Chinese authorities have widened a crackdown on human rights groups, detaining or questioning more than 50 lawyers and activists in a sweep over the past few days, rights groups say.
Citing the need to buttress national security and stability, President Xi Jinping’s administration has tightened government control over almost every aspect of civil society since 2012.
In recent years, the government has detained dozens of Chinese for dissent and Tibetans and Uighurs have complained of rights abuses, prompting criticism from the United States.
Amnesty International said on Saturday at least 52 lawyers and activists from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou had been detained or questioned over the previous 48 hours.
The U.S. State Department on Sunday condemned the detentions, urging China “to release all those who have recently been detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens”.
Those who have been taken away include the prominent lawyer Wang Yu and several colleagues at the Fengrui Law Firm, which has represented high-profile clients such as Uighur dissident Ilham Tohti and Zhang Miao, a news assistant at German newspaper Die Zeit who was recently detained for more than half a year.
The detentions and questionings come on the heels of a months-long campaign in state media to discredit human rights activists for undermining national stability by using social media.
The People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, said on Saturday that public security authorities had identified Fengrui as a “major criminal organisation” that served as a coordinating “platform” involved in dozens of sensitive cases since 2012.
The article highlighted the role of former Fengrui employee Wu Gan, a social media personality known as “Super Vulgar Butcher” who blogs about official misconduct and free speech and has been detained since May. The Fengrui employees are under “criminal detention”, the paper said.
Other well-known lawyers taken away in recent days include Li Heping, who represented the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, and Sui Muqing, a lawyer based in the southern city of Guangzhou.
The Ministry of Public Security did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
“The government is very concerned about activists’ growing influence and their ability to use social media to drum up public support,” said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based China researcher at Amnesty International. “They see the agenda-setting process is getting away from them.”
More than 100 Chinese lawyers issued a joint statement on Friday to protest against Wang’s arrest. Many of them have since been detained, rights groups said.
The State Department said in its statement: “Over the last few days we have noted with growing alarm reports that Chinese public security forces have systematically detained individuals who share the common attribute of peacefully defending the rights of others, including those who lawfully challenge official policies.”
Last month, a State Department report on human rights said repression and coercion in China were routine against activists, ethnic minorities and law firms that took on sensitive cases.