Chinese authorities have launched a crackdown on private detectives across the country in recent days, detaining more than 1,000 of them on charges linked to data protection, according to official media reports and industry sources.
A total of 1,152 people were detained during the police operation spanning 21 cities and provinces, and more than 200 have been charged with obtaining, buying, or selling private data on individuals, recent reports said.
Private investigators based across China confirmed the reports.
Chongqing-based private eye Wang Tao said a company he worked for had shut down its website since the beginning of the year, for fear of drawing attention to itself amid the crackdown.
"They are cracking down hard right now," Wang said.
"Our company works out of rented offices and doesn't have a sign up, so [our website] is the only way we get business."
"Even if we put up a sign, it wouldn't be for 'Private Detective Agency,' because the authorities are really going after the industry this year," he said.
A Shanghai-based detective who declined to be named agreed.
"Yes, things have got pretty tense lately," he said. "Mostly we carry out background information checks on individuals."
Officials who answered the phone at police departments in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing on Tuesday declined to comment, however, all saying that they didn't know about the reports.
China's private detectives inhabit a shadowy, semi-legal world, where political rivals are as likely to hire them to dig up dirt on high-ranking officials as jealous wives.
According to Beijing-based Zhu Ruifeng, who runs the anti-graft website Supervision by the People and has exposed sexual scandals linked to officials in Chongqing, some people also use detectives to expose shady dealings that officials would rather keep quiet.
"Mostly, it's the mistresses or wives of officials, but often it's their political rivals who hire private detectives," Zhu said.
"They are very professional and have all the right equipment," he said. "They get hired to follow people, and to take photos of them"
"Mostly they work for private purposes."
Exposing official corruption
Zhu said the latest clampdown on private eyes was likely linked to their role in exposing official corruption, rather than to any concern for the privacy of individuals.
"The authorities are really only concerned with protecting the privacy of corrupt officials," he said.
Since the 18th Congress of the ruling Communist Party last November, China's Internet has been buzzing with a slew of scandalous video tapes involving officials that have been made public for various reasons.
"That's why the authorities want a real-name registration system on the Internet; to deal a blow to private detectives," Zhu said.
China banned private detective agencies in 1993 after an explosion in their caseload sparked mostly by a rise in people wanting to gather evidence in divorce cases, but individuals are still allowed to operate.
"It's not actually illegal to be a private detective, but there is no legal protection, either," Nanjing-based matrimonial lawyer Zhang Lei said in an interview on Tuesday.
"Private detective agencies have been banned by police since 1993, and the industry and commerce bureaus won't issue licenses for them," Zhang said.
"They still operate, though, but on the edge of the law."
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.