Nine days after he went missing, presumed detained, the family of Chinese journalist Jia Jia has had no word of him, while several of his colleagues at a news website that published an open letter calling for President Xi Jinping's resignation are also now incommunicado.
Jia, 41, failed to turn up to give a scheduled talk at Hong Kong's City University on Mar. 17.
Now, the editor-in-chief of the Watching News website, Ouyang Hongliang, is also incommunicado after the site's editors said the March 4 open letter was posted as the result of a cyberattack, sources told RFA.
Ouyang, Huang Zhijie, and technical employees of Watching News have been called in for questioning by police, an associate surnamed Huang said.
A second source surnamed Chen confirmed Huang's account, saying that the letter's publication is being treated as a "political incident" by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
"This affair has gone to an extremely high level [inside the party]," Chen said. "Things are appalling here in China, and we can't do anything to help because the people are being held, and we have to respect the wishes of the relatives."
"I don't think the family are very keen on speaking out about this."
Repeated calls to Ouyang's wife went unanswered in recent days, while employees who answered the phone at Watching News declined to give out information about Huang Zhijie's relatives.
Meanwhile, Jia's lawyer Chen Jiangang said his family had heard nothing from police or officials about his whereabouts, nor the reason for his "disappearance."
"The police told us that [Jia] was taken away by the police, but nobody from the police department will give us a response, and nobody will tell us where he is being held, or on what charges," Chen Jiangang said.
"We are up against a brick wall here."
Law 'no help here'
He agreed that Jia's detention is highly political.
"It is a Chinese characteristic that some cases have nothing to do with the law," Chen Jiangang said. "That's why the law is no help here."
"Our profession has become useless. Our only weapon is the law, and when that doesn't work, all that is left is violence."
An officer who answered the phone at the Beijing municipal police department said all cases were different, however.
"We don't know all of the details of all cases here, and I am just the officer on duty," he said. "I am not familiar with the case you are talking about, so I can't give you a detailed response."
Before his detention, Jia had reportedly told friends that he believed the police were looking for him in relation to the open letter.
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,
The open letter, signed by "loyal party members," accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of abandoning a decades-long consensus of collective leadership at the highest level, and concentrating power in his own hands.
Sources told RFA that Jia was called in for questioning after the letter appeared on Watching News, but numerous reports have questioned whether he had a hand in writing it.
Strife inside the party
Hebei-based veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin said the case is clearly a highly political incident.
"Of course this sort of thing is a political incident, to use official language," Zhu said. "It involves Xi Jinping, our highest-ranking leader."
He said the letter is an rare glimpse into internal dissent to Xi's leadership within party ranks.
"It shows us that there is a huge amount of dissatisfaction with him behind the scenes," Zhu said. "And I'd say it's not just a handful; it's a significant proportion of people, and an attitude which is shared by people at the highest level."
Zhu said China's leadership is terrified that the general public will learn of internal strife in party ranks.
"They are also afraid that any hint of a split in their ranks will encourage the general public to step up protest and opposition to the government," he said.
"That's why they are taking this matter so seriously, so as to avoid everything becoming public knowledge."
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 Lam Lok-tung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service.