Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hubei are holding a prominent activist who edited a rights monitoring website under criminal detention on subversion charges.
Liu Feiyue, who founded the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website, has been incommunicado since Nov. 17, and police informed his relatives the following day that the charges were "very serious this time."
Liu's relatives have been informed verbally of his criminal investigation for "incitement to subvert state power," while his home in Hubei's Suizhou has been searched by police, his website reported.
A volunteer who answered the phone at the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch offices said Liu stands accused of receiving overseas funding to run the group.
"They are saying he received overseas funding," the volunteer said. "They have searched his home and taken a lot of documents, including payslips and so on."
"They say that he has harmed national security by accepting the funding."
The volunteer said that no official documents have yet been issued relating to Liu's detention, however.
"They just informed [the family] verbally, and we don't have any more information than that," the volunteer said. "The police haven't even told us where he is being held."
Liu, a veteran rights activist who founded Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch in 2006, has been targeted for police harassment in the past, and is routinely detained or placed under house arrest during politically sensitive events.
Last month, he was held briefly ahead of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's sixth plenary session in Beijing, but later released alongside other activists.
He had also been detained ahead of the annual session of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), in March, and ahead of the G20 summit in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
Officials who answered the phone at the Suizhou municipal police department, and at the public security management brigade that runs district-level police stations, declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Friday.
Fellow activist Bao Naigang told RFA the charges against Liu don't stand up.
"I don't know how, or under which law, receiving overseas funding translates into harming national security," Bao said. "But lots of people work for foreign organizations or receive overseas funding."
"It makes no sense to go arresting people," he said. "But the Chinese Communist Party can just detain whoever it likes these days; it's like they've gone crazy."
"There are spies everywhere," Bao said.
But he said fellow activists still have a duty to speak out. "If we say nothing, then we will be silenced forever," he said.
"The arrests are coming thick and fast now, and more and more people are being detained, which shows that the authorities are getting frightened, and their paranoia is off the scale."
An activist who declined to be named agreed.
"This is wrong, and it's also ridiculous; the government is just in permanent crackdown mode now," the activist said.
"They've deleted all my online articles; they've deleted my blog, and they've frozen my social media accounts ... it's complete abuse of the law by people who are basically thugs."
Draconian cybersecurity law
Earlier this month, China passed a draconian new cybersecurity law that rights groups warned could be used to further stifle individual freedoms after a crackdown on dissent that has lasted since President Xi Jinping took power in November 2012.
The controversial legislation aims to step up "monitoring, defending and handling cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources, and protecting key information infrastructure from attack, intrusion, disturbance and damage," according to the text of the law.
Efforts will also be made to punish online crime and "safeguard the order and security of cyberspace," state news agency Xinhua reported.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party last month also Xi as a "core" leader, giving him equal billing with late supreme leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.
Members were urged in a communique issued at the end of a plenary session of the party's powerful Central Committee to "closely unite around the ... Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core," state news agency Xinhua reported.
It also called for stricter party discipline amid reports that one million officials have been punished for corruption since Xi came to power.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.