Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi are holding a top investigative journalist on suspicion of "obtaining state secrets," his newspaper has reported.
Liu Wei, a journalist for the cutting-edge Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, was placed under criminal detention on Oct. 9 by Jiangxi's Pingxiang municipal police department, according to a copy of his detention notice seen by RFA.
"In accordance with Article 80 of China's Criminal Law, Liu Wei was placed under criminal detention at 5.00 p.m. on Oct. 9 on suspicion of illegally obtaining state secrets," the notice said.
"He is currently being held at the Jinxian County Detention Center, Nanchang city," it said.
Liu, a highly respected journalist known for his expose of the links between celebrity qigong master Wang Lin and prominent public figures, had been incommunicado since Oct. 8.
Liu had written a number of articles detailing the links between Wang Lin and celebrities, business people, and Communist Party officials.
By the age of 37, Liu had risen to become deputy director of the paper, which has fallen foul of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department in the past because of its relatively daring reporting.
Liu's detention comes after the paper ran a black page as an advertisement on the International Day of Democracy last month, prompting some to wonder if the ad was making a sly reference to a lack of democracy in China.
Liu "disappeared" at Chengdu airport, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, on Oct. 8, and the paper then contacted Jiangxi police to speak up in his defense and to post bail, which was refused, the South China Morning Post reported.
Liu began investigating Wang in 2013 after he was accused of charging exorbitant fees for medical services he was allegedly unqualified to perform.
Jiangxi police detained Wang in July in connection with a kidnapping and murder investigation after a Jiangxi provincial lawmaker, one of his followers, was found dead.
Southern Metropolis News later published several documents given to Liu by an ex-wife of Wang's, who bought them from a police officer.
The ex-wife and the police officer are also being held on suspicion of illegally obtaining state secrets, and Liu appears to be a defendant in the same case.
A journalist who answered the phone at the Southern Metropolis Daily offices on Sunday declined to comment on the case.
"Our bosses have stopped responding to queries even from domestic media, starting last Friday," the journalist said.
"The Southern Metropolis Daily has been working hard to clarify matters via [social media] all along, ever since the beginning of this whole affair," he said.
In an earlier exchange on Saturday, another employee confirmed that the paper had sent a lawyer to Liu in Jiangxi.
An officer who answered the phone at the Pingxiang municipal police department also declined to discuss the case.
"We would only tell the relatives [information like that]," the officers said. "I can't respond to your queries over the telephone, because I have no way to confirm you are who you say you are."
"I am unable to discuss any of this with you."
The state news agency Xinhua on Monday quoted the public security ministry in Beijing as saying that it was overseeing Liu's case "in response to public concern."
Meanwhile, the Southern Metropolis Daily has pledged to cooperate with the investigation, it said.
Xinhua said that Wang Lin first came to public attention in 2013, "when images of his supposed 'supernatural powers' were posted on the Internet."
"These 'powers' include conjuring snakes from thin air and posing for pictures with celebrities," it said, adding that the July 9 kidnapping of one of Wang's disciples, Zou Yong, had drawn further media attention.
Wang and another suspect were arrested on the charge of illegal detention, while the other two were charged with intentional homicide, it quoted Jiangxi police as saying.
Hebei lawyer Li Weida said Liu's detention suggests that the authorities are continuing to tighten the leash on China's already tightly controlled media.
"The authorities have continued to tighten controls on the freedom of expression and on public opinion, with an increasing crackdown both on journalists and lawyers," Li told RFA.
"Journalists and the media haven't been free since 1949 in China," he said. "They have always been under the ideological control of officialdom."
A Beijing-based veteran journalist, who gave only a surname, Shi, said the Southern Metropolis Daily is being surprisingly active in giving out details of Liu's detention, and in showing its public support for the journalist.
"It shows they are taking some responsibility," Shi said.
But he said the ruling Chinese Communist Party's powerful propaganda machine has already made the transition from a system that tries to eliminate unwanted content, to one that tries to proscribe all content.
"In such a society there are still media organizations and some individual journalists with a conscience, who try to expose abuses in that society," Shi said. "Especially when those cases involve government officials, or are particularly murky."
"But overall, we can see the policy direction that this crackdown on the media is headed in," he said.
In a press statement Monday, the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for Liu's "immediate and unconditional release," saying he was "guilty of nothing more than doing his job in a professional manner and with a sense of duty."
"By using a 'state secrets' charge to gag the source of information of public interest, [Chinese president] Xi's party has betrayed its real goal, which is to protect its members and prevent a new blow to its legitimacy," Benjamin Ismail, head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk, said.
China led the world in imprisoning journalists in 2014, with a total of 29 behind bars, amid fears Beijing may be exporting its model of censorship within the East Asian region, RSF said in a recent report.
China ranks 175th in the world, just fifth from bottom, in RSF's Press Freedom Index. The authorities are also holding 73 netizens out of a global total of 178, it said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ka Pa and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.