One year after Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, activists, journalists and ethnic and religious minorities are facing a harsher political climate than before in China, analysts said on Friday.
Human rights took a hard knock as Beijing boosted arrests and sentencing amid ethnic tension and in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.
"The human rights situation in China has got worse in the past year," said Hu Ping, editor of the U.S.-based online magazine, Beijing Spring.
He cited the cases of prominent activists like Liu, 'disappeared' lawyer Gao Zhisheng and blind Shandong activist Chen Guangcheng, as well as police harassment and detention of dozens of would-be independent election candidates across the country.
After missing for more than 20 months, China’s official news agency Xinhua reported this month that Gao will serve the next three years in prison, raising the ire of rights groups which see his case as a leading example of abuse of Chinese dissidents.
"On top of that, we have the successive self-immolations in the Tibetan region by monks and nuns, followed by the very recent revolt by villagers in Lufeng city, Guangdong," Hu said. "All of these reflect the high-pressure crackdown on human rights [activism] over the past year."
Hu said the continuing privatization of wealth and power would likely make the human rights landscape worse in 2012.
"Not only do [the rich and powerful] not promote improvement in human rights or political reform, they are actually the chief asset of one-party authoritarian rule," he said.
"We haven't seen such a harsh crackdown on people seeking candidacy in county-level elections to the National People's Congress in 30 years," Hu said.
'Worst' since 1989
Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said Chinese rights activists, religious believers and ethnic minorities were witnessing the worst environment for human rights since the 1989 military crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement.
"We have seen a serious deterioration in...freedom of expression, of association and of religious belief," Fu said. "Not only is the famous dissident Liu Xiaobo in prison; his wife Liu Xiao has been under house arrest ever since he won the [Nobel] prize."
"The Chinese authorities had a very strong reaction to the events of the Arab Spring in February," Fu said. He said incomplete figures compiled by ChinaAid showed that at least 1,000 people had had their homes searched across the country in the ensuing security sweep.
"And of course there were the more than 200 human rights activists, especially lawyers, who were 'disappeared.'"
He said evidence existed to show that many of them, including Beijing-based lawyers Tang Jitian, Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong, along with Shanghai-based lawyer Li Tiantian, had been tortured.
"These are serious violations not just of the UN Covenants on Human Rights...but also of China's own laws," Fu said.
The New York-based Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) said in a recent statement that journalists and writers were also the target of arrest and 'disappearance' during 2011, especially those covering Beijing's policies on ethnic minority populations.
"In a number of countries, authorities have targeted journalists covering marginalized ethnic groups," the CPJ said in an annual report dated Dec. 8. "Nowhere is this more evident than in China, where the government has ruthlessly cracked down on editors and writers who sought to give voice to the nation’s Tibetan and Uyghur minority groups."
According to the CPJ, 17 of the 27 journalists jailed in China covered oppressed ethnic groups, while others were online writers expressing dissident political views.
Among them were Dokru Tsultrim, a Tibetan monk whose news journal covered Tibetan affairs and who wrote critically about government policies toward Tibetans.
The group said it was concerned for Uyghur journalists Abdulghani Memetemin and Mehbube Ablesh, who were jailed in 2002 and 2008 respectively for "leaking state secrets" and "separatism." Their jail terms have expired, but neither has yet been seen, the CPJ said in a statement on its website.
China has also notched up controls over state-controlled media in the wake of recent online calls for a "Jasmine" revolution, inspired by the recent Middle East uprisings, although some major news organizations are pushing back against a growing wave of directives from the top.
China's censorship apparatus was set in motion in order to suppress reports about an uprising that began earlier this month in Wukan, a large village in the southern province of Guangdong, where residents fought off armed police at the barricades amid protests over land acquisition and allegations of official corruption.
"The authorities reacted by sealing off the village and trying to prevent the unrest from being covered by the media or from getting a lot of attention from online social networks, where residents managed to report that police had surrounded the village," the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement at the time.
As well as issuing top-down propaganda directives to mainstream media, the authorities also monitor search engines and “hot tweets," filtering out key-words linked to unwanted news items, as well as detaining those who post "false" information on microblogs, forums and the popular QQ chat service.
"The censors are trying increasingly to prevent the dissemination of unwanted information beforehand," RSF said. "The government is using the fight against ‘rumors' to silence dissident and justify arbitrary arrests."
"The microblogs have had a huge impact," Hu said. "We never had anything like this in previous years."
Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.