Authorities in Shanghai are holding an outspoken artist and street photographer after he posted satirical images of China's president online, his lawyer told RFA, amid concerns that a permanent change is taking place in the level of state control over individual expression.
Artist Dai Jianyong was held under criminal detention by the Changning district police on Wednesday, on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," according to a copy of his detention warrant seen by RFA.
Dai had recently widely published a digitally altered photograph of Xi with a puckered up facial expression and large mustache on T-shirts and soda cans.
An officer who answered the phone at the Changning district police department declined to comment on Dai's case, however.
"If you want to find out about this, you'll have to come here and inquire, with your ID card," the officer said.
"We don't have a telephone inquiry service here, and we don't answer external queries, sorry."
However, Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan confirmed the detention after speaking with Dai's wife on Wednesday.
"[The charges are] picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," Liu said. "His relatives will probably hire a lawyer locally to meet with him."
"To judge from what his wife said, it looks as if a meeting can't happen until Monday."
The inclusion of the mustache has led some to speculate that Dai intended a resemblance to Adolf Hitler, although the mustache lacks the narrow, boxy appearance of Hitler's facial hair.
Online activists in China have made the link in the past, by substituting the first character in the Chinese transliteration of "Hitler," Xi Tele, for Xi's actual surname.
According to the Shanghaiist blog, the puckered-up expression is known to Dai's followers as "chrysanthemum" face, an Internet slang reference to the anus.
"The fact that Xi is making a similarly unflattering 'anus face' in the offending image certainly isn't helping the matter," the blog commented.
Dai's friend and fellow artist Wu Tun said the police reaction was "too much."
"He's a photographer and he usually shoots a lot of different things," Wu told RFA. "He did a satirical portrait of Xi Jinping, merging his own face with Xi's in Photoshop."
"He was probably detained because of this."
Wu said he had discussed the possibility of official retaliation with Dai shortly before his detention.
"We talked about it in the morning, and by the evening he had been detained," he said.
"That was so unnecessary; it's like saying nobody is allowed to get a haircut like Xi Jinping's," Wu added. "It hasn't broken any rules."
Challenge to authority
Beijing-based lawyer Chen Jiangang said such a thing could only happen in an authoritarian regime such as China's.
"In a dictatorship, national leaders have an untouchable authority, and their dignity mustn't be infringed; you're not allowed to joke about them," Chen said. "Hitler, Mussolini, Mao Zedong, and Stalin were all the same way."
"In Taiwan ... when Chen Shui-bian was president, people would piss on his photograph during demonstrations," he said of the democratic island, which has been governed separately from the Chinese mainland since 1949.
A 2013 directive from China's Supreme People's Court paved the way for the use of public order charges like "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" in the case of Internet speech.
According to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) website, draft national security legislation would formalize this process still further by "ratchet[ing] up Internet censorship."
"Without adequate safeguards called for under international law protecting free expression, law-enforcement bodies in China could charge those peacefully expressing their opinions in cyberspace with more serious crimes by prosecuting their speech as threats to "national security," the group warned.
The group called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to withdraw the draft national security law, saying it would further entrench a crackdown on freedom of expression begun by Xi's administration since it came to power in November 2012.
"President Xi has orchestrated some of the most strident crackdowns on China's civil society since the early 1990s," CHRD said in a statement on its website this week.
The group said nearly 1,000 rights activists were detained in 2014, the same number as were held in the previous two years combined.
"Chinese authorities have already been manipulating the law and the legal system to silence and punish activists, lawyers, journalists, and dissidents," it said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.