Mainland legal scholar Teng Biao and several Hong Kong rights groups yesterday called for the release of prominent activist Xu Zhiyong, who was taken into custody two weeks ago amid what they said was an intensifying crackdown on government critics.
Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Concern Group, Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and the New School for Democracy urged Beijing to release Xu immediately and halt the recent round of crackdown on human rights advocates.
Teng, a former PhD classmate of Xu, said his detention on the criminal charge of "gathering a crowd to disturb order in public places" bode ill for the rights defence movement as Xu, also a legal scholar, was known for his moderate approach, rationalism and non-violence in his civil rights campaigns.
"Xu's arrest shows that in China, even continuing this rational and mild approach is extremely difficult," Teng told a press conference. Xu's nationwide New Citizen social initiative, which launched such campaigns as seeking equal education rights for migrant children and urging senior officials to disclose their assets, is seen as a thorn in the side of authorities.
Since launching the initiative in May last year, he has often been confined at home during politically sensitive periods.
From April 12, he had been under house arrest, and many New Citizen movement participants have been detained over their calls in the past months for officials to declare their assets.
Teng said the growing trend for activists to get organised and take their campaigns to the street is "inevitable" as social conflicts intensify but the government's detentions of Xu and other activists in recent months "also send the message that these are absolutely intolerable".
Teng said this may explain why at least 100 activists had been detained or arrested this year, he said, quoting a list compiled by online activists.
But he said the rights defence movement was likely to grow stronger despite official pressure.
"In the long-run, they can't stop civil society from developing... the situation isn't something that government policies can decide." he said.