BEIJING – China might be trying to obscure the number of dissidents it is targeting by charging them with public order offenses instead of political crimes, a U.S.-based rights group said Wednesday.
The Dui Hua Foundation said it estimates that the number of indictments in China for state security offenses, such as subversion and separatism, fell last year to the lowest level since 2007.
Dui Hua, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for clemency for political prisoners, said it believes about 830 people were indicted for state security crimes last year, a 21 percent decline from the previous year. Dui Hua said its analysis was based on statistics released Monday by China’s top prosecutors’ office, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate.
But authorities appear to be targeting more political dissidents with crimes of disturbing social order, such as illegal assembly, and other offenses, the group said.
There were 11,000 more indictments for disturbing social order last year than in 2012, according to statistics released by China’s top prosecutors’ office, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, on Monday.
The office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last year saw the beginning of a wide-ranging crackdown on civil rights activism in China shortly after Xi Jinping was installed as Communist Party leader in late 2012.
Among the most prominent to be prosecuted was Xu Zhiyong, the Beijing-based founder of the New Citizens Movement, a campaign that inspired people across the country to gather for dinner parties to discuss social issues and occasionally to unfurl banners in public places in small rallies.
Xu was sentenced to four years in prison on the charge of disrupting order in public places, a case that drew criticism from U.S. and European governments.
Tong Zhiwei, a legal expert at the East China Politics and Law University, said it was too early to tell if authorities had made a strategic shift to minimize the appearance of a crackdown on political crimes by indicting dissidents for public order charges, and that more cases were needed to prove such a strategy.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, urged China Wednesday to release three people who were detained for “causing a disturbance” by writing about a security crackdown in Beijing in the past few weeks.