Last year, China detained at least 940 Chinese citizens working on human and civil rights—a 72% increase from the year before, according to new data from the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. The figure demonstrates what critics say is a worsening government crackdown on the country’s civil society.
Authorities are targeting not just outspoken activists but moderate environmentalists, lawyers, writers, and artists—people that the Chinese communist party hasn’t traditionally seen as threats. That included Xu Xiao, a book and culture editor; Xu Nailai, a disabled petitioner who was detained with his 8-year-old daughter; Guo Yushan, the head of a think tank; and Pu Zhiqiang, a leading lawyer who represented dissidents such as artist Ai Weiwei.
The data, based on information from human rights groups working in the mainland, are not meant to be a comprehensive picture of all detentions, the organization said, but they serve to illustrate year-on-year increases. The list includes instances of detentions that have lasted for five days or more:
More worrying is the possibility that this crackdown is not just a phase or a reaction to events such as pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In November, president Xi Jinping declared that “a new normal of China’s economy has emerged,” referring to a period of slower but healthier economic growth. But critics including Hu Yong, a commentator on Chinese internet, believe that a tightening intellectual space is also a core part the government’s vision of a new normal for the country.
After the October disappearance of an editorial assistant who had worked for a German news agency, one Chinese news assistant described a new level of suppression in an interview with the Asia Society last month: “The Party has long grabbed anyone with rebellious political views, and now it has finished grabbing the ones with modest views. Now it’s coming for anyone who speaks at all.”