Over a dozen Chinese lawyers and activists were detained or went missing in the final days of 2019 in a crackdown on participants of a private democracy gathering, rights groups said Thursday.
The Chinese government has severely reduced the space for civil liberties since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, rounding up rights lawyers, labour activists and even Marxists students in various sweeps.
The latest crackdown was linked to a December gathering in the east coast city of Xiamen in Fujian province, where participants discussed "democratic transition in China," said Human Rights Watch researcher Wang Yaqiu.
The period around Christmas and New Year is traditionally when China chooses to sentence prominent dissidents in an effort to minimise international media attention, "so it is not a surprise that they chose this particular time to launch a manhunt of activists," Wang said.
The meeting involved a small group of people "peacefully discussing politics in a private space," she said.
Ding Jiaxi, a prominent Beijing-based disbarred lawyer previously jailed for protesting against official corruption, was among the activists known to have been detained across the country since December 26, according to China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).
At least seven people, including Shandong-based disbarred lawyer Liu Shuqing, were released after being detained for questioning.
Other civil society figures, including pro-democracy activist Xu Zhiyong and human rights lawyer Tang Jingling, have gone missing or are currently unreachable, CHRD said.
At least two of the people detained, activists Dai Zhenya and Zhang Zhongshun, are suspected of "subverting" or "inciting subversion" of state power, a charge often used to silence dissidents in China.
The crackdown showed how the authorities have "zero tolerance of even just private discussion on issues like democracy and human rights," Amnesty International researcher Patrick Poon said.
According to CHRD, five activists were taken in for questioning by Jinhua city police in eastern China's Zhejiang province, on December 29, after having had dinner with someone who attended the Xiamen gathering.
Another lawyer, Lu Tingge, was held overnight for questioning on New Year's Eve by police in the northern city of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, CHRD said.
Police in Shandong province, whom CHRD said were heavily involved in the crackdown, as well as Jinhua and Shijiazhuang police, did not respond immediately to AFP's requests for comment.
"This round of detentions and harassment is the continuation of the larger crackdown on civil society," Wang said.
On December 30, a court in southwest China's Chengdu sentenced Wang Yi, the leader of an underground Protestant church, to nine years in prison for "incitement to subvert state power."