Beijing: Rattled by Arab unrest and the growing power of the Internet, China has launched its harshest crackdown on dissent in years, which rights groups say has wiped out years of effort by bold activists.
At least 25 activists have been criminally detained in the wake of the political upheaval that has rocked the Arab world and sparked calls for anti-government demonstrations in China, human rights organisations said.
Scores of others have been put under house arrest or disappeared into police custody without charge, and the victims include prominent rights attorneys and bloggers who had otherwise been tolerated for years.
"The situation for rights activists and critics of the government is grim, with many of the advances made by a generation of courageous activists being rolled back in a very short time," said Nicolas Bequelin, Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch.
The clampdown has marked an intensification of the "hardline turn" that Chinese leaders have taken since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he said. China won the Games with a bid that included a promise to improve human rights.
But the government has tightened control since jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October, which jolted Beijing, and has silenced nearly every major activist or dissident inside the country.
This week, police in southwestern China formally charged veteran activists Ran Yunfei, Ding Mao and Chen Wei with "inciting subversion of state power”, rights groups said.
The charge is often used to put away government critics -- Liu was convicted on the same charge in December 2009.
Wang Songlian, researcher with Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), said that activists are living in fear.
"Nobody knows when this is going to end, and nobody knows who`s next," Wang said.
"This is the harshest crackdown we have seen in the past 15 years. Every day, someone is disappeared, taken away, detained or charged."
Among those detained without charge since mid-February are Teng Biao, Jiang Tianyong and Tang Jitian -- well-known rights lawyers whose mostly futile efforts to use China`s own laws to confront official abuses had long been met with relative tolerance.
Already on edge after Liu`s Nobel, Chinese authorities have reacted harshly since February, when online calls -- inspired by the Arab unrest -- urged people to gather weekly for "strolling" demonstrations across China.
People were urged to protest over social issues such as inflation, corruption and growing income disparities -- a mix of problems that have contributed to the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa.
No obvious protests have been reported.
But the current crackdown indicates Chinese authorities feel their heavy-handed control of the Internet -- including censorship and blocking of sites seen as subversive -- has failed to stymie calls for social activism, rights groups said.
"The authorities are not only detaining seasoned dissidents, they are trying to silence a whole new generation of online activists," Catherine Baber, Amnesty International`s Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in a statement.
In one indication of the toughness of the crackdown, veteran dissident Liu Xianbin, 43, was sentenced last week to a harsh 10 years in jail after he posted pro-democracy articles online.
"The ultimate goal of this wave of arrests is to tame the Internet by removing leading critical voices and instilling self-censorship among Internet users through the fear of arrest," said Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.
"The authorities are taking down, one by one, leading critical voices who have accumulated a large (Internet) following over the years."
A working group under the UN Human Rights Council this week said that it had urged China to bring its arrests and trials into conformity with global norms, and to release rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng.
Gao has been held in police custody for over two years without charge and subjected in the past to torture and other harsh treatment. His wife Geng He, who lives in the United States, said they still have no news.
"As seen in the case of my husband, the government control is getting tighter. The only way they will loosen up is if the international community pays more attention. But right now it`s getting worse and worse," Geng said.
"The Chinese government claims that it`s governed by the law, but whenever anything happens, the first thing they do is to make the lawyers who are protecting the law disappear."
But foreign pressure will do nothing to deter China from its tough approach, former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said.
"(China`s government) is not interested in what the world thinks about them. They`re interested in their own internal stability," Lee said in an interview Tuesday on US public television.