of non-violent means of pressure and coercion in their arsenal of measures.
"Under the banner of stability maintenance, previously unusual measures like inviting targets to 'drink tea,' summoning them for questioning, surrounding and watching people's homes, following targets, issuing warnings..., enforced vacations, enforced relocation, enforced disappearances and detention in black jails and legal study centers have become normal and everyday occurrences," the report said.
Non-government groups are particular targets of the system, especially on China's tightly controlled Internet, and "large numbers" of civil society groups had their websites taken down in 2014, it said.
It said politically sensitive times, once limited to three or four major events or anniversaries a year, are proliferating, to the extent that online stability maintenance now takes place year-round, instead of in the run-up to important meetings or anniversaries like that of the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement.
"The stability maintenance measures surrounding the 25th anniversary of June 4 lasted for five months," the report said.
Petitioners' treatment improves
By contrast, the situation of citizens who pursue complaints against the government, who are also frequent targets of the stability maintenance regime, showed a marked improvement last year, a prominent activist told RFA on Monday.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who served a three-year jail term for "illegal possession of state secrets" after he probed allegations of corruption linked to the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 earthquake, said the abolition of the "re-education through labor" camp system at the end of 2013 had seen large numbers of petitioners return to society.
"The human rights situation of petitioners showed a definite improvement in 2014, when compared with that under the administration of [former president] Hu [Jintao]," said Huang, whose Tianwang rights website collates reports of petitioner activism across China.
"The numbers being held in black jails fell by around 80 percent," he said.
But he said administrative detentions, criminal detentions and sentencing of petitioners by the courts all rose in the same year.
"Large numbers of petitioners are still locked up and beaten up, all across China," Huang said.
"We hope the government will...ensure that local governments reduce human rights violations," he said.
New rules last May banning petitioning to higher levels of government than the one complained about have ensured that life remains tough for anyone hoping to hold their local government to account, according to Liu Feiyue.
"They have effectively legitimized the oppression of petitioners by local governments," Liu said.
No sign of improvement
He said the human rights situation in China overall shows no sign of improvement in the near future.
"In 2014, the government began to organize certain experts to resurrect class struggle sessions, including ideological campaigns and controls in higher educational institutions," Liu said.
"The human rights situation will get even worse, and even more brutal, in China in 2015," Liu predicted.
Liu's report echoes that of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Jan. 29, which said the administration of President Xi Jinping had mounted a severe attack on the rights of civic groups, lawyers, and others pushing for rule of law during 2014.
HRW also credited Xi's government for abolishing the police-run "re-education through labor" system, but said China remains a country that "systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion, when their exercise is perceived to threaten one-party rule."
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.