With Xi firmly at the helm of China's Communist Party, activists fear continued crackdown

Chinese President Xi Jinping waving after a speech during the introduction of the Communist Party of China's Politburo Standing Committee, in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Oct 25, 2017.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waving after a speech during the introduction of the Communist Party of China's Politburo Standing Committee, in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Oct 25, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - When President Xi Jinping was handed a second term at the helm of the Communist Party this week, he said China had entered a "new era".

But human rights activists expect the same old crackdowns. Mr Xi has increasingly stifled civil society since taking office in 2012, targeting everyone from activists to human rights lawyers and teachers to celebrity gossip bloggers.

In his speech to the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress, Mr Xi made it clear that there will be no loosening of the party's control over the country's affairs during this "new era", in which he envisions China becoming a superpower by 2050.

He warned that social tensions and problems should be met with the strengthening of "governance based in law", and made multiple stern warnings to those supporting independence for semi-autonomous Hong Kong, and for self-governing Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

"We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China," Mr Xi said.

In recent years and months, the government has enacted several laws on Internet control and other measures in the name of national security, giving a legal basis for its tightening grip on society.

It has also jailed several mainland citizens who spoke out in support of Hong Kong's democracy movement and arrested a Taiwanese NGO worker, Lee Ming-cheh, putting him on trial last month for "subverting state power".

"Emboldened by the national security laws passed by Xi, police will likely go after anyone who dares to criticise government policies," Ms Frances Eve, a researcher for the overseas Chinese Human Rights Defenders group, told AFP.

"There will be more crackdowns, arrests, mass surveillance and censorship."

While Mr Xi has also presided over efforts to improve the professionalism of the judiciary, such as raising criteria for the appointment of judges, the reforms have not led to better treatment of government critics.

More than 200 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists were detained or questioned in a police sweep in 2015 that rights groups called "unprecedented".

In July, the authorities ignored international pleas for mercy as they refused to free democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo before he died of liver cancer.

Liu's death in custody triggered rage and frustration among the Chinese dissident community, and engendered a sense of hopelessness under Mr Xi.

Professor Margaret Lewis, an expert in Chinese law at Seton Hall University, said freedoms protected under international treaties "are under constant attack in China today".

"Police are by far the strongest component of the 'iron triangle' of police, prosecutors, and judges in the criminal system," Prof Lewis told AFP.

Amnesty International researcher Patrick Poon said Mr Xi's speech last week signalled that China will continue to use its laws to "crack down on dissidents in the name of protecting national security".

In recent years, rights groups noted an uptick in police harassment of China's most vocal critics, especially around major events, with activists getting sent on government-sponsored "holidays" away from Beijing.

During this year's week-long Congress, only one prominent mainland lawyer dared to challenge leaders on China's human rights record.

In an open letter to delegates, Mr Yu Wensheng said the last five years have been marked by a deterioration of rights and freedoms.

"The Chinese Communist Party speaks about freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law, but actually China has no freedom, no democracy, no equality, no rule of law. The elite and the rich are in power and corruption is everywhere," the letter said.

The letter was reproduced or excerpted in several overseas Chinese-American websites and Hong Kong and Taiwanese newspapers, but it was not visible in mainland China without using software to bypass government filters.

Mr Yu said in a follow-up statement that police detained him immediately after he circulated the letter on Oct 18 and interrogated him for three hours.

In the past, similar letters were signed by groups of activists and intellectuals.

Mr Yu - who is best known for suing the government in Beijing in late 2016 over toxic air pollution - told AFP he decided to issue the letter on his own because he had seen the human rights situation worsen severely, "especially with the large-scale arrest of lawyers."

Earlier this month, his wife circulated a statement saying his law licence was invalidated and authorities had pressured his firm to fire him.

Dr Terrence Halliday, an expert on Chinese law at Northwestern University, said he was quite surprised by Mr Yu's "extraordinarily bold letter".

"I think the rest of the world will need to watch closely to see if it's possible for one single voice to speak out and still be heard without extreme punishment in Xi's China."