Expectations that China might be more tolerant of political dissent under the country’s new president, Xi Jinping, are fading as the ruling Chinese Communist Party cracks down on grassroots anti-corruption efforts and strengthens controls on online discussion, a democracy and human rights advocacy group said on Thursday.
In its “Freedom in the World” report for 2014, U.S.-based Freedom House listed China as among the world’s worst-rated countries for political rights and civil liberties, with combined scores of 6.5 close to the bottom of the rights group’s ranking scale of 1-7 and unchanged from last year’s.
"There was no change in China’s score this year. It remained a 7 on political rights and a 6 on civil liberties, and overall it’s really one of the poorest performers in Asia and still holds more than half of the people in the world who are rated Not Free in 'Freedom in the World,'" Sarah Cook, Asia research analyst for Freedom House, told RFA.
"I think what we see in China is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of events over the last year, but overall a kind of disappointing decline and, I think, disillusionment with the new leadership both by people inside China and people outside China when it comes to political reform," she said.
Freedom House noted in its report that when Xi took over as president in March 2013, the leadership change had raised hopes among reform-minded intellectuals that the ruling Chinese Communist Party under his leadership might be more tolerant of dissent and loosen political controls.
“However, such optimism faded as the year progressed,” the report said.
“Despite an invigorated anti-corruption drive, official rhetoric about improving the rule of law, and invitations for input from society … the authorities responded with campaigns to intensify ideological controls,” Freedom House said.
Calls by ordinary citizens for greater political freedom and urging Chinese leaders to publicly disclose details of their personal wealth were dealt with especially harshly, according to the report.
“Over the course of the year, more than 65 political reform activists across the country were detained, many for their connection to the New Citizens’ Movement, a loosely organized network of individuals seeking to promote the rule of law, transparency, and human rights.”
Authorities in the Chinese capital put on trial this week three of the movement's leaders, including founder member Xu Zhiyong, who viewed the hearing as illegal and stayed silent in protest against charges of disturbing public order.
Leadership 'spooked' by reform calls
Cook said calls last year by reformers for the party to adhere to China’s constitution to try to make the government more accountable to the people as well as a strike at the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou city after censors scrapped a New Year editorial demanding constitutional rights seemed to have "spooked" the Chinese leadership.
"And they responded with an intensified campaign related to ideological control," she said. "Unfortunately, we saw a shift in terms of people’s ability to share information or breaking news or have discussions and political debates. And that was something that I think created higher barriers for civil society."
And though the Communist Party's Central Committee in November announced plans to close China’s infamous reeducation-through-labor camps, other forms of extralegal detention continue to be employed against rights activists, petitioners, and religious believers, Freedom House said.
During 2013, increased Internet controls also blocked Chinese citizens’ ability to “share breaking news, uncover corruption, or engage in public debate about political and social issues,” according to the report.