Updated at 3:00 p.m. EST on 2012-06-28
China is becoming increasingly repressive in civil and political life amidst aggressive crackdowns and disappearances, a democracy and human rights advocacy group said Thursday.
In an annual report entitled “The Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies,” Washington-based Freedom House listed China, Burma, Laos, and North Korea among the world's worst-rated countries for political rights and civil liberties.
In Asia, North Korea and the disputed territory of Tibet were placed at the very bottom of the list.
The report was released to coincide with the June session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in an effort to focus on the world’s most dire nations. Several council members, including Saudi Arabia and China, are listed near the bottom.
North Korea, like the other countries on the list, was held at "Not Free" status in 2011, with the report citing "nonexistent" rights to freedom of speech and the press, persecution of religious activities, and "severe" human rights violations, including the use of torture, public executions, arbitrary detention, and forced labor.
Freedom House also noted North Korea's absence of rule of law, the use the death sentence for political offenses, and an extensive network of camps for political prisoners, who face brutal conditions while incarcerated, as factors it used to determine the country's standing on this year's blacklist.
Although China was not ranked at the bottom of the list, the nation was also designated as “Not Free” and Freedom House noted that it is trending downward.
“China received a downward trend arrow due to increased Communist Party efforts to restrict public discussion of political, legal, and human rights issues,” the report said.
Beijing is accused of being behind the disappearance of dozens of human rights advocates, and of using online censorship to regulate social media and restrict access to information on the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East.
“Looking at the way Chinese internet users are disconnected from the world, it’s really pretty incredible,” senior research analyst for Freedom House Sarah Cook said. “Look at how the coverage, or lack of coverage, of what was happening in the Middle East played out in China.”
“There’s an example of the whole world talking about something and people in China just being disconnected from it.”
These actions are part of Beijing’s wider clampdown in anticipation of the power transition this fall, when President Hu Jintao will step down after 10 years in office, the group said.
These findings were consistent with a report Freedom House released in January, which said China “showed significant signs of deteriorating governance, with particularly notable declines in the areas of civil society, media freedom, and the rule of law.”
Worst of the worst
Within China, Tibet received even lower marks, including it on a sub-list of nine countries and two disputed territories with the very lowest scores.
Over 60 Tibetan cultural leaders, including writers and artists, have been arrested since an episode of civil unrest in 2008 and an ongoing series of self-immolations by monks in that region has led to widespread international attention.
“In Tibet, there wasn’t really a reflection in the score because there isn’t much further to go down,” said Cook. “In the Tibetan regions and the autonomous prefectures, that’s where you saw a deterioration and harsher oppression beginning in March with the horrible incidents of self-immolation.”
“The response to this was to send in hundreds of security forces to surround the monasteries and try to take monks away,” she said. “That sparked backlash from local residents and a cycle of repression and resistance.”
Tibetans face the same lack of political freedoms as China’s Han majority the report said, but it noted that they are subject to harsher punishment for calls for greater rights.
Tibetans are also subject to unique persecution, harassment, and punishment for those found in possession of materials relating to the Dalai Lama, it said.
China’s downward trend stands in contrast to other states in the region, including Laos, which has remained stable on the list, and Burma, where Freedom House has observed improvements.
The group urged regional intergovernmental organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to play a role in the human rights agendas of their members.
“The free countries should more vigorously press the Worst of the Worst and Threshold countries to live up to their commitments under these regional organizations to respect fundamental rights,” the report said.
Freedom House maintained Laos as "Not Free" in 2011, noting the country's lack of an electoral democracy, "severe" restrictions on the media, and prosecution of religious activities. The report also noted government abuse of land rights and ongoing discrimination against the Hmong ethnic minority.
Burma is still classified by the group as “Not Free,” but did improve its score over last year’s due to progress made regarding civil liberties.
“In Burma there was this initial opening we saw in 2011, and those of us watching in 2012 have been pleasantly surprised,” said Cook.
Reduced restrictions on education, more press freedom, better treatment of opposition leaders and reduced internet censorship helped raise the nation’s score, the group said.
Cook warned that Burma still needs to make institutional changes to ensure broader freedoms, but said she remained cautiously optimistic.
“After [Burmese opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi was released … she was allowed to travel about the country and do interviews with the media,” said Cook.
“On the Internet side, there was the unblocking of exile news websites and the people involved in them were allowed to travel to the country. These are things that a few years ago would have been difficult to even imagine.”
Reported by James Bourne and Richard Finney.