An overseas rights group slammed Beijing's human rights record on Friday, detailing continuing abuses and restrictions on the liberty of Chinese citizens throughout 2012.
"Human rights defenders in China regularly face police harassment, house arrest, short-term detention, “reeducation through labor,” forcible commitment to psychiatric facilities, or imprisonment on criminal charges, often on state security or public order grounds," the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its annual report on China.
It said the outgoing administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had presided over a decade of stalled legal reforms, with the government continuing to reject pressure for an independent judiciary, which is currently controlled by committees of the ruling Communist Party at every level.
"Forced confessions under torture remain prevalent and miscarriages of justice frequent due to weak courts and tight limits on the rights of the defense," HRW said.
"The government rolled back protections on the administration of justice, presided over a significant rise in social unrest, including the largest inter-ethnic incidents in decades in Tibet and Xinjiang, and expanded the power of the security apparatus," it said.
It said government policies in ethnic minority areas like Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia were "highly repressive."
The report said rights violations linked to land seizures, forced evictions, abuses of power by corrupt cadres, discrimination, and economic inequalities sparked up to 500 protests a day across the country, involving anywhere from ten to tens of thousands of participants.
Violence against petitioners
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said China's nascent legal profession and civil society had played an influential role in a number of important areas during the year.
"But there are still a large number of ordinary citizens whose human rights are of concern," Liu said. "For example, a lot of petitioners [people who lodge complaints about the government] have no guarantee that their rights will be protected."
"Often, they face even more violence during the course of their petitioning activities," he said. "Rural communities seeking redress [for lost land] are often violently suppressed, as well."
He said human rights violations weren't only evident in the fates of political dissidents. "We should be looking at the problems faced by the majority," Liu said. "If China's evictees and farming communities could get some protection [from the law], then we'd be able to say that there was some change in China's human rights situation."
Meanwhile, government restrictions on journalists, bloggers, and an estimated 538 million Internet users ensured the Party's stranglehold on public expression, with at least 27 Chinese journalists currently serving jail terms under vague charges of "revealing state secrets" and "inciting subversion," HRW said.
Even China's hugely popular and voluble Twitter-like services are subject to "strict scrutiny and manipulation by China’s censors tasked with shaping online debate in line with government policy," the report said, while noting that overseas-based alternatives like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are blocked in China.
Under the draconian "one-child" population control policies, women’s reproductive rights and access to reproductive health remained "severely curtailed," amid administrative sanctions, fines, and coercive measures, including forced abortions, for women who break local birth quotas.
China's estimated 4-10 million sex workers were also subjected to serious abuses amid punitive government crackdowns, including physical and sexual violence, increased risk of disease, and scant access to justice, it said.
Beijing has actively curbed the activities of independent women’s rights groups and discourages public interest litigation, in spite of official acknowledgement that domestic violence, employment discrimination, and discriminatory social attitudes are acute and widespread.
China continued in 2012 to lead the world in executions, HRW said. While the exact number of lives terminated in judicial punishment remains a state secret, experts estimate it to range from 5,000 to 8,000 a year.
HRW highlighted in particular the situation in Tibetan regions under Chinese control, including the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the neighboring Tibetan autonomous areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces.
"[These regions] remained tense following the massive crackdown on popular protests that swept the plateau in 2008, and the introduction of measures designed to place all Tibetan monasteries under the direct control of government officials who will be permanently stationed there," the report said.
In spite of nearly 100 self-immolations since February 2009, at least 69 of whom died, the government has refused to heed growing calls among Tibetans for some limited form of autonomy under Chinese rule.
Instead, Chinese security forces maintain a heavy presence and the authorities continue to tightly restrict access and travel to Tibetan areas, particularly for journalists and foreign visitors.
Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser said repressive government policies aimed at Tibetans had now sparked a regionwide backlash.
"That's why ... the uprisings of 2008 turned into the use of self-immolation as protest that we are seeing today," she said.
"The self-immolation wave of the past [two years] is appalling," Woeser said. "There is a problem with China's policies towards ethnic minorities; of course they have made mistakes."
"If it weren't for these mistaken policies, we wouldn't be seeing Tibetans in these sorts of protests, and we would have seen the protests in Xinjiang back in 2009," she said. "That also goes for Inner Mongolia."
But she said she saw little sign of a change in attitude in Beijing.
"They are still going ahead in the same manner; I see no evidence of reflection on their part."
HRW said that secret arrests and torture in custody remains widespread in Tibetan regions, adding that: "Tibetans suspected of being critical of political, religious, cultural, or economic state policies are systematically targeted on charges of 'separatism,."
In the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, the government continued to maintain system-wide discrimination against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
"[The government] sharply curbs religious and cultural expression. Politically motivated arrests are common," HRW said, describing "a pervasive atmosphere of fear among the Uyghur population."
"Factors contributing to this bleak atmosphere include the omnipresence of the secret police, the recent history of disappearances, and an overtly politicized judiciary," it said.
The authorities had continued to demolish traditional Uyghur neighborhoods, relocating and forcibly evicting inhabitants, as well as force resettlement on nomadic and herding communities, HRW said.
Overall, the Hu-Wen era saw little progress on human rights, in spite of sustained economic growth, urbanization, and growing international clout, the report said.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.