The number of arrests and disappearances of government critics tripled in a "nightmarish" first year of Xi Jinping's presidency, an overseas rights group said in an annual report on Monday.
The Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) documented more than 220 criminal detentions of human rights activists in 2013, nearly three times the number it counted in the previous year, the group said in a statement.
While it said its data was unlikely to be complete, it also counted three times more recorded cases of "enforced disappearances" compared to the year before.
"2013 saw the harshest suppression of civil society in over a decade ... with human rights and rule of law basically going backwards," the group quoted prominent rights lawyer Teng Biao as saying in the report.
The report, titled "A Nightmarish Year Under Xi Jinping's 'Chinese Dream'," said that dozens of Chinese activists had described 2013 as the worst year for human rights since at least 2008, which saw crackdowns on civil liberties around the Beijing Olympics and on the Charter 08 campaign for reform.
The government succeeded in demolishing the expression of human rights concerns both in city streets and online, criminalizing peaceful acts of assembly, association, and expression en masse, CHRD said in an emailed statement issued with the report.
"Xi Jinping has touted the 'Chinese Dream' of economic growth under iron-fisted maintenance of political stability, while ushering in his draconian policies," the group's research coordinator Victor Clemens said.
In particular, activists who tried to contribute to China's human rights review at the United Nations were targeted, it said.
Activist 'near death'
As the report was released, friends of rights activist Cao Shunli, who was detained after trying to travel to Geneva to take part in a U.N. linked training program, said she was close to death after having been denied medical treatment while in jail.
"It will be hard for the relevant departments, including the detention center, to escape [responsibility if she dies]," Beijing-based rights lawyer Tang Jitian said on Monday.
He said the authorities' actions were a form of harsh retaliation against Cao for her attempted involvement with the international community.
"They absolutely insist on controlling all channels of communication with the outside world," Tang said.
U.S.-based Chinese political commentator Liu Nianchun said rights activists like Cao were regarded as the enemy by the state.
"The Chinese Communist Party doesn't admit that these are prisoners of conscience," he said. "It claims that they are common criminals."
Cao's doctor told her relatives that she is suffering from kidney failure, and has only days to live, Reuters reported.
Cao staged a two-month sit-in with other activists outside the Foreign Ministry beginning in June to press for the public to be allowed to contribute to a national human rights report.
She was detained in September after trying to board a flight to Geneva.
Meanwhile, the families of victims of the 1989 military crackdown on student-led pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square have called for a public reckoning with the bloodshed ahead of China's annual parliamentary sessions this week.
"We want to hold [the government] accountable," Ding Zilin, founder of the Tiananmen Mothers' victims group, told RFA. "I think they have lost their moral compass and any sort of conscience."
"We have lost so much ... our loved ones and our freedom," she said. "But we have preserved our moral judgement and our conscience."
CHRD called on Beijing to ratify U.N. international human rights covenants, which it signed ahead of its bid for the 2000 Olympics.
It called on Xi's administration to respect the freedoms enshrined in the country's Constitution, to release all prisoners of conscience and end widespread harassment of rights lawyers.
"All citizens of China, including ethnic minority groups and religious groups, [should be guaranteed] freedom of religion, belief, and private worship," CHRD said.
The number of people killed when People's Liberation Army (PLA) tanks and troops entered Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989 remains a mystery.
Beijing authorities once put the death toll at "nearly 300," but the central government, which labeled the six weeks of unarmed pro-democracy protests and hunger strikes a "counterrevolutionary uprising," has not issued an official toll or name list.
Activists and the relatives of victims of the June 4 crackdown have stepped up pressure on the Chinese government in recent years for an official reappraisal of the 1989 military crackdown on unarmed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
But Beijing's censors typically muzzle any online or media discussion of the topic, rolling out annual security measures and surveillance targeting political activists and the families of victims.
Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.