After five years of prison and three more confined by guards at home, Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng could take no more.
With the help of friends and a willing driver, Gao escaped his state security captors on August 13 and found shelter in the home of a stranger who made him pork dumplings — the first real meal he’d had in years.
Gao’s freedom was short-lived, however. Less than three weeks later, the police tracked him to the city of Jiexiu in Shanxi province and searched house-to-house until they found him, Li Fawang, a supporter who helped him escape, told The Associated Press. Gao’s whereabouts are now unknown.
Gao’s plight shows what activists say is a drastically deteriorating situation for rights campaigners under the rule of President Xi Jinping, who emerged from a party congress last month as the most powerful Chinese leader in a generation.
With China’s economy continuing to boom and its global influence on the rise, Xi is more than ever convinced that China requires a highly authoritarian, one-party system, analysts say. At the same time, a growing alienation from politics among young Chinese is pushing the party to reinsert itself into its citizens’ daily lives.
“The outlook for human rights is grim and we see no sign of improvement,” said Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch’s Hong Kong-based researcher, who describes the current repression as the worst since 1989′s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. “We feel we haven’t hit bottom yet.”
Wang and others point to the growing number of secret detentions and closed-door trials and the disregard for due process. Authorities are also increasingly willing to ignore health problems among political prisoners, who campaigners say already face solitary confinement or harsh conditions locked up with hardened criminals who dish out beatings and other abuse.
The United States under President Donald Trump doesn’t appear to be offering much support. Trump’s failure to raise human rights during his visit to Beijing last week “lent the Chinese government legitimacy when it is one of the worst human rights offenders,” Wang said.
China’s government rejects accusations of human rights abuses, insisting it runs the country according to law and that no outsider has the right to challenge its “judicial sovereignty.” Yet it also dismisses the suitability of a multi-party system or Western notions of “universal rights,” warning such notions threaten to undermine Chinese society and undo its economic achievements.
The situation has worsened since the party congress, said Thailand-based Chinese campaigner Wu Yuhua, also known as Ai Wu.
“Conditions are deteriorating, with prisoners of conscience suffering from torture, degradation, harassment and discrimination,” Wu said. “I’m very pessimistic about the prospects for human rights in China.”
For many rights activists, the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo from liver cancer in July was a low point. Despite his 11-year sentence on a conviction of incitement to subvert government power, Liu had remained a symbol of courage and persistence in his belief in a democratic China.
His widow, Liu Xia, had been held a virtual prisoner in her Beijing home throughout Liu’s sentence, despite never being charged. Since his death, she’s had virtually no contact with friends or family and the authorities will not say where she is currently being held.
Other lesser-known cases also testify to the party’s determination to crush dissent.
Writer and rights campaigner Yang Tongyan died at the age of 56 earlier this month after being released on medical parole in August, shortly before completing a 12-year sentence on a subversion charge. He’d already served 10 years for criticizing the 1989 crackdown.
Yang’s death underscored “an alarming lack of accountability for the pattern of deaths of activists released on medical parole,” Amnesty International said, likening it to the 2014 death from organ failure of campaigner Cao Shunli, who activists said was denied treatment in custody.
Health worries also afflict longtime activist Huang Qi, who operated a website that documented the often-futile efforts of ordinary Chinese to seek help over land seizures, layoffs and local graft. Huang, who was detained last November, isn’t expected to go to trial until next year, according to his lawyer Sui Muqing.
In his mid-50s, Huang suffers from ailments including kidney and heart disease and has been barred from buying better food and other supplies from the jail commissary, Sui said.
“The detention center is entirely unable to meet his basic medical needs,” Sui said. Huang’s mother says she fears her son won’t last more than another year behind bars.
Retribution is also handed out to activists’ family members.
The teenage son of Beijing lawyer Wang Yu has been blocked from leaving the country, forcing him to set aside plans to study in Australia, his father says. Wang was detained in a nationwide roundup of lawyers and other activists on July 9, 2015, then released but placed under close surveillance in Inner Mongolia and only recently allowed to return to Beijing.
Meanwhile, concern remains high for Gao, 53, who had won international renown for defending members of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement and fighting for farmers’ land rights. His public denunciation of the torture he said he had suffered in detention appears to have made him a particular target for abuse.
When Gao was released from prison in August 2014, the formerly outspoken lawyer could barely walk or speak, raising concerns that one of the most inspirational figures in China’s rights movement had been permanently broken. Years of abuse and poor nutrition have caused his teeth to fall out, forcing him onto a liquid diet.
While under extra-legal house arrest, he was constantly watched by dozens of uniformed and plainclothes officers stationed directly outside his rural home in Shaanxi province. Despite that, he managed to communicate sporadically with the outside via messaging apps, even releasing a book about his time in prison, three years of which were in solitary confinement.
“I felt so sorry that I wasn’t able to keep him protected,” said Li, the friend who helped Gao slip away from his captors. Li was detained for more than a month after Gao’s recapture. A second friend who helped in the escape, Zhao Chongguo, continues to be held.
Under Xi, repression against minority groups has also been ratcheted up, with unconfirmed reports of hundreds of Muslim Uighurs and Kazakhs thrown into political reeducation centers. Tibetans also face onerous restrictions and government intrusions, including the inability to travel abroad.
Conditions could get worse still, activists say.
“Xi is determined to control society at all costs and doesn’t care what anyone says,” said longtime activist Hu Jia, who lives under tight surveillance in Beijing. “His ultimate goal is to preserve Communist Party rule and if someone strives for freedom, they will lose their freedom.”