Activist Wang Aizhong was taken into custody and charged by authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou with “ picking quarrels and provoking trouble ” in May last year. Nearly a year later, he is still behind bars without having gone to trial: his hearing scheduled for mid-April was cancelled abruptly the week before, with no reason or new date given. “I’m worried that they keep delaying it,” Wang Henan, his wife, said. China has long held a strict line against large-scale protest organisers and prominent activists, with past high-profile cases garnering international attention. One of the most well-known, late dissident Liu Xiaobo , was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 while serving an 11-year jail term for “inciting subversion of state power” by co-authoring a pro-democracy manifesto. The 2011 detention of the artist Ai Weiwei , known for his provocative artworks which are openly critical of the Communist Party, also sparked an outcry both at home and abroad. But Wang Aizhong is one of what observers say are a growing number of “moderate” human rights advocates detained in recent years whose activities were limited to, at most, small community groups. Unlike before, these individuals are typically low-profile, and their cases often fly under the radar. “There is even less attention on imprisoned activists [than before], even though their situation is grimmer,” said Wang Yaqiu, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is getting harder to get information about them, there are fewer supporters inside the country, and the international media is now more focused on covering China’s activities abroad.” China’s bride prices keep rising despite bid to end ownership of women’s bodies As United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet looks set to visit China this month, most of the spotlight has been on her long-awaited visit to Xinjiang, where some 1 million mainly Uygur Muslims are alleged to have been held in mass detention camps – claims that China has repeatedly denied. Bachelet said in an address to the Human Rights Council in March that she “remained concerned about the treatment of individuals who speak up on human rights issues that are deemed critical of Chinese policies”, and that her office had raised a number of such cases with the government. However, she did not name any specific activists or say if their release would be on the agenda for her trip. Confusion and worry There is scarcely any official information released on cases involving activists, but the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) – a US-based network of rights groups from both within and outside China – has a database tracking people it said had been detained, imprisoned or “disappeared” for peacefully exercising or defending human rights. According to CHRD’s database, four such people were taken away and deprived of their freedom by authorities in 2011. A decade later, in 2021, CHRD tracked 144 such cases. “However, these figures represent only the cases CHRD and our partners were able to document and verify,” the human rights network said in a report released in March. “Due to the family members of prisoners of conscience being unwilling to go public in some instances due to fear of retaliation and widespread media and social media censorship, these figures are potentially just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.” The charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” levelled against Wang Aizhong is a catch-all offence often used to muzzle dissent, and no official reason has been given for why exactly he was charged. But the 45-year-old had posted comments on Twitter about social injustice, pandemic controls and current events shortly before his arrest, and his wife believes that it was these posts, as well as interviews he gave to foreign media, that led to him being put behind bars. In fact, the former medical product company employee was more active in campaigning on human rights 10 years ago. He was the founder of the Southern Street Movement in Guangzhou, which called for the abolition of one-party rule in China, greater political freedoms and public disclosure of government officials’ wealth. The movement came to an end in 2014 when most of its active members were sent to prison or put under close surveillance. Wang avoided detention but he remained active on social media commenting on human rights issues inside China. Several other recent cases have drawn attention for their vague charges, drawn out legal processes and the seemingly moderate activism of those detained. Two other Guangzhou activists, Huang Xueqin, 33, and Wang Jianbing, 38 were detained on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power in September, as they were travelling to Shenzhen. They have yet to face a court and Huang’s lawyers said they so far have been unable to meet with her or get access to case files. The pair organised small gatherings at Wang Jianbing’s flat offering support to young people, victims of industrial accidents and the LGBT community. Huang was previously detained by Guangzhou police for several months in late 2019 after she posted online about her experience of attending anti-government rallies in Hong Kong. She also reported on Li Qiaochu, who was detained in Shandong in February after speaking out for her partner and dissident lawyer Xu Zhiyong. Ou Biaofeng , from the central Chinese province of Hunan, was detained in December 2020 on the charge of inciting subversion of state power, soon after lent his support to “Ink Girl” Dong Yaoqiong who was held in a psychiatric facility for splashing ink on a picture of President Xi Jinping. Ou, 41, had his case heard in January but his sentence has not been announced. It is unclear whether the charges were related to his support for Dong or previous statements: he also spoke out about the anti-government protests in Hong Kong in 2019 and voiced his support for the defunct newspaper Apple Daily . Ou’s wife, Wei Huanhuan, said she did not know when the verdict would be delivered or why he was behind bars. “His current lawyers were appointed by the authorities, did not give me any information, only that the main reason was his posts on Twitter,” Wei said, adding that her requests to meet Ou and access files related to his case were also denied. Robert Cheng, a friend of Huang and Wang Jianbing who now lives abroad, said he was worried about the activists’ mental and physical health. “They were not held in legal detention centres for the first few months, and were