During 2016, the government has increasingly targeted civil society and defenders of human rights, criminalizing their activities as "political" threats to "national security," the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in its annual report.
Human rights defenders were subjected to arbitrary detention, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, and torture, while their families faced punishment by association, the report found.
"Police systematically deprived [them] of due process rights, such as the right to a fair trial and access to independent legal counsel," it said.
Meanwhile, a slew of new laws and regulations gave police even more powers to criminalize human rights activities, it said.
"These measures take aim at closing off the already diminishing civil society space," CHRD international director Renee Xia said in a statement on the group's website.
"The laws and regulations effectively legalized Xi Jinping's harsh crackdowns on activists and lawyers who tried to defend the rights of migrant workers, women, suppressed faith groups or ethnic minorities," Xia said.
Growing numbers of rights activists and human rights lawyers were detained, prosecuted and jailed for "political" offenses including subversion and leaking state secrets, according to CHRD's report.
It said freedom of expression and association are crucial to civil society groups trying to advocate on behalf of workers, women, evictees, victims of healthcare scandals, or anyone affected by widespread pollution.
Meanwhile, ever-tightening restrictions on mass media and Internet content and ever-closer state monitoring of personal communications and online activities meant that those working to defend others' rights now have few channels through which to collaborate or release information.
The authorities continued to ban or investigate any gatherings of rights defenders as "criminal activities," claiming that they "disrupt public order" or "endanger national security," CHRD said.
Police interrogated or accused detained activists with ties to non-government organizations engaged in rights work over their funding sources, leaving many closed down or operating on a reduced scale.
"For China to live up to its public pledges to protect human rights and to uphold the Chinese Constitution, the Xi Jinping government must immediately stop criminalizing the activities of human rights defenders, including lawyers," the group said.
"[We call] on the government to release detained or imprisoned [rights defenders]," it said.
As the report was released, the family of detained rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who has been held under "residential surveillance" for more than three months on suspicion of subversion, said they planned to sue media organizations for smearing his name before he had even been tried.
His wife Jin Bianling told RFA that the move is the last legal channel left to the family, as the authorities have refused to allow Jiang to meet with a lawyer, citing "national security" concerns.
"The only legal channel we had has now been slammed in our faces, and all our hopes of due legal process have been exterminated," Jin said.
"They won't tell us where Jiang Tianyong is ... and the authorities have totally gone along with the smearing of Jiang Tianyong in the media."
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio recently highlighted the cases of Jiang and fellow rights lawyer Tang Jingling as examples of human rights abuses in China.
Quoting Tang, Rubio told the Senate: "Inside the grand edifice of the court, we can see stately and ornate furnishings and decorations, and we can see the government employees in dignified attire. But we cannot see the law and we definitely cannot see justice."
Meanwhile, Jiang's defense lawyer Tan Chenshou said police had approached some of his former clients, petitioners with grievances, with questions about the work he did for them.
"What I'm hearing from the petitioners is that now [the authorities] have Jiang Tianyong locked up, they are trying to cook up some charges against him," Tan said. "When a case doesn't go their way, they criminalize the lawyer."
App to tip off police
Meanwhile, police in Beijing have issued a new app aimed at making it easier for people to tip off police about potential crimes, in a move activists said would likely make life even more difficult for anyone who doesn't toe the government line and sing its praises.
The app is being trialed in Beijing's Chaoyang district, and will add to an already comprehensive system for monitoring the words and deeds of Chinese citizens, rights activist Jia Pin told RFA.
"Social conscience is already at its lowest ebb ever after several decades [of Communist Party rule] in mainland China," Jia said.
"There is basically no bottom line any more, and they will cause even more damage to society by using methods like this," he said. "This is totally unacceptable."
Jia said much of the Chinese government's surveillance capability is now fully automated, with the addition of paid pro-government commentators known as the 50-cent army on social media.
"Nowadays, if we post something [the government doesn't like], it will be immediately reported and deleted very fast, and it's very common for our account to be closed down, too," he said.
Veteran rights activist Hu Jia said the government is simply spreading the surveillance net wider with the introduction of such apps.
"Now, anybody can report somebody else, at any time, in any location," Hu said.
"It may be aimed at crimes and emerging incidents, but it is also aimed at stability maintenance; it is bringing the stability maintenance regime online ... because I can report your locations, send photographs and both the regular police and the political police will be able to use it to bring charges," he said.
Xi's administration has put protecting party rule at the top of the agenda ahead of a key political meeting later this year, with a huge boost to domestic law enforcement agencies tasked with preventing or tamping down social unrest amid growing tension and inequality.
Reported by Lee Lai for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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