China’s already poor human rights record worsened with a sweeping crackdown on lawyers, activists and bloggers in 2015, a year that saw Beijing extend abusive and unlawful enforcement practices across borders to Hong Kong and Thailand, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday in an annual report.
The report which covers the 2015 calendar year, President Xi Jinping’s third full year in office, saw particularly harsh policies and curbs on movement and communication in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibetan areas – regions where Beijing rules with a heavy hand to stamp out anything it perceives as separatism.
“In China, repression and coercion markedly increased during the year against organizations and individuals involved in civil and political rights advocacy,” said the annual report on every other country in the world.
“The crackdown on the legal community was particularly severe, as individual lawyers and law firms that handled cases the government deemed ‘sensitive’ were targeted for harassment and detention,” it said.
The push against the legal profession, whose growing prominence was not long ago seen as a rare bright spot in China’s rights picture, saw “hundreds of lawyers and law associates interrogated, investigated, and in many cases detained in secret locations for months without charges or access to attorneys or family members,” the State Department noted.
The report noted the disappearances or detentions of lawyer Wang Yu, who represented noted feminist activists; Li Heping, who represented underground church members and members of the banned Falun Gong sect; and Zhang Kai, who defended churches facing demolition.
“Authorities resorted to extralegal measures, such as enforced disappearance and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent public expression of critical opinions,” said the report.
The State Department also noted the extralegal disappearance of five men working in Hong Kong’s publishing industry, where they produced books critical of China’s leaders, between October and December from Thailand, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen.
“Family members and colleagues believed PRC security officials were responsible for their disappearances, and state-run Chinese media later covered a televised ‘confession’ of one of the abducted individuals,” the report said.
The annual State Department reports, which are summarily rejected by Beijing, normally also recognize positive developments, but good news appeared to be relatively scarce in 2015.
Xi’s signature policy of combating corruption has resulted in tens of thousands of officials removed from their posts and many prosecuted, the reported noted. But it said this process was not without extralegal measures and rights abuses.
“Authorities prosecuted a number of abuses of power through the court system, particularly with regard to corruption, but in most cases the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) first investigated and punished officials using opaque and selectively applied internal party disciplinary procedures,” it said.
“Many officials accused of corruption or other discipline violations were interrogated and in some cases tortured in the shuanggui system, often to extract a confession of wrongdoing, and some are later turned over to the judicial system,” added the report.
Meanwhile, it said, “citizens who promoted independent efforts to combat abuses of power were sometimes targeted by authorities.”
Despite Xi’s campaign, “corruption remained rampant, and many cases of corruption involved areas heavily regulated by the government, such as land-usage rights, real estate, mining, and infrastructure development, which were susceptible to fraud, bribery, and kickbacks,” the department said.
The reported noted that “the internet was widely available and widely used” and cited Chinese statistics showing that China had 668 million internet users, adding 18.94 million new users in the first half of 2015.
At the same time, it said, “the CCP continued to increase efforts to monitor internet use, control content, restrict information, block access to foreign and domestic websites, encourage self-censorship, and punish those who ran afoul of political sensitivities.”
The State Department restated the U.S. policy that recognizes that the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan autonomous prefectures (TAPs) and counties in other provinces are part of China.
But it said “the government’s respect for, and protection of, human rights in the TAR and other Tibetan areas remained poor.”
“Under the professed objectives of controlling border areas, maintaining social stability, and combating separatism, the government engaged in the severe repression of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage,” said the report.
The department noted that seven Tibetans were reported to have self-immolated during 2015, down from the 83 self-immolation protests reported in 2012. The decline, it quoted media reports as saying, was “due to tightened security by authorities and the collective punishment of self‑immolators’ associates.”
In Xinjiang, the reported said, “A number of violent incidents in the XUAR resulted in multiple deaths.”
“Official accounts of these events generally blamed ‘terrorists,’ ‘separatists,’ and ‘religious extremists’ for what was portrayed as violent terrorist attacks on community members and security personnel,” it said.
In contrast, “human rights organizations asserted that security forces often shot at groups of Uyghurs in their homes or during worship.”
“The government’s control of information coming out of the XUAR, together with its increasingly tight security posture there, made it difficult to verify the conflicting reports,” said the report.