Rattled by Arab unrest and the growing power of the Internet, China has launched its harshest crackdown on dissent in years, which rights groups say has wiped out years of effort by bold activists.
At least 25 activists have been detained in the wake of the political upheaval that has rocked the Arab world and sparked calls for anti-government demonstrations in China, human rights organizations said.
Scores of other dissidents have also been put under house arrest or have disappeared into police custody without charge.
The victims include prominent rights attorneys and bloggers who had otherwise been tolerated for years.
“The situation for rights activists and critics of the government is grim, with many of the advances made by a generation of courageous activists being rolled back in a very short time,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch.
The clampdown has marked an intensification of the “hardline turn” that Chinese leaders have taken since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he said.
China won the Games with a bid that included a promise to improve human rights.
However, the government has tightened control since jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October, which jolted Beijing, and has silenced nearly every major activist or dissident inside the country.
This week, police in southwestern China formally charged veteran activists Ran Yunfei (冉雲飛), Ding Mao (丁矛) and Chen Wei (陳衛) with “inciting subversion of state power,” rights groups said.
The charge is often used to put away government critics — Liu was convicted on the same charge in December 2009.