Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have detained activists linked to a leading nongovernment organization (NGO) on charges of "illegal business activity," in a move which fellow activists and rights groups said is linked to a growing civil society crackdown.
State security police from Beijing and Guangdong detained Guo Bin, who heads the disability advocacy group Zhongyixing, in the southern city of Shenzhen.
In the central province of Henan, police also detained health rights campaigner Yang Zhanqing on the same charges.
Both Guo and Yang have previously worked for the health-care anti-discrimination group Yirenping, according to Guangdong-based rights lawyer Pang Kun.
"I'm not sure what the real reason [for their detention] is, but we expect that this has something to do with Yirenping," Pang told RFA on Sunday.
"They were both taken to detention centers on the day they were detained, and they weren't allowed visitors."
Asked if the detentions are linked to an ongoing crackdown on NGOs, Pang said: "They most certainly are."
According to Pang and the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network of rights groups, Yang and Guo will be transferred to Henan's Zhengzhou No. 2 Detention Center on Monday.
The detentions come as Beijing moves to intensify pressure on civil society groups, which include those campaigning for the rights of women, consumers, students in education, sex workers, and those with disabilities and diseases like AIDS and hepatitis B.
"The government has recently targeted those who work on what had generally been considered “politically nonsensitive” issues, such as health rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and anti-discrimination," CHRD said in a statement on its website on Monday.
Lu Jun, the founder of the Zhengzhou branch of Yirenping, dismissed the "illegal business" charges against Guo and Yang.
"The detention of Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing is an example of the growing trend of oppressing NGOs carried out by the Chinese government," Lu said.
He cited the month-long detention of the five feminist activist—Li Tingting, Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, and Zheng Churan-—who had been planning an anti-sexual harassment campaign for International Women's Day, as well as repeated searches of NGO offices by police in recent months, including those of Yirenping.
"The treatment of Yirenping and that of Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing are no coincidence," Lu said.
A former colleague of Guo's and Yang's, who identified himself by a nickname, Geng Shu, said they had both been involved in advocacy work for some of the most disadvantaged groups in Chinese society.
"They carried out policy research, made suggestions, and wrote reports, stuff like that," Geng Shu said. "All of it was completely within the law."
"What's more, they received a lot of very positive reporting in the media, from central government-controlled media to the local media," he said.
'A clear indicator'
He said the entire NGO sector is worried about a draft NGO Management Law giving police power to intervene in its activities on a regular basis, in the name of "national security."
"These detentions, together with the NGO Management Law, are a clear indicator of the way their thinking is going; they are not individual and isolated cases," Geng Shu said.
Repeated calls to the detention centers in Shenzhen and Huizhou cities rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.
Beijing began ratcheting up the pressure on civil society groups as early as last May, when police detained lawyer Chang Boyang for "illegal business activity" for six months, CHRD said.
Police later raided the offices of the NGO Zhengzhou Yirenping, which Chang co-founded and for which he served as legal counsel, and interrogated other staff members, it said.
Yirenping's Beijing office was also searched earlier this year, while the organization was singled out by the foreign ministry as having "violated the law."
It cited the cases of Guo Yushan, former head of the independent Transition Institute think-tank, and the group's administrator He Zhengjun, both of of whom have been in detention for six months, and currently face trials on charges of "illegal business activity."
"The government ... has recently taken a further step to legitimize its repression of civil society with the introduction of three draft laws," CHRD said, citing the draft Overseas NGO Management Law, draft National Security Law, and the draft Anti-Terror Act.
"Once enacted, these laws would provide the state with legal backing to continue to shut down space for civil society and for the systemic deprivation of the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression," the group warned.
Under the draft Overseas NGO Management Law police will be given vastly expanded powers governing the operations of overseas nonprofit organizations in China, particularly in terms of funding Chinese NGOs, it said.
The draft law’s provisions would affect all international nonprofits, including schools, hospitals, churches, charities, and sports clubs, and include groups based in Hong Kong and Macau.
Authorities will also be able to block Chinese organizations from receiving funding from overseas NGOs that have not registered inside the country or who haven't received a permit from police.
According to CHRD: "These draft laws go far beyond legitimate steps used to combat terrorism, protect national security, or regulate overseas groups operating in China."
It accused the government of legitimizing mass police surveillance, harassment, criminalization, and imprisonment of those who challenge the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s power by exposing corruption and rights abuses, and anyone fighting for human rights and the rule of law.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ka Pa and Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.