U.S. human rights activists and legal experts say China is increasingly using prison sentences and detentions to crackdown on all types of non-violent expression. They urge the U.S. government to pay more attention to the trend and to engage Beijing on human rights issues.
U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota used the mysterious disappearance of Chinese activist lawyer Gao Zhisheng to highlight the growing problem at a congressional hearing Tuesday on political prisoners in China.
"Last year he (Gao) was abducted from his home by security agents after his wife and two children had left China to seek asylum in this country (the United States). He was known at that point just to have disappeared. And now we know that for more than a year security agents shuffled him from one location to another and subjected him to both physical and psychological abuse."
Dorgan, who is the chairman of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, said that following urgings from U.S. lawmakers, his commission and international attention, Gao was briefly released for about two weeks in March before being taken away again by Chinese security forces.
"His forced disappearance by the state reveals a complete disregard by the state for individual rights and the rule of law."
Chinese authorities have provided little information regarding Gao's situation, but insist his case is being handled in accordance with Chinese law.
Gao made a name for himself defending medical malpractice victims and dispossessed landowners. Activists, legal experts and human rights advocates say he is just one of a increasing number of people in China who are being targeted, including people who want to express their opinions online, those who work with non-government organizations or lawyers who wish to represent their clients.
In testimony to the same Commission,Joshua Rosenzweig, senior manager at the Dui Hua Foundation, said a growing crackdown in China has targeted ethnic minorities, government critics and rights activists in particular.
"Since roughly the beginning of 2008, there have been clear signs that earlier progress towards rule of law in China has stalled or even suffered a reversal and there is mounting evidence that a crackdown is well under way."
For more than a decade, Rosenzweig's Dui Hua Foundation has documented the imprisonment of individuals in China who have been jailed for voicing their political or religious views. He said evidence of the crackdown can be seen in the increase in cases of individuals charged with endangering state security.
"A category of crime that includes vaguely defined and arbitrarily applied offenses such as splitism, inciting subversion of state political power and trafficking in state secrets for overseas entities."
Rosenzweig said that arrests for endangering state secrets more than doubled in 2008, and more arrests and indictments for endangering state security were carried out in 2008 and 2009 than in the five years before that.
Wan Yanhai, a prominent AIDS activist who fled China with his family earlier this year, said help from overseas is crucial.
"Chinese civil society democratic forces are developing rapidly and I think (that now) is a key moment for western societies to give a hand to support human rights defenders, civil society organizations and general democratic parties in China."
Wan said he left China when it became apparent that authorities were moving in to arrest him.
Sophie Richardson, a China expert with Human Rights Watch in Washington, DC, said political imprisonment has reached new lows of arbitrariness and that recent cases highlight how anyone can face prosecution.
"All behavior may be subject to some kind of reprisal from the government. Your business success today, might be a liability tomorrow. Your call to end unrest last year, may land you in hot water today. Your approval from the government at any point is no guarantee of a life free of persecution."
Richardson said the development of civil society, rule of law, a predictable and fair trade regime are at risk as long as those who share those views in China are considered potential threats by their government. She calls on the U.S. government to take a closer look at the situation.
"The United States should remain profoundly concerned about the Chinese government's persecution of its citizens. Until peaceful dissent is tolerated, the county cannot be expected to be predictably transparent or stable."
Richardson said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should make a strong explicit statement about Washington's concern about the human rights environment in China. She also urged President Barack Obama to meet with former Chinese political prisoners in the White House to show Washington's support of civil society rights in China.