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A paramilitary police officer stands guard on Tiananmen Square, in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on March 8, 2022.CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/Reuters

On the morning of Jan. 18 last year, Shen Aibin went to open his front door only to find it blocked by two unidentified men. He attempted to push past them but was unable to do so. He called the local government, but no one came.

This was not an unfamiliar situation for Mr. Shen, a human-rights activist based in Wuxi, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. For years, he has faced sporadic periods of house arrest, and police have set up cameras pointing at his home and a guard post near the entrance to his building.

During one stint in 2019, Mr. Shen was instructed to hand over his passport and other documents, and not leave his house or communicate with anyone else without police approval, according to an order seen by The Globe and Mail.

Many other rights activists and lawyers across China face similar restrictions. Some disappear into the residential surveillance at a designated location, or RSDL, system, a network of detention centres used to hold people without charge often for months at a time, while others see their own homes essentially turned into prisons.

For years, most house arrests involved dissidents like Mr. Shen, or those who would otherwise be in jail but for outstanding circumstances like illness, disability or pregnancy.

But the use of house arrests – both legal and extralegal – has exploded since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, according to a new report from Safeguard Defenders, a European NGO.

Drawing on court judgments, researchers estimated that over the past decade, between 560,000 to 860,000 people have been put under lawful house arrest, with many more subject to extralegal controls.

“We know there is a long-standing tradition of using house arrests arbitrarily and illegally, especially against human-rights defenders,” said Peter Dahlin, a long-time China activist and one of the report’s authors. “But that lawful, regulated use would have expanded to these heights, we did not see that coming.”

In 2013, according to a national court database, house arrest – or “residential surveillance” in official parlance – was used in 5,549 cases. By the following year, the number jumped to 28,704, and reached 40,184 by 2020.

Such figures are only the tip of the iceberg, however. Police can order someone placed under house arrest without prior judicial review for up to six months, and many instances will not show up in court databases.

“Even though the numbers themselves are shocking, we know the real figures are going to be a lot higher,” Mr. Dahlin said.

Amendments to China’s criminal procedural law in 2012 and 2018, around the beginning of Mr. Xi’s first and second terms in office, have vastly expanded the ability of police to place someone under house arrest. This has turned the punishment from one used rarely and only in special situations, to an increasingly common tool of control for police across the country.

“Everything we’ve seen, is that once the police are given a power they will use that power, even if it’s supposed to be an exception,” he said. “House arrest is an incredible tool to circumnavigate the few legal safeguards that do exist within the Chinese criminal system.”

China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate and Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

Safeguard Defenders said they found instances when prosecutors had declined to file charges, or an arrestee has been held beyond the legal time limit, and police simply placed the person under house arrest instead.

“From the police point of view, it’s as easy to place someone into house arrest as slap them with a 200 yuan [roughly $38] fine. It’s hard to see how that won’t be abused,” Mr. Dahlin said. It’s also cheaper for local authorities: “You just cut the internet and phone lines, install a couple security cameras and that’s it.”

Beyond simply becoming easier for police to impose house arrest, Mr. Dahlin also connected the spike in recent years to an increasingly heated political environment under Mr. Xi.

“I think the police are running scared. I think they – like most government organs – are very scared of being seen as anything less than overzealous,” Mr. Dahlin said.

In particular, local authorities are often keen to prevent anything that looks like public unrest or dissent, imposing new restrictions on those attempting to petition the central government over grievances back home – a right dating back to the imperial period.

Earlier this year, China’s COVID health-code system was allegedly used to block people protesting against bank closings in central Henan province. People trying to travel to the regional capital for a rally saw their tracking codes turn red, blocking them from public transport and venues, in an instance that was later criticized as an overreach by official state media.

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