Rights groups have called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to release an independent journalist held on public order charges after she covered the Hong Kong protest movement.
Huang Xueqin, also known as Sophia Huang, was detained on Oct. 17 by police in Guangdong's provincial capital Guangzhou, on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge that is often used to target peaceful critics of the government.
Huang is currently being held in Guangzhou's Baiyun District Detention Center, where police have interrogated her about a post she made about Hong Kong's anti-extradition movement on June 10
Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Huang should never have been detained.
“RSF calls for the immediate release of Chinese independent journalist Huang Xueqin … who covered the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last summer and the #MeToo movement in 2018,” the group said in a statement on Tuesday.
It said the accusation of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” is often used by the regime against journalists, and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
“Huang bravely addressed societal topics that are of the highest importance for the Chinese public and should never have been apprehended,” RSF’s East Asia bureau chief Cédric Alviani said.
Alviani requested “her immediate release and that of all other journalists detained in China.”
The statement came as rights activist Yang Zhanqing testified to U.S. officials that Huang had only been allowed one visit from a lawyer, and that nothing had been heard of her since that visit.
Appeal to UN and US
Yang called on the international community to press Huang's case at the United Nations and with Beijing.
"There needs to be a report made to U.N. Women about Huang Xueqin's detention, and also to encourage departments and officials of the U.S. government that have dealings with China to bring up [her] case," he said, when asked in an earlier interview what the international community should do.
"I would hope that they would send a formal letter, as openly as possible, to the Chinese government," he said. "If they do it behind closed doors, then the Chinese government will probably just ignore it."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also called for Huang’s release.
“Chinese authorities must immediately release journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin and drop all charges against her,” the group said in a statement last week.
It said Huang’s most recent publications on her blog include two stories documenting her participation in protests in Hong Kong, published in June, and one story on a sexual harassment case in Chengdu, Sichuan province, published in July.
“Huang’s arrest is obviously in retaliation for her coverage on the Hong Kong protests and gender issues in China, and she should be released and allowed to work freely as a journalist,” CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna said in a statement.
Calls to the Baiyun Detention Center and to Huang’s friend and lawyer Wan Miaoyan rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
“When CPJ called the detention center, an officer said that only family members were allowed to make inquiries about detainees, and refused to disclose any information about Huang’s case,” the group reported on its website.
Huang, a former reporter for the New Express newspaper and the Southern Metropolis Weekly, had typically reported on rights issues in her work, and has penned articles on sexual harassment, gender, pollution and vulnerable groups in Chinese society.
Before being detained, she had been an outspoken member of the country's #metoo movement, and had carried out a survey of sexual harassment and assault cases among Chinese women working in journalism.
Huang, 30, originally planned to study law in Hong Kong but had her travel documents confiscated in August.
Barrister Chow Hang Tung of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China said the content of Huang's writing had likely made her a target for the authorities.
"It's getting harder and harder to find content that is unfavorable to the government nowadays," Chow told RFA. "If foreign news organizations want to report such things, then they depend on citizen journalists on the ground, but that channel of information is pretty much cut off now."
"There are still a few people left in mainland China doing this kind of work, and putting information out there, and we should be paying more attention and giving more support to these people," she said.
Veteran political journalist Gao Yu, who has served time in jail for doing her job as a journalist, agreed, saying that life is getting tougher and tougher for journalists in China.
"I started 30 years ago, at the time of the June 4, 1989 massacre," Gao said. "Back then there were a lot of journalists reporting the truth about what happened then."
"Things are pretty awful for Chinese journalists today, though," she said. "If China responded even slightly to the concerns of international organizations, the human rights situation would be different."
Many women who have tried to defend human rights in China have faced persecution, including arbitrary detention, torture and inhumane punishment by medical deprivation, according to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network.
Huang was already under a travel ban imposed following her return from a trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan from February through August.
She had previously assisted in the investigation and reporting of a number of high-profile sexual harassment allegations against professors at Peking University, Wuhan University of Technology, Henan University and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.
Huang was present at a million-strong protest in Hong Kong on June 9 against plans to allow extradition to mainland China
RSF said China is the largest prison in the world for journalists with at least 120 detainees and ranks 177th out of 180 countries and territories in the RSF World Press Freedom Ranking 2019.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Xue Xiaoshan and Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.