A rights group has warned of worsening human rights abuses in China after charting 2011 as a year of unprecedented, illegal disappearances in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts in North Africa and the Middle East.
Citing the increased use of disappearances as one among a number of human rights setbacks in China, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the new trend was triggered by the leadership’s nervousness over a string of uprisings especially in the Middle East and by the initial phase of the leadership transition in China.
"These developments suggest a more hard-line response as the public increasingly demands the rule of law and respect for the freedoms of association, belief, and expression," the group said in a statement on its website on Monday, released along with its annual report.
Last year's rights record was an alarming sign of what may be still to come as China's leaders make efforts to enshrine the practice of disappearance in the country's criminal law, according to HRW China director Sophie Richardson.
Chinese police took the unusual step early last year of "disappearing" numerous lawyers and activists, including well-known artist and public advocate Ai Weiwei, who was held for 81 days before being released on the condition that he not speak about his experience.
"The Chinese government’s sharp crackdown on critics—while trying to cover abuses with a fig leaf of legality—is an alarming sign of what the next year could be like for Chinese citizens, government critics, and human rights defenders," Richardson said.
She called on the world's governments to take more action to link human rights to economic and trade ties with Beijing.
"It’s time for other governments to stipulate to Beijing that a worsening in China’s human rights environment in 2012 will have a direct impact on bilateral ties," she said.
2011 began with the rounding up of dozens of government critics, including Ai, who were then held at secret locations outside the country's judicial system, HRW said.
"Upon their release, several of those individuals reported being subjected to forced sleep deprivation, interrogations, and abusive threats while in custody," the statement said.
Citing a slew of jail terms handed down to activists in the wake of that crackdown, including Guizhou-based Chen Xi, Sichuan-based Chen Wei, and disappeared rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, HRW said that those who spoke out against abuses of official power were often themselves made the targets of such abuses.
It said the latest clampdown came amid growing public awareness of rights issues and widening popular anger.
"More than 100,000 'mass incidents' or protests are estimated to occur annually in China and the Chinese government now budgets more funds for social stability maintenance than national defense," HRW said.
"It is incumbent on all those with a stake in China’s future to prioritize helping end human rights abuses in that country, rather than occasionally speaking up about a few particularly egregious cases," said Richardson.
"The Chinese government will only be a truly reliable partner when it respects the rule of law and the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association."
The renewed crackdown on activists comes at a time of tightened media controls and a bleaker climate for freedom of expression, the HRW report said, detailing the cases of 34 Chinese journalists jailed during 2011 on charges ranging from "incitement to subversion" to "revealing state secrets."
While investigative journalism in China has gained strength in recent years, a strict censorship system aimed at rooting out information deemed a threat to the ruling Communist Party has kept pace, the report said.
Veteran Chinese journalist Jiang Weiping, who served a lengthy jail term for "revealing state secrets" after he wrote several articles exposing official corruption, said the press freedom situation has definitely worsened in China.
"The extent to which things have deteriorated is really a cause for concern," Jiang said. "Many places are taking steps to limit further the freedom of the press, and stepping up their attacks on reporters."
"They will employ any tactics to suppress news reporters."
The Hong Kong-based coordinator for the International Federation of Journalists, Serenade Woo, said the controls on the media are likely to remain at least until the Party leadership succession is decided at the 18th Party Congress later this year.
"The Chinese government greatly accelerated its controls and pacification measures as soon as the jasmine incident occurred," said Woo, in an apparent reference to online, anonymous calls for protests inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world.
"Moreover, they always emphasize stability over everything around the time of the [political] succession," she said.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin service and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.