A Chinese rights activist involved in recent environmental protests in the southern province of Guangdong has fled the country to seek political refugee status in Thailand.
Wang Xili had been giving help and advice to residents of Junpu village near Guangdong's Chaozhou city who were protesting pollution from a battery recycling plant near their homes and plans to build other factories nearby.
But the February protests ended in violent suppression by police, who detained 12 people. A string of formal arrests on public order charges followed earlier this month.
Wang said he fled the country after hearing that his name had been added to a police list of wanted suspects linked to the protests.
"A local resident surnamed Chen told me he heard that our two names had been sent to the [Chaozhou] city police department by the Raoping county police," he said in a recent interview with RFA from Thailand.
"I felt that I was in great danger, and that the only thing I could do was to come to Thailand to seek political asylum," he said.
According to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, Guangdong police formally arrested four demonstrators in April for their role in a protest over environmental pollution.
Chen Ruifeng, Mai Pinglin, Mai Yingqiang, and Wang Er are all under arrest on suspicion of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order and to disrupt traffic" for their role in the protests.
Clashes flared after around 100 local villagers gathered in the city after local officials ignored residents’ calls to either shut down the recycling plant or resolve the pollution issues, CHRD said in a statement on its website.
Wang, who arrived in Bangkok on April 3 after crossing the border from southwest China and traveling to Thailand through neighboring Myanmar, said police were planning to detain him on the evening of Feb. 8 after he gave two interviews to RFA's Mandarin Service.
"Your report went out on the morning of Feb. 8, and the police went to detain me that same evening," he said. "There was nothing else for it, because I'd given you two interviews, and they were saying that we had links with overseas organizations."
Rights groups say Chinese environmentalists and their organizations have been targeted in the clampdown on civil society under the administration of President Xi Jinping.
According to CHRD, NGOs working on environmental issues face new hurdles in their work, including a new law that "reflects the government’s obsession with 'national security' and the perceived threats of 'foreign influences.'"
Wang said he remains vulnerable to harassment by Thai police.
"I was stopped by Thai police on April 3, and they confiscated a bit of money before letting me go again," he said. "That afternoon, I went to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees office and signed the application."
"Now I'm penniless and desperate," he said.
Wang, a long-time rights activist in the Chaozhou area, has long been the target of official ire after he helped local people prepare formal complaints about corrupt village officials.
He served a two-year jail term in 2014, as well as being detained for three days last October.
An employee who answered the phone at the UNHCR office in Bangkok said they were unable to comment on individual cases.
Notice of arrest
Mai Yingqiang's wife Jiang Ke told RFA last week that she has received a formal arrest notification from the state prosecutor, as well as several visits from police warning her not to give interviews to overseas media.
"Four people have been formally arrested so far on charges of gathering a crowd to disrupt public order and traffic," she said. "The police are monitoring my cell phone right now, and they are threatening me, warning me not to speak to journalists any more."
"The village officials ... have also sent a lot of threatening text messages to my husband's family and to his parents," she said.
She said the main focus of the protest was the battery recycling plant.
CHRD said in a statement ahead of Earth Day on Saturday that the ruling Chinese Communist Party will make no progress on environmental protection if it fails to protect the human rights of those who champion change.
"Basic rights like freedom of expression, assembly, association and press are fundamental to any genuine attempt to effectively respond to serious threats to the environment and public health," the group said.
It cited "daunting" studies indicating that China has several of the world’s most polluted cities and that some one-third of deaths in the country can be linked to toxic smog.
The government's declaration of a "war on pollution" will mean nothing if it continues to suppress civil society and rights activists, it said.
Chinese citizens are vulnerable to persecution for expressing concerns about the environment to their government, peacefully demonstrating against polluting infrastructure and commercial projects, or just working for environmental groups, CHRD said.
Chinese authorities have been building an environmental protection regulatory framework, but deficiencies, loopholes, and lax implementation and enforcement hinder effective efforts and meaningful results, it said.
It cited the case of activist Xue Renyi from the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, founder of the group Green Leaf Action, who was taken in for police questioning last December and warned that his organization was being “controlled” and “manipulated” by “foreign forces.”
Growing controls over freedom of expression have also been used to target people writing online about pollution and environmental issues, the group said, citing the detention last December of Liu Ermu for a social media post criticizing the official response to dangerous smog levels in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
"CHRD urges the Chinese government to protect the right to peaceful assembly, including to demonstrate against environmental problems, and to establish more reliable channels through which citizens may voice their environmental concerns," it said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.