As the new administration of President Xi Jinping vows to fight for a cleaner and more transparent government, Chinese authorities have launched a crackdown that appears directly targeted at activists calling for the disclosure of official assets, a rights group said on Friday.
"Police in China have begun detaining activists, lawyers, and ordinary citizens in an apparently coordinated crackdown," the overseas-based China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in a statement.
It said the authorities had detained a number of activists in Beijing calling themselves the "New Citizens' Movement," after they launched a petition calling on more than 200 high-ranking Communist Party officials, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, to publicly disclose their financial assets.
Beijing human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi and veteran democracy activist Zhao Changqing were detained on Wednesday, while fellow activists Sun Hanhui and Wang Yonghong were detained on Tuesday, a fellow lawyer said this week.
"Ding Jiaxi was taken away from his home by police ... because of the matter of calling for the disclosure of official wealth and for equal rights in education," Beijing rights lawyer Liu Weiguo said in an interview.
"We have had no news of him since his detention, but I heard they were going to charge him with unlawful assembly, and that he's under criminal detention," Liu said.
Zhao's wife, Liu Xiaodong, said her husband was detained by a group of around six plainclothes and uniformed officers at around 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening as the couple were heading downstairs to find a place to eat.
"They didn't produce any kind of formal paperwork until later, when they were searching our home," she said. "They said he was held on suspicion of 'illegal assembly,'"
She said she had received a formal notification of criminal detention the following day.
Lawyer Liu said Ding and Sun had been instrumental in launching a petition last year calling for the disclosure of official assets and for equal rights in education that garnered more than 7,000 signatures before being handed to the Chinese parliament in March.
"These ... were reasonable and legal demands," Liu said. "If a country wants to prove its legitimacy, it must comply with them."
"If officials don't make their assets public, and if education isn't equal, then a regime can have no legitimacy," he said.
The homes of the two men were also raided, and their laptop computers, video cameras, cell phones, books, and other items were confiscated by Beijing police, CHRD said in an emailed statement.
Ding, Sun, Zhao and Wang are being held at the Beijing No. 3 Detention Center in Beijing, while a fifth activist, Qi Yueying, was detained on Wednesday and sent to the Chaoyang District Detention Center.
Meanwhile, the whereabouts of another "New Citizens" activist, Li Wei, are unknown, CHRD said.
Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling said Ding's detention suggested that the political environment for rights lawyers was getting worse.
"In recent years, rights lawyers have had their licenses revoked or suspended, and they've been frequently obstructed in carrying out their profession," Tang said.
"This shows a worsening climate for lawyers in carrying out their business."
The detentions and raids came after authorities in Beijing detained four activists on suspicion of "unlawful assembly" after they called on top officials to reveal details of their wealth last month.
Yuan Dong, Zhang Baocheng, Hou Xin, and Ma Xinli were taken to a police station in the busy Xidan shopping district of Beijing after they staged a public protest calling on officials to disclose details of their assets.
Yuan and the three others had displayed banners which read "Officials, declare your wealth," and "The China dream must be a daylight dream," in a reference to growing calls for a "sunshine law" on official assets, which has yet to be commented on publicly by the leadership.
Meanwhile, veteran Wuhan-based democracy activist Qin Yongmin called on President Xi to run the government only according to Chinese law, and to release Ding and the other activists immediately.
"In this day and age, human rights are of the highest value," Qin said after penning an open letter to Xi. "The first duty of the leaders of a country is to protect and respect human rights."
"The criminal detention of Ding Jiaxi, Sun Hanui, and the others ... is a serious test of whether the administration of Xi Jinping is legitimate, and fit to govern," he said.
"[It] turns truth into lies, and black into white, and President Xi, in today's China, is probably the only one who can set things to rights," Qin added.
Reported by Gao Shan and Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.