Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei have apparently detained a prominent rights lawyer after hundreds signed his online petition calling for constitutional change ahead of the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), which opened Tuesday in Beijing.
Lu Tingge's petition, titled "Suggestion on Amendments to the Constitution," garnered more than 1,000 signatures after it was posted online.
As premier Li Keqiang vowed to "maintain stability" and uphold President Xi Jinping's core status and personal brand of ideology, Lu was incommunicado, believed detained, with calls to his cell phone ringing unanswered on Tuesday.
His colleague, who gave only a surname, Li, said the lawyer hadn't shown up for work at his law firm in Hebei's Shijiazhuang city in a few days.
"I can't locate him; there's something I need him for, but I can't get through to his phone," Li said. "You ask me where he is, but I don't know either; I'm looking for him too."
An officer who answered the phone at the Shijiazhuang municipal police department said he didn't know Lu's whereabouts either.
"So you can't say for sure which agency took him away?" the officer said. "I'll give you another number; you can see if they have a record of it there."
But a request for information at the second number had yet to receive a response at the time of writing.
Calls to the municipal bureau of justice, which regulates the legal profession, rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
Lu's petition had called for changes that would prevent the NPC standing committee from supplementing and amending laws on its own account, returning the sole power of passing legislation to the NPC, to advance the rule of law.
But Li Keqiang's annual work report to the NPC suggested only a consolidation of power for Xi, who had the NPC amend the constitution last year to allow him to remain in the top job indefinitely.
"We must unite more closely around the party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core; hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics; take Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the guide," Li told NPC delegates, who almost never vote against the government.
Rights lawyer Tan Yongpei, who was among those who signed Lu's petition, said the petition was aimed at strengthening civil rights in the face of the growing authoritarian power of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"The point of the [proposed] constitutional amendments was to support civil rights, which of course the authorities see as the biggest threat," Tan said. "There is currently no role for Chinese citizens in the legislative process; everything is done by the Communist Party inner circle."
"To allow citizen participation would be to damage their own grip on power, so naturally they will regard this with hostility during the NPC annual session," he said.
"They treat ordinary citizens like this, and lawyers too," Tan said.
Lu is currently defense attorney for detained human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who was indicted by authorities in the eastern province of Jiangsu last month for "incitement to subvert state power."
Yu was indicted on Feb. 1 and his case handed over to the municipal prosecutor in Jiangsu's Xuzhou city.
Police seized Yu on Jan. 19, 2018 after he too released an open letter calling for amendments to the Chinese constitution, including direct presidential elections and the severing of the link between the Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
On Tuesday, Premier Li also reiterated the party's direct control of the PLA, however.
"In the new year we must continue to take the party's strong military objectives in the new era as the guide, firmly establish the guiding position of Xi Jinping thought on a strong military in the construction of national defense and the armed forces," he said.
Xi's administration would continue with "in-depth promotion of political army building," he said.
While the premier didn't disclose military spending for 2019, he did announce a rise of 5.6 percent in the domestic security budget, commonly known as the "stability maintenance" budget, to around 180 billion yuan (U.S. $26.8 billion).
A petitioner surnamed Cai, who has pursued a long-running complaint against the government, said the spending boost could result in harsher treatment of the regime's critics.
"We may see more intensive controls on petitioners than in previous years, because Xi Jinping mentioned in his [New Year's] speech that a color revolution must be prevented," Cai warned.
Late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo was jailed for calling for similar political reforms in his "Charter 08" document, published in 2008. He died of late-stage liver cancer in July 2017 while serving an eleven-year jail term for "incitement to subvert state power."
Meanwhile, former Chinese ambassador Zhu Yesui denied that the lack of military spending figures indicated any kind of threat.
"Whether or not a country constitutes a military threat depends very much on its defense and foreign policy, and not so much on increases in its defense budget," Zhu told journalists at the NPC press conference on Tuesday.
"China has always, and will always, stick to the path of peaceful development, and a defensive military policy," Zhu said. "China's limited military budget is intended to protect its national sovereignty."
Chinese military analyst Wu Ge said the figures were more likely to have been omitted from ministers' work reports because there was no money left to increase them this year.
"I think more importantly, there just isn't enough money to increase the military budget," Wu said. "Maybe one reason that they haven't announced it is that the increase is actually very low."
In March 2018, the NPC abolished any limits to President Xi Jinping's term in office ushered in a new era of authoritarian rule by a single man. Just two out of 2,964 NPC delegates voted against the constitutional amendments, while three abstained.
Chinese political analysts said at the time that there was never much chance of NPC delegates voting against the plan, given that political reprisals were all too likely.
Analysts said that the two votes "against" the amendments were likely staged to give the effect that delegates had a choice.
Since Xi took the helm of the party in 2012, formally assuming the presidency in March 2013, authorities in China have stepped up nationwide "stability maintenance" measures targeting anyone with a critical opinion of the government and cracking down on civil society groups fighting discrimination and social injustice.
And in a move reminiscent of the Mao-era Anti-Rightist campaigns, more than 300 lawyers, law firm staff, rights activists and relatives have been detained, questioned, or placed under surveillance or other restrictions in a nationwide police operation targeting the legal profession launched in 2015.
Reported by Wong Lok-to and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.