TAIPEI — Chinese authorities have arrested two prominent human rights activists, quietly stepping up a crackdown on dissent weeks before Beijing hosts the most politicized Winter Olympics in recent memory.
Free speech lawyer Yang Maodong was formally detained in the southern city of Guangzhou on suspicion of inciting subversion on January 12, two days after his wife died of cancer in the United States. , according to his sister.
Mr. Yang, who writes under the pen name Guo Feixiong, has not been allowed to leave China for a year. Authorities have rejected his pleas and pleas from friends and family that he be allowed to be with his wife in his final months. Friends said they lost contact with the 55-year-old in early December, but it was not until Monday that police officially confirmed his detention to his family.
“It’s really too cruel, too cruel,” said his sister Yang Maoping, adding that the police had been vague about the reason for his detention.
Xie Yang, a 49-year-old lawyer who has handled politically sensitive cases related to religion and land rights, was arrested on January 11, also on charges of subversion, and is being held in the southern city of Changsha, according to his family. .
Human rights advocates have linked the detentions to the upcoming 2022 Winter Games, due to start on February 4, which have been marred by criticism over China’s human rights record.
“You can imagine authorities across the country preemptively tightening controls to weed out any potential dissent and criticism,” said Renee Xia, senior researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Washington, DC-based group.
Guangzhou and Changsha police did not respond to requests for comment.
Chinese authorities have also pressured dissidents and activists ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, although there remains room for some criticism. Under President Xi Jinping, China has become less tolerant of dissent, tightening controls on the media and internet while continuing a campaign of forced assimilation against ethnic minorities in remote parts of the country.
The United States, Australia and the United Kingdom have said government officials will not attend the 2022 Olympics, to protest Mr. Xi’s treatment of ethnic minorities and other alleged violations of human rights. human rights. Activist groups have urged Olympic sponsors and other global brands to distance themselves from the Games.
China rejected the criticism of its human rights record and called it interference in the country’s internal affairs. His foreign ministry has protested what he calls attempts to politicize the Olympics.
Mr. Yang, the free speech activist, has been detained by police on and off since 2013, when he joined the Communist Party’s protest efforts to censor Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou newspaper once celebrated by locals. Chinese liberals for its unusually hard-hitting coverage. He spent six years in prison for disturbing public order and “stirring up quarrels”.
Some of his supporters, including his former lawyer, say they believe he is being targeted because of his public dispute with authorities over permission to visit his wife, Zhang Qing. After Ms. Zhang was diagnosed with terminal cancer about a year ago, Mr. Yang wrote an open letter to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang asking for the return of his confiscated passport and permission to leave the country.
After being briefly detained, Mr. Yang remained silent in the hope that the government would relent, but he went public again in December after learning that his wife was on the verge of death.
“It put the government in an awkward position,” said Mr. Yang’s former lawyer, Sui Muqing.
The US State Department issued a statement expressing condolences after Ms. Zhang’s death and called on the Chinese government to let Mr. Yang travel to the United States to mourn and be reunited with his family. Mr. Yang has two young adult children in the United States
Mr. Xie, the other activist in custody, had previously been detained as part of a massive crackdown on human rights lawyers in 2015. Accused of inciting subversion, he was released after two years after pleading guilty.
Mr. Xie’s wife, Chen Guiqiu, confirmed his last detention on Tuesday. Ms Chen, who fled China in 2017 and now lives in Texas with the couple’s two daughters, said she suspected the detention was linked to her husband’s trip last Christmas to the country of Yongshun in the province. of Hunan, in southern China. He unfurled a banner near a police station there calling for the release of a teacher who had accused the government of sending her to a mental institution against her will.
The government “can invent anything” as an excuse to detain someone, Ms. Chen said of her husband’s situation.
Incitement to subversion is generally punishable by up to five years in prison, and sometimes more in cases deemed serious.
Two other influential activists, jurist Xu Zhiyong and lawyer Ding Jiaxi, should soon be tried for subversion. Both were leaders of the New Citizens Movement, a now-defunct civic group founded by Mr. Xu. According to the prosecutor’s latest indictment, the two men in 2019 organized a meeting of more than a dozen people in Xiamen city to plan activities against the state.
Supporters of both men have called for their release, saying their arrests were arbitrary.
The crushing of dissent is likely driven by the upcoming Communist Party Congress this year as well as the Olympics, rights activists say. Mr Xi is expected to break with recent precedent at the twice-a-decade meeting by taking a third term as the country’s first leader.
“The intentional use of such heavy-handed tactics is to warn potential opponents inside and outside the system, and to tell the West that China will not compromise on human rights issues. “said Wang Dan, a student leader during the pro-1989 campaign. democratic demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, said in response to the detentions of MM. Yang and Xie. “The international community should have a tougher way to react.”
Write to Chao Deng at Chao.Deng@wsj.com
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8