The crackdown on mainland activists appears to be intensifying with the formal arrest of an outspoken writer, and the ousting of a prominent opinion writer and an editor at two publications.
Sichuan writer and blogger Ran Yunfei's wife said she received police notification yesterday of her husband's formal arrest on the charge of 'inciting subversion of state power'. 'My husband is an intellectual and a writer, that's the person I know,' Wang Wei said by phone, declining to elaborate.
Ran, 46, was taken away by police on February 20, as protests across the Middle East prompted online calls urging Chinese people to stage their own 'jasmine revolution' in mainland cities on that day. He was officially detained on February 24.
On the mainland, formal arrests usually indicate that prosecutors are preparing to press charges and often lead to convictions.
Ran, a government critic, had criticised the authorities for prosecuting those who blamed corrupt officials for the deaths of thousands of children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake: fellow activists Tan Zuoren was jailed for five years for 'inciting subversion of state power' in February last year, and Liu Xianbin was given 10 years on Friday on the same charge.
'In striking against those who criticise the government with subversion ... they think that would block people's determination to fight for freedom, but that's just underestimating people's resolve to protect their own rights,' Ran wrote in 2009.
Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Ran's formal arrest was 'another step back for freedom of expression in China'.
'The Chinese definition of the crime of incitement to subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system should not be used as the test of whether Ran's writings were indeed subversive, since such definition equates any criticism of the Communist Party's one-party rule,' he said.
After a spate of anonymous online calls for the so-called jasmine revolution during the past month, a dozen human rights lawyers - including Teng Biao, Jiang Tianyong and Tang Jingling - and activists vanished and are believed to be in police custody. Another 24 activists were detained on criminal charges - around half of them state security charges - and at least 150 had been subjected to various forms of detention, Chinese Human Rights Defenders said.
The tightening of the government's grip is felt elsewhere. Xiao Shu, an outspoken veteran columnist for Southern Weekly, was pressured into taking a two-year sabbatical after his employer ordered him to stop writing, a former colleague said. Phone calls to Southern Weekly chief editors rang unanswered yesterday.
Xiao Shu, 48, whose real name is Chen Min, wrote in his blog: 'Sadness is inevitable, but ... I have no regret being independent, fair and rational [in my writing].'
In addition, Peng Xiaoyun - an opinion editor at Guangzhou-based Time Weekly, who was put on involuntary leave after running a special report on '100 Influential People to China's Progress' that included milk safety activist Zhao Lianhai - was officially notified she had been sacked, she said on Twitter yesterday.
'These incidents are clear attacks on freedom of expression. The crackdown following the call for 'jasmine revolution' has widened ... signalling a general deterioration of the human rights situation in China,' said Wang Songlian, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Additional reporting by Priscilla Jiao