Chinese President Xi Jinping heads a hard-line administration which displays growing intolerance of dissent and increasingly harsh policies towards civil society groups, rights activists and lawyers, a U.S.-based rights group said on Thursday.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party under Xi "does not tolerate any form of organized opposition or independent political parties," human rights group Freedom House said in its annual report,
While global freedom faced its worst year in a decade in 2015, China's latest round of repression has been escalating since Xi came to power, it said, describing the country as "not free" and giving the country 16 marks out of 100 overall.
"Harassment of previously tolerated civil society organizations, women’s rights defenders, labor activists, and human rights lawyers intensified during the year," the report, titled Freedom in the World, 2016, said.
"In July, security forces detained over 250 individuals involved in public-interest legal work in an unprecedented crackdown on China’s 'rights-defense movement'," it said.
"Internet controls continued to tighten, and several professional journalists were detained, imprisoned, and forced to make televised confessions," the report said.
Meanwhile, citizens who attempt to form opposition parties or advocate democratic reforms have been sentenced to long prison terms, the group said, citing the case of jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year jail term for subversion.
In addition, Xi's administration rolled out a suite of laws that could further infringe on freedoms of association, expression, and religion, including the National Security Law in July and anti-terrorism legislation passed in December.
Further legislation on cybersecurity and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are in the pipeline, Freedom House said.
Civil rights activist Huang Xiaomin, a member of the Pan-Blue Alliance group that supports the policies of Taiwan's nationalist Kuomintant (KMT), said the Communist Party is out of touch when it comes to getting their message across to the wider public.
"They are still using the old ways of thinking from several decades ago ... including blocking, controlling, and framing people on trumped-up charges," Huang told RFA.
"All of the factors contributing to social tension are on the increase," he said. "And yet they're still using such old-fashioned methods, which have been proven to be ineffective in the past."
The report came as authorities in the southern Chinese province imposed tight surveillance and house arrest on local activists ahead of a long-awaited sentencing hearing for the "Guangzhou Three" activists.
Rights lawyer Tang Jingling, former teacher Wang Qingying, and writer-activist Yuan Xinting, known as the Guangzhou Three, initially stood trial on June 19 at the Guangzhou Intermediate People's Court for "incitement to subvert state power" after being held in a police detention center for more than a year.
Guangzhou rights activist Jia Pin said he had been summoned for questioning by state security police over his support for the three men, and warned not to try to attend the hearing.
He said fellow activist Li Biyun is currently under house arrest and surveillance by several dozen police officers and hired muscle in Guangdong's Shunde city.
"She is staying with her sister and wanted to go to hospital for a medical appointment, but they wouldn't let her," Jia said.
No personal liberty
Hong Kong activist Richard Choi, of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, said there are no guarantees of personal liberty whatsoever in China.
"We have seen this over the past year with the detention of rights lawyers, rights activists, and other citizens who have had their freedom restricted," Choi said.
"[Also with] the lack of judicial independence there."
In the central province of Henan, rights lawyer Ji Laisong said he is still awaiting a trial date for Yu Shiwen, an activist from the provincial capital Zhengzhou detained in 2014 after taking part in activities to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre..
"I hope they go to trial soon, because he has been locked up for nearly two years now," Ji told RFA. "That's even longer than [prominent rights lawyer] Pu Zhiqiang, and they've let him out now."
Hong Kong political analyst and veteran China watcher Willy Lam said the crackdown down on any form of dissent, regarded by the party as "instability," looks set to continue in the face of slowing economic growth.
"Beijing is terrified that they will see a rise in public protests and demonstrations as the economy slows and unemployment rises, making the country even less stable," Lam told RFA.
"That's why Xi Jinping is stepping up his control over the media and Internet, to minimize social unrest and popular movements," he said.
China has recently begun formally arresting a number of detained rights lawyers on subversion charges after holding them in unknown locations for six months, rights groups said.
Ten are lawyers or others connected to the Beijing Fengrui law firm, including prominent rights lawyer Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun, and Fengrui boss Zhou Shifeng.
Thirty-three still held
As of Jan. 22, at least 317 lawyers, legal workers, and rights activists have been detained, held for questioning, or placed under some form of restriction since the crackdown began on the night of July 9, 2015, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said in a statement on its website.
While the majority have been released, albeit under surveillance or with travel bans imposed, 33 remain in detention or "residential surveillance," many at an unknown location.
Reported by Qiao Long and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chow Tze-nam and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.