China had an "appalling year" for human rights in 2020, a leading advocacy group said on Wednesday, with a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, repression of Muslim Uighurs and the silencing of people reporting on the coronavirus outbreak.
A Chinese court last month handed down a four-year jail term to a citizen-journalist who reported from Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus before it spread across the globe, while others who did the same have disappeared.
"To crack down on whistleblowers and citizen-journalists at this particular moment ... helps highlight to the rest of the world what the consequences of violations inside China can be," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said after the release of the group's World Report 2021.
HRW executive director Kenneth Roth told Reuters Television in Geneva that China remained the biggest threat to global human rights and that President Xi Jinping had "embarked on the most intense repression" in the country since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
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China last year introduced a national security law in the former British colony of Hong Kong, under which 53 pro-democracy activists were arrested in dawn raids last week, while Beijing also faced accusations - which it denies - of persecution and forced labour of Uighurs in the restive farwestern region of Xinjiang.
Richardson, speaking at a webinar, compared the Uighurs' plight to that of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar but noted a much weaker international response.
She also said it was problematic that the European Union, after a year in which China "publicly shred" its human rights commitments, agreed on an investment pact with Beijing, only setting out vague expectations that China will consider abiding by higher standards on forced labour and other issues.
But she noted more governments were coming together to criticise China.
"Putting a dent in the Chinese government's sense of impunity for serious human rights violations is a real priority, we think, for governments and for institutions like the UN," she said.