State security police in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou detained a number of rights activists ahead of human rights talks between EU and Chinese officials in the province this week, activists said on Wednesday.
An unknown number of members of the banned Guizhou Human Rights Forum had been forced to leave the provincial capital for the duration of the two-day dialogue, which began on Monday, forum member Wu Yuqin said.
"The day before yesterday, they took us all away, and they only brought us back late [Tuesday] evening," activist Wu said in an interview.
"At the time, we didn't know what was going on; they just said they were taking us away," she said. "I asked them why, but they wouldn't say, and just placed restrictions on our movements."
"We were unable to call each other on our cell phones."
Wu added: "I only found out today that human rights organizations from all around the world converged on Guiyang, as if for a church service."
She said among those held were Li Renke, Mo Jiangang, and probably Du Heping, whose relatives said he was incommunicado since Monday.
"It seems there was an American journalist they were afraid would succeed in interviewing [Du]," Wu said.
The forum has been the target of official harassment since it was set up on World Human Rights Day in 2005, with members subjected to police surveillance, detention, and house arrest whenever it tries to meet.
It was formally banned by the authorities, according to notices issued by the local government, in December 2011.
International rights groups hit out at the low-key nature of the EU-China human rights dialogues, saying EU countries had accepted more and more of Beijing's preconditions for taking part in the talks.
"The 32nd round of the European Union (EU)-China Human Rights Dialogue further lowers the bar for effective, principled human rights diplomacy," the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on its website.
While the dialogues are designed to address issues like the death penalty, arbitrary detention, and restrictions on the freedom of expression, Chinese officials had ensured that access by journalists, local rights activists, and senior officials from both sides would be all but impossible.
"This is precisely the kind of 'dialogue' the Chinese government likes best: away from senior Chinese officials, away from the international press, and with little ambition from either side to apply rights protection to real life situations in China," HRW's EU director Lotte Leicht said.
"With each successive round, the Chinese government feels less obliged to make changes, while the EU accepts progressively more restrictive conditions for even holding the dialogue," Leicht said.
The EU has called for the next round of the dialogue to be held in Brussels by the end of this year.
Gerhard Sabathil, of the European External Action Service, told reporters in Guizhou on Tuesday that the dialogue has entered "a comparatively mature" stage.
HRW meanwhile called on Beijing to hold dialogues with its own critics, rather than just foreign officials.
"A key priority for the EU should be driving home the message that the Chinese government should be holding human rights dialogues with its own critics ... rather than imprisoning them," it said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.