China reportedly detained more than 100 lawyers and human rights activists over the weekend, during a crackdown encompassing at least 15 cities and dubbed "Black Friday" by China watchers and dissidents.
On Friday, lawyers at a Beijing law firm called Fengrui were taken into custody, along with administration staff, an accountant, and a driver, according to Chinese activists. Police also searched the law firm's office.
Chinese state-run paper People's Daily said the Ministry of Public Security was conducting the operation in order to "smash a major criminal gang that had used the Beijing Fengrui law firm as a platform since July 2012 to draw attention to sensitive cases, seriously disturbing social order."
The clampdown in China's capital came after a smaller series of targeted detentions. Rose Tang, a US-based Chinese activist involved in coordinating demonstrations against the detentions, told VICE News that lawyer Wang Yu was arrested first, along with her husband and 15-year-old son, early on Thursday, July 9. The electricity to her house was also cut, according to Tang.
Following this, lawyer Zhou Shifeng was detained on Friday. Shortly beforehand Zhou had collected Zhang Miao from detention, according to Tang. Zhang is a former news assistant to a journalist for German newspaper Die Zeit, who was detained in October after she returned from Hong Kong on a trip to cover the Umbrella Movement.
The journalist Zhang was working for, Angela Köckritz, later wrote a scathing indictment of the opacity of the Chinese justice system.
Zhou picked up the newly released Zhang, along with three others — two artists and one poet — also apparently detained because of their support for the Hong Kong protests. The group stayed in a hotel, sleeping until Zhang and the other woman were woken up early the next morning to the sound of the men shouting their names.
"They opened their door and saw three men putting a black bag on [Zhou's] head and took him away," according to Tang.
Later on Friday, dozens more lawyers were reportedly arrested across the country. Tang believes that the targets were 112 lawyers who signed a petition to support Wang, the first lawyer arrested. "Literally I'm watching people disappearing from their Twitter," Tang told VICE News.
A list compiled by a China-based activist and seen by VICE News names more than 100 lawyers, staff, family members, and one monk who have been taken from their homes, offices, or hotel rooms, and apparently questioned, summonsed, or detained by police since Thursday. Many of these have since been released, but more were reportedly still being called in on Monday.
Lawyers at Fengrui law firm were also representing Wu Gan, an activist nicknamed the "Super Vulgar Butcher" because his stated aim is to "slaughter pigs" — identifying and going after corrupt officials.
When Wu was detained on May 20 the New York Times wrote that observers "likened the reports [in state-run media] to a political campaign, and interpreted them as a sign the Communist Party is focusing its attention on a new kind of activist: socially popular individuals with no particular organization, platform or network behind them."
Tang told VICE News she feels that China's current economic woes could be playing a part. Investors lost trillions of dollars after the stock market plummeted from a peak in mid-June. "My guess is because of more than three weeks of the stock market crashing what [Chinese President] Xi Jinping fears the most is mass social unrest, and the leaders would be these human rights lawyers and the activists," Tang said. "They have all the reputation and clout."
China recently passed a new national security law with the projected aim to "protect people's fundamental interests," including "sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity … [and] sustainable development," according to state news agency Xinhua. The law includes both outer space and cyberspace in the country's interests.
On the Chinese mainland, suspects could already be detained for up to 37 days before their formal arrests must be approved by prosecutors.
A US government statement about the detentions expressed concern "that the broad scope of the new National Security Law is being used as a legal facade to commit human rights abuses."
Activists are calling on US President Barack Obama to cancel Xi's visit to the US, as well as appealing to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to consider the recent arrests when making a decision on the 2022 Winter Olympics, which China is bidding for. The host city will be decided by the IOC on July 31, and a win would make Beijing the first city to ever host both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
On Sunday, it was announced that Tibetan lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had died in Chinese custody, 13 years into a prison sentence for what activists say were trumped-up charges. The 65-year-old was serving a 20-year sentence for alleged involvement in a bombing in Chengdu in 2002.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd