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China's downward spiral

Zhang Ping, Haiye Cao / sbDecember 10, 2012

Two years ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Chinese author Liu Xiaobo. Activists and rights organizations have not seen any improvements in the country's rights situation since then.

An activist wears a mask with Chinese writing reading "Crime of overthrow the state" during a protest outside the Chinese government's liaison office demanding the release of Liu Xiaobo, a dissident who has pushed for political reform, in Hong Kong Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Image: AP

When the Nobel Peace Prize was bestowed upon jailed Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo two years ago, his imprisonment became a subject of international debate.

Activists have continued to complain about the human rights situation in China, saying that not much has changed.

Liu Xiaobo was the first Chinese to win the Nobel Peace Prize when he received it after serving around one year of his prison sentence. Liu had been sentenced to 11 years imprisonment at the end of 2009 for "inciting subversion."

Two years ago, rights activist Hu Jia was also in jail. In June 2011 he was released after serving three years. Upon returning home, security forces cars were waiting in front of his home. They had been commissioned to monitor him. That is when he realized that nothing had changed. "In many respects, the situation has even become worse," said the 39-year-old who for years had campaigned for the rights of people infected with HIV and AIDS.

Other prominent Chinese activists, such as Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng, have made similar statements.

The artist Ai Wei Wei was disappeared last year for three months. After that, he was put on trial for allegedly evading taxes. Even today, he cannot move freely in China.

Blind activist Chen was also under house arrest. He had advocated an end to forced abortions and had to go to jail for four years as a result. After his release in 2010, his own home became a jail of sorts for him and his entire family. In April 2012, he managed to escape to the US embassy. Now he and his family live in New York. Both cases caused an uproar in the international community.

Hu Jia at home (Photo: dpa)
Hu Jia found himself under observation after his releaseImage: picture alliance/dpa

Labor camps and black jails

China expert at Amnesty International Dirk Pleiter is also worried about the situation in China. "Since Liu Xiaobo's conviction, we have not seen any improvements in the way people are treated who are critical of the government, or, like Liu Xiaobo, fight for the improvement of the country's rights situation. The legal situation allowing administrative detention has not changed at all."

There is a debate raging about a form of administrative detention - "reeducation through work" - and whether it should be reformed. Up to now, nothing fruitful has come of the discussion. Current laws allow authorities to detain Chinese citizens for up to four years with no due process. Not long ago, a young village administration official was sentenced to two years at a labor camp in Chongqing for forwarding information from the Internet which demanded political reform. The case caused an outrage but so far nothing has been done.

Even citizens with no political motives are subjected to harassment. The people who file petitions for harassment and go to Beijing to file petitions are often caught by special forces and taken forcefully back to their homes. Before their "deportation" back home they are placed in so-called "black jails." The problem has been known for years and there have even been legal procedures against security guards for assault or homicide. Nonetheless, such detention centers continue to exist.

A black jail in Beijing (Photo: Zhou Shuguang)
'Black jails,' in which perceived troublemakers can be detained, exist across ChinaImage: Zhou Shuguang

But then the unthinkable happened. At the beginning of December, two of these jails in Beijing opened up their gates and let everyone out. Is it the end of an inhumane and illegal system? Dirk Pleiter of Amnesty International fears this will go down as a one-of-a-kind incident. In order to really solve the problem, he told DW, "Prisoners would have to receive the unconditional right to legal representation of their choice after being detained. But at the beginning of the year, the National People's Congress made it easier for authorities to detain people for longer periods of time without contact to the outside world."

Freedom of religion and the press

The government in Beijing also implemented more restrictions with regard to religion. Members of the "Underground" church, loyal to the Vatican rather than the state-sanctioned church, have noticed the change. They have been ordered to end their church services and their clerics are under surveillance. Even their colleagues of the church have been put under increased pressure. A high-ranking priest in the Shanghai diocese announced in July his resignation from the officially recognized "Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association" and has not been seen since then. It is assumed he is under house arrest.

These cases are hardly reported in the media, which is heavily censored in China - many say stricter today than in the past. The publishing group Nanfang Media Group, which had been seen as China's bravest newspaper proprietor, has been losing editors and commentators because they do not wish to work under increased censorship. Well-known investigative journalists were forced to leave their editorial departments after uncovering scandals.

The choir of Shouwang church sing hymns (Photo: Wu Yiyao and Cui Xiaohuo)
Roman Catholics loyal to the Vatican have come under increasing pressureImage: picture-alliance/ANN

Bob Fu, president of the US-based rights organization China Aid, says politicians in the West are partially responsible for the deterioration of human rights in China. "The American and European companies have closer business ties with China. Their lobbying is making it more difficult for politicians to exert pressure."

Hu Jia said the difference between now and then was that the regime in the past tried to defend its actions. "But now, those in power are not really concerned with these mafia methods … the country is, after all, still in the hands of the Communist Party."