A Chinese journalist, linked to the publication of an open letter calling for President Xi Jinping's resignation, disappeared en route to Hong Kong where he was scheduled to speak at a university in the city, according to his friends and media reports.
The 41-year-old journalist Jia Jia failed to turn up at the Hong Kong City University on Thursday where he was booked to give a talk, an employee of the university confirmed to RFA’s Chinese Service.
"We don't know what the situation is," the employee said. "All we know is that he didn't show up."
Jia's last known phone call was made at around 8.00 p.m. on Tuesday at Beijing International Airport shortly after he went through immigration and as he waited to board a flight to Hong Kong, the city's Apple Daily newspaper quoted his wife as saying.
His wife tried to call him back 15 minutes later, but Jia's phone had been switched off by then, the report said, adding that it was unclear whether he was detained in the Beijing airport departure lounge or after he arrived in Hong Kong.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Jia told friends that he believed the police were looking for him in relation to a March 4 open letter published on the Watching News website calling for Xi's resignation.
Jia also said that the police had gone to the homes of several of his relatives, asking them about his level of involvement with the letter, CPJ said in a statement on its website, citing Jia's New York-based friend Wen Yunchao.
An open letter
The open letter, signed by "loyal party members," accused Xi of abandoning a decades-long consensus of collective leadership at the highest echelons of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and concentrating power in his own hands.
Jia is based in Beijing and had recently worked a number of freelance jobs including writing a column at online media portal Tencent and editing news for the Initium Media website.
Huang Jie, an associate of Jia's, said he believed Jia's disappearance is likely connected to the letter, rather than being a temporary security measure linked to the March 5-15 parliamentary session.
"It's because of that letter telling Xi Jinping to step down, that was published on Watching News," Huang told RFA. "I heard that it was posted by a hacker and that Jia Jia and his friends called up Ouyang Hongliang as soon as they saw it and told him to take it down."
"When the affair was investigated, it was Jia who was called in for questioning."
Shock waves roil media
Huang said the incident sent shock waves through the Chinese media.
"Everyone in media circles knew that Jia Jia is incommunicado, and that's how the news got out."
An employee who answered the phone at Watching News confirmed that the letter was posted on the site through hacking techniques.
"All we know right now is that there was an incident in which our site came under attack," the employee said. "Our bosses haven't told us anything."
"They are still investigating the matter, and the results haven't been announced yet."
According to CPJ, Watching News is jointly owned by the private companies SEEC Media Group and Alibaba, and the government of Xinjiang, in northwestern China.
"It is highly unusual for such critical material to appear on a partially government-owned news website," the CPJ said.
Chen Ping, a former colleague of Jia's at the isunaffairs.com news website, said Jai wasn't a harsh critic of the government.
"He wasn't very hard-hitting, nor did he offer harsh or progressive criticisms," Chen said. "I think the Chinese Communist Party is seeing enemies everywhere."
"Jia was in favor of a united front and in favor of tradition,” he said. “I don't know how the government got like this, with its continual process of stability maintenance which in itself keeps pushing people towards a subversive position.”
Fear for safety
Guangzhou-based independent writer Ye Du, a close friend of Jia's, said he had feared for his friend even before his disappearance.
“I had a feeling this might happen, because he told us that his relatives got visits from the authorities," Ye said. "I think that open letter really shocked the leadership."
CPJ Asia program coordinator Bob Dietz said the group is "deeply concerned" for Jia.
"If he is in police custody, officials must disclose where they are holding him and why," Dietz said in a statement. "If anyone else knows where he is, they should step forward and clarify this worrisome mystery."
Jia wouldn't be the first in the media and publishing industry to run afoul of China's president.
Last November, political cartoonist Jiang Yefei was repatriated from Thailand after he drew cartoons ridiculing Xi. Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish national GUI Minhai was detained in Thailand and brought back to make a "confession" on state television after he planned a book that claimed to reveal details of Xi's early love life.
Four of his colleagues are currently "helping police with an investigation" after disappearing from Hong Kong in opaque circumstances.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.