Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration is harshly cracking down on dissent and has failed to uphold promises of reforms, a U.S.-based rights group said Tuesday in an annual global report which underlined a worsening human rights situation throughout the East Asian region.
In spite of cosmetic changes to its labor camp system and an easing of draconian family planning policies, the ruling Chinese Communist Party during 2013 reinforced its monopoly on power by stepping up hardline measures to crack down on critics, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The Xi administration, which officially took over power in March last year, "has responded to domestic and international pressure by announcing partial reforms on issues such as re-education through labor and the one-child policy,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.
"But the leadership has also embarked on a harsh crackdown on critics, while using hardline rhetoric to make clear they have no intention of liberalizing the political system," Adams said.
While China announced it would abolish the "re-education through labor" system of administrative punishments, activists and lawyers have warned that similar institutions may simply arise under a new name.
Zhang Xinzhong, a petitioner from the central province of Henan, said his wife had been shut up in a new facility that appeared in his home county of Zhengyang after the government announced an end to the "re-education through labor" system.
"The county party secretary ordered a criminal gang to bring my wife back from Beijing, when they detained her for 10 days," Zhang told RFA's Mandarin Service on Tuesday.
"After that they put her in a black jail, where she has been held for 60 days now," he said, adding that the new facility was now called an "Admonition Center For Abnormal Petitioning."
HRW said the Xi administration has disappointed many who hoped it would address rising social tensions.
But instead, rights abuses resulting from land seizures, forced evictions, corruption, pollution, poor treatment of migrant workers, discrimination based on "hukou" residency status, and the imprisonment of activists have continued unabated, it said.
"While Xi Jinping has spoken a lot about tackling corruption and there have been some high profile arrests, the government has harshly retaliated against those who exposed high-level corruption in the government and Party," Adams said.
China has detained and arrested more than 50 activists across the country in an attempt to push back and reassert control over the acceptable boundaries for civil society activism, HRW said.
Those detained include activists involved with the New Citizens Movement, a civic platform that organizes street protests to press for the public disclosure of official assets as a mechanism to fight corruption, it said.
Beijing authorities will try a leading member of the New Citizens' movement, Xu Zhiyong, on Wednesday for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" after he took part in a public protest calling on officials to reveal details of their wealth.
And a harsh crackdown on Internet "rumor mongers" led to a number of detentions from August, including outspoken citizens and whistle-blower journalists, HRW said.
And while Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo continued his 11-year jail term in northern Liaoning Province, his wife Liu Xia remained under unlawful house arrest, reportedly suffering from severe depression, it said.
China still executes at least 4,000 people annually, the group estimates, although confirmed figures are unavailable, while politically motivated incarcerations in mental health institutions continue in spite of a new Mental Health law, HRW said.
Beijing has also continued with repressive policies in ethnic minority regions, including Tibet and Xinjiang, where it has maintained a massive security presence and surveillance program, the report said.
"In Xinjiang, pervasive ethnic discrimination and severe religious repression continued to fuel rising tensions," the group said.
"In both Tibet and Xinjiang, the government used live ammunition against peaceful protestors, injuring and killing some," it said, adding that both regions were also subject to mass involuntary population relocations.
Across the border in North Korea, supreme leader Kim Jong Un tightened control over the country’s northern border to reduce flight, while continuing systematic interrogation and torture of North Koreans caught and forcibly returned from China, the report said.
"Kim Jong-Un has picked up where his father and grandfather left off, by overseeing a system of public executions, extensive political prison camps, and brutal forced labor," HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said.
"The government now recognizes that the accounts of escaping North Koreans reveal Pyongyang’s crimes—so it is doing what it can to stop people from fleeing," he said in an e-mailed statement.
The North Korean government systematically denies basic freedoms in the country and uses detention in labor prison camps to ensure fear of opposing the government, with fear of the regime reinforced by Kim's public purge and execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek.
In Vietnam, the ruling Communist Party has stepped up its targeting of activists, Adams said.
"Escalating repression is putting the Vietnamese government on a collision course with an increasingly politically aware and active population," he said.
The authorities are holding 150-200 people in detention because of the exercise of their fundamental human rights, including lowland Vietnamese and upland ethnic minority prisoners, some of whom were detained at least in part in connection with their religious activities, HRW said.
At least 63 were political prisoners convicted by politically controlled courts under vague provisions in the penal code, it added.
In neighboring Cambodia, the authorities responded to peaceful protests against flawed elections with excessive force and bans on demonstrations, the report said, expressing regret over the weak response from the international community to the government's alleged rights abuses.
“Cambodians have increasingly demonstrated a desire to exercise their basic rights in the face of an entrenched ruling party that shows no willingness to respect them,” said Adams.
“Most international donors, who provide much of the government’s budget, are still stuck in a ‘see no evil’ mentality that misses out on the Cambodian public’s dismay with persistent bad governance, corruption, and repression.”
On Jan. 3, security forces shot and killed at least four people in a crackdown on opposition-supported strikes by garment workers demanding a higher minimum wage.
Meanwhile, government-backed land grabs have already adversely affected hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, with legal proceedings brought against those who protested, the HRW said.
And Myanmar's improved rights record was marred by violence against its Muslim minority, Robertson said.
"Burma’s [Myanmar's] human rights progress in the past year has been significant but uneven," he said.
The rising anti-Muslim violence should strike "a clear note of caution" to those enthusing about political change in Myanmar, he said.
In March 2013, police failed to intervene effectively when Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim communities in the town of Meiktila, killing at least 44 people and destroying 1,400 mostly Muslim-owned businesses and houses, HRW said.
Similar violence was reported in Pegu and Okkan north of Yangon, in Lashio in Shan State, while at least six Kaman Muslims died near the town of Thandwe in southern Arakan State in October, it said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.