Authorities across China have criminally detained several members of a social media support group for the families of prisoners of conscience, and called several others in for questioning by their local state security police, RFA has learned.
Guo Qingjun, who founded the group and moderates it on the popular WeChat app, was detained by police in Jiangxi's Ganzhou city on April 11 on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," according to a copy of his detention notification.
Group volunteers Liu Chunlin, Dai Xiangnan, Sun Wenke and Li Xiaohong have also been detained, along with volunteers identified only by their online nicknames Baoluo, Lubi and Meizi Qingxuan, sources said.
An employee surnamed Zhang at a nongovernmental organization in the southern city of Shenzhen said that Dai Xiangnan and two others hailed from the city, and were known to have been criminally detained.
"So far I have only received a notification of detention for Dai Xiangnan, and I'm not sure about the others, but I'm guessing they're being held on the same charges," Zhang said.
"We are currently arranging for a lawyer to visit them, but we won't know the details of the situation until those meetings have taken place," he said.
Zhang said the chat group members had been detained because they organized support for the families of Chinese prisoners of conscience.
No official documents
A source who asked to remain anonymous said the family of Sun Wenke, a resident of the southwestern city of Chongqing, had also received verbal notification of his detention for 30 days, but that no official document had been issued so far.
"There have been a few [group chat members] who have received these notifications," the source said. "This was a coordinated operation to detain them, led by the state security police in Ganzhou."
"Sun Wenke from Chongqing—his kid is just four months old, and he was arrested just as he was arriving home," the source said. "A bunch of them restrained the kid and the mother, and another grabbed Sun Wenke, which was pretty traumatic for them all."
"The family said they were shown a notification of detention for 30 days, but then it was taken away again, not handed over to them."
She said the detainees not resident in Ganzhou had been taken to detention centers in the city anyway.
"They are all being held in locations in and around Ganzhou," the source said. "One is in the Ganzhou Detention Center, and another in the nearby county detention center. There were eight of them, and I don't think they're being held together."
She said another Chongqing member of the group had been called in for questioning by police, and had made a statement.
The crackdown had targeted "hundreds" of people across China, she added, drawing parallels with a crackdown on rights lawyers begun in July 2015.
"According to my understanding, a lot of them are Protestant Christians, good people, and they were willing to selflessly invest their spare time and energy in helping people in difficulty," she said. "They set up a chat group—how can that be the same as opposing the [ruling Chinese Communist] party and opposing the state? It's too harsh."
'Illegal social organizations'
The detentions come as China's civil affairs ministry said it had banned more than 300 "illegal social organizations" across the country that hadn't registered with the authorities.
The groups ranged from special interest groups for people practicing sports and hobbies, like martial arts, to associations for "public welfare," the ministry said in a recent announcement.
Xia Ming, a political science professor at the City University of New York, said the government fears that if it shows any relaxation on controls of civil society groups, that they will become a hotbed of demands for political reform and democratization.
"One issue is that civil groups and nongovernmental groups ... can act as gateways for religion, and also for underground economic activity such as informal lending networks," Xia said.
He said one example was the recent closure of online satire app Neihan Duanzi, which had more than 100 million members across the country.
"The Chinese government was terrified by Neihan Duanzi, because it connected members in a network with its own peculiar culture, slogans, secret sayings to use to other members and so forth," Xia said.
According to Xinhua News Agency, the crackdown on "illegal" social organizations will last until the end of this year.
Reported by Yang Fan and Jia Ao for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.