Would-be independent candidates in forthcoming elections to district-level legislative bodies around China have expressed concern over the safety of constitutional scholar and former People's Congress deputy Yao Lifa, who has been incommunicado since last week.
Yao, who in 1998 became the first independent delegate to be elected to a municipal seat in a local People's Congress, has since coached other election hopefuls via social media how to win votes.
His bid to use his status to campaign for poverty alleviation and the rights of local people inspired a national movement to field independent candidates in local elections, which are tightly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Yao was briefly detained last year by authorities in his home city of Yanjiang, Hubei province, after he discussed independent candidacy with his followers on the popular chat room app QQ.
Friends and fellow activists say he has been incommunicado since last Tuesday, ahead of local elections in Yanjiang.
"Yao has been under various restrictions and surveillance for a long time now, and he is usually taken out of Yanjiang if there are any elections coming up," Hubei-based independent candidate Wu Lijuan told RFA on Monday.
"We haven't been able to get in touch with him since Nov. 1."
Wu said most activists who seek independent candidacy in local elections have sought advice and help from Yao.
"They are afraid that he'll teach us what he knows, and the relevant rules, so they have taken him out of town," Wu said. "They don't want us to know that stuff."
China's electoral guidelines state that candidates may put themselves forward if they receive recommendations from at least 10 local voters in direct elections to district and township level People's Congresses.
But powerful vested interests mean that the majority of local "elections" are a fait accompli, while independent candidates are frequently targeted for persecution, harassment, and detention.
Official media have also warned that there is "no such thing" as an independent candidate.
Wu said Yao had planned to register as a candidate himself in forthcoming local elections.
"He had recommendations from several hundred people," she said. "There were also recommendations for other colleagues to run."
But she said the authorities typically refuse to accept such candidates for registration.
"And now the people who recommended Yao Lifa are being threatened [by the authorities]," Wu said.
'I have to do this'
In Beijing, rights lawyer Cheng Hai said he also plans to seek registration as a People's Congress election candidate.
"I have to do this to help this country move towards democracy and the rule of law," Cheng said. "In other countries, if you have a better quality of lawmaker, that forces the government to have better-performing officials."
But he said restrictions on canvassing in his local area are making it hard for him to get his message out to the 60,000 residents of his district.
Every three to five years, China "elects" more than two million lawmakers at the county and township levels across the country to local-level People's Congresses in more than 2,000 counties and 30,000 townships.
But apart from a token group of "democratic parties" that never oppose or criticize the ruling party, opposition political parties are banned in China, and those who set them up are frequently handed lengthy jail terms.
Reported by Chan Siu-po for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.