Five prominent democracy activists are being held by state security police in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong on subversion charges, rights activists and lawyers told RFA.
State security police in Guangdong's provincial capital Guangzhou detained Fan Yiping, Fan Wencheng, Lai Jianjun, Hu Tianfeng,and Qiao Lianhong on Nov. 12 on suspicion of "subverting state power," according to U.S.-based rights lawyer Liu Shihui and the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network.
"This happened on Nov. 12, and ... the charge in all cases was subverting state power," Liu said. "Fan Yiping, Fan Wencheng, Lai Jianjun, Hu Tianfeng were all arrested, and there was also [an activist] in Zhuhai nicknamed Ah Long."
Liu said some of the families of the detainees have received official notification that they are in "residential surveillance at a designated location" (RSDL), but that very little information has been made available.
Suspects arrested on national security charges may be detained incommunicado for up to six months under the RSDL system, which has been strongly criticized by rights organizations for leaving detainees vulnerable to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
Liu said the friends and families of the detainees were under huge political pressure not to speak out about their cases, so relatively little information is available.
Fan Yiping is a veteran activist from the Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s, and has previously served time in prison for helping activists Wang Bingzhang and Wang Xizhe.
A Chinese rights activist who gave only his surname, Li, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under general secretary Xi Jinping is cracking down further on the country's already embattled democracy and civil rights movement while the rest of the world reels under the impact of the coronavirus.
"The pressure is still huge, and everyone is frightened," Li said. "Right now, the party-state has gone into overdrive."
"Anyone who mentions [detained Beijing publisher] Geng Xiaonan, [detained citizen journalist] Zhang Zhan or any other sensitive topics online will be detained," he said.
"These people are basically the backbone of the democracy movement, and are all veteran activists," Li said. "Nobody dares to say anything now."
Harder to get news
A Guangzhou-based activist surnamed Zhang said activists are finding it harder and harder to get news of each other and to pass on information.
"I don't know about this because nobody is passing on information," he said. "Things are pretty tough here right now; those of us here in China are barely getting by."
"The government has all the power, and we have nothing, so we're pretty helpless," he said.
An officer who answered the phone at the Guangzhou municipal state security police bureau declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Monday.
"You're talking about the arrest of Fan Yiping? I'm not in charge of this," the officer said.
Repeated calls to the Guangdong provincial state security police department rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
Fan Yiping was born into a CCP family, graduated from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Medical University, then worked as a surgeon, before starting a food trading company.
His father was a former secretary-general in the Guangdong provincial government.
Fan Yiping was sentenced to three years in prison for receiving Chinese dissident Wang Bingzhang after he secretly returned to China to promote the democracy movement, as well as for helping dissident Wang Xizhe escape to the United States.
Fan Wencheng once ran his own real estate business, while Lai Jianjun, who originally hailed from Chongqing, served one year in jail on charges of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the CCP.
Guangdong-based rights lawyer Sui Muqing said the charges of "subversion of state power" generally carry a minimum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment.
"I am guessing that the authorities may have trouble finding enough evidence for those charges, given that it's very hard for Chinese citizens to carry out any significant actions these days," Sui said.
Reported by Jia Ao for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Xiaoshan Huang and Chingman for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.