being held in unknown places in the name of epidemic prevention and control, which is illegal and means they could be mistreated,” he said. Intensifying crackdown Lu Jun, co-founder and executive director of leading anti-discrimination NGO Beijing Yirenping Center, said that what the cases have in common was that “none of these ‘crimes’ were a big deal in the past”. “Wang Aizhong and Ou Biaofeng’s arrests this time were mainly because of their comments on Twitter and interviews with foreign media, which in the past, would usually lead to administrative punishment, questioning, threatening, two-week detention, forcing you to delete your posts or cancel your account … and then it was fine,” said the former senior research assistant at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law. “These were all tolerable acts in the past, just not now. Political charges, including incitement to subversion and subversion, are also being used much more frequently,” he added. Li Xuewen, a dissident writer and independent political researcher based in the central city of Wuhan, said Huang and Wang Jianbing “have been moderate NGO activists for years” and had no “political intentions”. “[But] they still cannot escape the authorities’ crackdown,” Li said, adding that the two would probably be found guilty and sentenced. “The fact that arrests in recent years have almost always resulted in prison sentences shows the determination and will of the authorities.” The authorities had been quick to target people trying to establish youth networks and communities, even if they had “no aspirations to subvert state power”, he said. Until recently, prison sentences were generally reserved for activists seeking to mobilise broader support for a cause, according to a human rights lawyer who requested anonymity due to security concerns. CHRD’s database showed six documented cases of activists sentenced in 2011, with sentences ranging from nine to 18 years. The heaviest sentence was given to businessman Yang Jinde, who was convicted of disrupting social order after he led 40 of his employees in a protest outside a district court for the deduction of a fine for a civil case before the court’s ruling had been delivered to his company. UN team in China ahead of likely Xinjiang visit by human rights chief More than 200 prisoners of conscience sentenced in 2021 were recorded in CHRD’s database. Many of these had shorter jail terms of about one to three years, but observers say they were for crimes that would not have resulted in arrests at all in the past. The lawyer said that while the authorities had always been wary of Twitter, the response several years ago to people posting online would have usually been requests to delete the comments or a warning. Further action could result in a few months in detention, or probation. The crackdown on rights activists has intensified over the years in the name of the rule of law, the lawyer said. “Not all verdicts are uploaded to the legal document database, so it’s not as easy to find out and analyse, but in practice, it does happen.” Li said he expected that Ou and Wang Aizhong would be ordered to serve several years in prison, even though they had not been involved in organising in recent years. Like Wang Aizhong, Ou was actually more active in large-scale protests in the past, having attended sporadic street protests around the country, spoken up for the families of political prisoners and tried to build up support networks. At the time he was detained, he was no longer involved in these activities. “The reason is that the bottom line of totalitarian oppression is getting lower and lower, and after sweeping up clear groups of opponents, they will inevitably turn on the relatively moderate groups advocating democracy and pan-liberalisation,” Li said. China ratifies forced labour conventions ahead of UN rights chief’s visit He said the Guangzhou cases also attracted interest from the authorities because the city was close to Hong Kong. “[The cases] fit into the general scheme of the authorities’ crackdown on Hong Kong-Guangdong linkages – trying to nip in the bud activists in Guangdong who might have connections to the Hong Kong protests,” Li said. Lu said that the widening crackdown may also be because more prominent activists, responsible for larger-scale activities such as organising street protests and spreading ideas about human rights on the internet in a high-profile way, had already been apprehended. “Because the people at the front of the ‘blacklist’ have all been wiped off, the people at the bottom have been moved to the front,” he said. “Previously, activists like Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti [a Uygur academic jailed for life] suffered severe sentences, but now people who are far less influential and ‘threatening’ will also be heavily punished. The ceiling of suppression has been lowered. The valves of a pressure cooker are gradually being plugged.” Diminishing value of human rights dialogues The lawyer said that part of the problem was a global trend towards conservatism, with less priority given to human rights. “Human rights dialogues have less and less value in diplomacy,” the lawyer said. “Beijing is bound to eliminate all dissenting voices, whether they are shrill or moderate … if there is no price for Beijing to pay.” Li, the Wuhan writer, said that under Xi, China had developed its own approach to diplomacy and was no longer concerned about Western criticism. “The authorities are now not interested in international human rights dialogues,” he said. “In their narrative of the ‘rising East and falling West’, they … basically do not care about international criticism any more.” China’s activist’s girlfriend charged with inciting subversion Wang Yaqiu, the Human Rights Watch researcher, agreed, saying that while China still talked about “human rights” – especially at the United Nations – it only referred to its own version of human rights. “Beijing wants to promote a version of human rights that undermines individual rights, that downplays government accountability and that omits the role of independent civil society. It is the antithesis of human rights as we know it,” she said. Wang also said that in the past, the government had released political prisoners in response to international pressure but Beijing had stopped doing so because it had grown more confident in its own power. “The consequence is that activists in China are paying a higher price than ever for speaking truth to power and for wanting a more just and free society,” she said.