Authorities in Beijing have detained an outspoken publisher and her husband on suspicion of running an "illegal business operation" after she made public her support for former Tsinghua University scholar Xu Zhangrun.
Geng Xiaonan and her husband were taken away by police in Beijing's Haidian district earlier this week, a former colleague said.
Tsinghua sociology professor Guo Yuhua said Geng spoke with Xu, who was fired from his position as professor of jurisprudence and constitutional law at Tsinghua earlier this year after penning essays critical of ruling Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping, just before going incommunicado.
"She said she was just stepping out to take care of something, and that she would be in touch again on her return," Guo said. "She has been incommunicado since then. Her husband was also detained at the office."
Geng's defense lawyer Shang Baojun told RFA on Thursday: "Geng Xiaonan is suspected of illegal business operations, and is currently being held in the Haidian District Detention Center."
"That's the only information we have right now."
Their detention came after police began interviewing employees of the publishing house run by Geng and her husband on Monday, sources in the industry told RFA.
A cultural industry insider surnamed Zhang said Geng had been expecting that the authorities would target her through her company, but had continued to speak out anyway.
"This investigation started a while ago, and she had made mental preparation for this," Zhang said. "When Professor Xu Zhangrun was fired, she didn't hesitate to come out and speak on his behalf."
"I think that was amazing."
An art industry business owner surnamed Wang said she had often run into Geng on the cultural and literary scene in Beijing.
"I didn't expect her writing to be so much to the point, and her stance to be so clear," Wang said. "I saw that she spoke out for Professor Xu after he was arrested."
A journalist from Chongqing, who gave only a nickname Xiao Juan, said Geng's detention came after she gave an exclusive interview to RFA when the authorities came for Xu.
"She was worried when she gave the interview to RFA, but she was still speaking out and taking action, and being a thorn in the side of the authorities," Xiao Juan said.
"Chinese intellectuals are getting harder and harder hit by the authorities in today's China, regardless of whether they are in the media, publishing. Religious figures and dissidents, too."
Since party general secretary Xi Jinping began an indefinite term in office in March 2018, his administration has stepped up a purge of liberal intellectuals from higher education institutions.
Authorities in Beijing detained Xu on the morning of July 6 after he called online for political reforms, on allegations of "seeking out prostitutes."
He was released a week later, but later told the media that he had been fired from his teaching post and subjected to public sanctions for "moral corruption" by Tsinghua University's law school.
Charges of "seeking out prostitutes" have been used before by the Chinese authorities to target peaceful critics and activists, or anyone who runs afoul of local officials and powerful vested interests. Xu has lodged a legal challenge, and denies the charges.
Friends said at the time of Xu's detention that it could be linked to the publication of one of his books in New York last month, a collection of some of his most controversial essays and articles.
Xu recently also criticized the Beijing municipal authorities for demolishing an artists' village, and said that Xi Jinping is taking China into "a dead end."
In a 10,000-word essay dated May 21, 2020, Xu described China as isolated from "global civilization," which would de-Sinicize in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Xu's essay called for China's leaders to be held politically accountable, for the release of prisoners of conscience, including journalists and human rights lawyers, and for an end to the political targeting of academics.
Xu has also called for amendments nodded through by China's National People's Congress (NPC) in 2018 to be revoked, and for an end to massive international expenditure to boost China's influence overseas, as well as for legislation requiring officials to publish details of their assets and financial interests.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.