China on Friday unveiled plans for slower growth in military spending in its forthcoming budget, while activists said the government is increasingly taking its budget for targeting domestic "threats" to national security off the books entirely.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party will boost military spending by seven to eight percent in 2016, a parliamentary spokeswoman said ahead of the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), which opens on Saturday in Beijing.
"China's military budget will continue to grow this year but the margin will be lower than last year," NPC spokeswoman Fu Ying told journalists.
The 2016 defense budget looks likely to be set at around 950 billion yuan (U.S.$146 billion), compared with 886.9 billion yuan in 2015, which represented an increase of more than 10 percent on 2014, state news agency Xinhua reported.
The budget compares with a U.S.$534-billion dollar defense budget package for the 2016 fiscal year announced by Washington, Xinhua said.
While state media reporting of the projected figures used them to counter portrayals of China in Western media as a potential military threat, the defense budget in 2013 was surpassed for the first time by spending on domestic security.
This budget includes funding for a plethora of law enforcement agencies and committees, including state security police who target peaceful activists, political dissidents, religious believers and ethnic minority groups as potential "threats" to social stability, and has remained a secret since President Xi Jinping was sworn in.
In that year, the outgoing administration of President Hu Jintao earmarked U.S.$124 billion for domestic security, an eight percent rise on the previous year, while military spending was allocated at U.S.$114 billion.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who was recently detained for several days by state security police after he took a Japanese journalist to investigate allegations of corruption surrounding the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, said "stability maintenance" spending is also likely to be on the increase.
"There has been a clear rising trend in domestic security spending in mainland China," Huang said. "And the bulk of the stability maintenance spending doesn't even make it into official figures that are made public."
"To give you an example, when officials at different levels of government spirit away activists fighting for their rights to hotels and guesthouses on 'forced vacations,' they often pay for this out of private funds," he said.
"This sort of expenditure on stability maintenance is ubiquitous and a daily occurrence across China," Huang said.
Liaoning-based petitioner Zhao Zhenjia, who is currently in Beijing trying to lodge a complaint against his local government, said thousands of petitioners have converged on the capital ahead of the NPC annual session, only to be detained en masse, put on convoys of buses by paid "interceptors" and held at large-scale detention facilities outside the capital.
"The whole purpose of the stability maintenance budget is to preserve the lifestyles of corrupt officials; it's for them to spend," Zhao said.
"Corruption in China has its own logic, whereby central government funds local government and local government sells the central government brand on its behalf," he said.
"Then, some of that money gets into the criminal underworld, further crippling anyone who complains about the government [through the use of unofficial force]," he said.
Zhao said that privately hired muscle often stands in for official law enforcement when local officials need a job done.
"If they want to search you, they'll search you. If they want to detain you, they'll do so. If they want to beat you up, they'll do it," he said.
"It's all repression."
While Fu had no details to offer regarding spending on stability maintenance, she did take time to defend China's recent crackdowns on political activism, human rights lawyers, and any form of non-government organization (NGO).
More than 330 rights lawyers, their colleagues, rights activists and family members have been detained, questioned, prevented from leaving the country or held under surveillance in an unprecedented operation targeting China's legal profession since July 2015.
While China considers lawyers an "important force", they need to respect the constitution, Fu told reporters.
President Xi Jinping's administration has actively sought out and detained activists since coming to power, and blamed "foreign forces", including foreign-funded NGOs, for the pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong in late 2014.
Fu also sought to defend a draft law on the management of NGOs, which place tough restrictions on overseas funding and gives more powers to police to regulate their activities.
"We need specialized laws to govern this area of activity," Fu told reporters in the Great Hall of the People on Friday.
"We need to clearly specify which activities are illegal or prohibited. Mostly we are trying to provide a more standardized legal environment, not trying to restrict foreign NGOs from conducting beneficial activities in China," she said.
Rights lawyer Yu Wensheng said Fu was trying to whitewash the government's hard-line targeting of the profession, however.
"The authorities have never really stopped their persecution of rights lawyers and activists; the July 9, 2015 arrests were just a high point in the campaign," Yu said.
"We are ready for a further escalation on their part, and any lawyer now faces the possibility of detention, including me," he said. "We regard her comments with disdain."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.