Freedom on the decline in China: report

[] BEIJING, Jan 13: Repression in China has worsened since Xi Jinping became president in 2013, according to a report published by Freedom House on Tuesday, a sign that the Communist Party is struggling to maintain legitimacy and control despite China’s rise.

In a study examining internal party records and testimony from 30 experts, US-based Freedom House concluded that out of 17 categories of Chinese victims, 11 had suffered worse restrictions since Xi came to power, particularly religious groups and party officials themselves.

Shoppers walk past a "Chinese Dream' poster in Beijing in 2013 (AFP Photo/Mark Ralston)
Shoppers walk past a “Chinese Dream’ poster in Beijing in 2013 (AFP Photo/Mark Ralston)

“There is a clear change in how Xi Jinping is managing the censorship and security apparatus compared with his predecessor, and overall this has meant more restrictions, not more freedom,” said Sarah Cook, author of the report. “As the systems of coercion touch the lives of more Chinese people, Xi and his colleagues risk exacerbating the party’s legitimacy problems.”

Since taking over as head of the party in November 2012 and the presidency in March 2013, Xi has focused on “rule of law” and nationalism under his slogan “the Chinese Dream”, a tactic aimed at reasserting the legitimacy of his corruption-plagued party, the report notes.

But the side effects of his approach include greater online restrictions, harsher policies towards minorities including Tibetans, Christians and Uyghurs and rising dissatisfaction within the party itself amid widening purges of competing or corrupt factions.

“By broadening the targets of repression and censorship while concentrating authority over the coercive apparatus in the hands of Xi himself, the Communist Party has moved away from long-standing strategies designed to balance the need to use coercion against the damage it can cause to regime legitimacy,” the report concludes.

The internet has been a key target of the Chinese government under Xi. As it struggles to assert control over key narratives and damaging information, the administration has increasingly suspended accounts on the popular mobile social media program WeChat and China’s Twitter equivalent Weibo.

In September 2013, a new legal interpretation expanded the criminalization of spreading “online rumors” leading to hundreds of detentions and interrogations.

In each of the two years since Xi took the reins of the Communist Party, Freedom House has downgraded China’s internet freedom ranking from what was an already lowly position.

“Official documents reflect a perceived lack of control and depleted ability to influence public opinion, to the point that it is seen as an existential threat to the regime,” the report says.

It notes a trend that is likely to send a chill through the party: despite increased repression, many Chinese have become increasingly willing to express their dissatisfaction.

Although authorities have set up websites and hotlines to soak up complaints by ordinary citizens, China has witnessed more people petitioning authorities in person.

Among the most famous recent cases is that of Tang Hui, a mother who has harassed authorities across the country for seven years for failing to adequately investigate and provide justice after her then 10-year-old daughter was snatched and forced into sex slavery.

The case has proven a public relations disaster for the government. In 2012, she was confined to a labor camp in response to her protests, but a public outcry forced authorities to back down and release her after just a week. Eventually a court awarded her damages of just US$500.

Last week, a bizarre account in the state-run Global Times admitted that efforts by party officials to follow Tang’s petitioning around the country had cost the state an estimated $676,000.

“Regulations over the past one-and-a-half years have been geared to trying to keep petitioners off the streets — and away from Beijing — but it is hard to say if these goals are being achieved,” said Victor Clemens, a researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders, which keeps regular contact with petitioners.

Although Xi’s administration officially disbanded China’s draconian labor camp system by the end of 2013, Freedom House says that a widening network of “black jails” has largely replaced these, further pushing detention centers outside the remit of the legal system.

Among those who have suffered in such facilities have been the family and congregation members of Protestant Pastor Zhang Shaojie who was sentenced to 12 years in prison last year for petitioning in Hebei province and Beijing.

His case, considered among the worst instances of religious persecution in China in years, highlights the extent of worsening abuse against religious groups and minorities since Xi took power, according to the Freedom House report.

Muslim Uyghurs remain a key target of the state amid a cycle of violence in which Xinjiang separatists have carried out bombings and stabbings across western China, prompting an increasingly authoritarian response from Beijing.

At the end of May, Xi began a one-year “strike-hard” campaign in Xinjiang designed to crush religious extremism, but which has led to restrictions on all Uyghur Muslims in the province, including a recent ban on full veils confirmed by the government at the weekend.

While the party has stepped up controls on “foreign religions”, particularly Christianity and Islam, traditional Chinese faiths including Taoism and Confucianism have seen a resurgence under Xi, notes Fenggang Yang, director of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Society.

“Xi appears to be trying to combine Marxist-Maoist rhetoric and nationalistic discourses as part of his effort to solidify his power,” he told

Although Xi has pushed the idea of the “Chinese Dream”, a nationalist slogan designed to remind citizens of the strides the country has made towards prosperity, an economic slowdown is likely to test whether people lose yet more faith in the party, the Freedom House report suggests.

Perhaps the most damaging side-effect of the current regime’s policies has been on the party itself, it says.

As Xi has attempted to address the corruption undermining his party’s standing in society, his administration has purged thousands of its own, eroding traditional forms of patronage while stoking fear and suspicion among its members.

In 2013, the campaign led to 182,038 party officials being punished for breaches of discipline, 13 percent more than the previous year.

Freedom House recommends that foreign governments prepare for the day when the Communist Party eventually loses power, working more closely with civil groups and regime opponents, despite the outward confidence of the current regime.

Although few expect the party to implode soon, the Freedom House report contributes to a growing consensus that China’s rulers face threats to their monopoly on power, a theme captured with uncharacteristic openness in a state-run editorial published on Tuesday.

“The majority of these measures [Xi’s policies strengthening rule of law] are highly risky because they overturn some of the authorities’ past practices,” Xiao Gongqin, a professor of history at Shanghai Normal University, writes in the China Daily.

“If the measures prove successful, they might encourage the peoples’ calls for more democracy and evoke doubts about the ruling legitimacy of the CPC [Chinese Communist Party]; if they fail, they would arouse universal anger, leading to mass protests and a more chaotic situation that make any further reform impossible.”



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