China on Thursday detained a well-known journalist and prominent human rights activist on charges of leaking state secrets, while a Chinese court issued a 10-year prison sentence
to a Hong Kong publisher who had been working on a book critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Both events, though technically unrelated, appear to be part of Beijing's crackdown on dissent ahead of the sensitive 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The official Xinhua
news agency said Thursday that Gao Yu was detained on April 24 on suspicion of illegally obtaining a copy of an unspecified government document and passing it to overseas media.
Last Saturday in Beijing, 70-year-old Gao failed to show up at scheduled meetings, prompting concern among colleagues.
On Thursday morning the journalist appeared on state television to announce the charges. Seated at a table and wearing an orange prison vest, Gao, her face blurred, confessed to harming national interests.
"I believe what I have done has violated the law and has harmed the interests of my country. What I have done is extremely wrong," said Gao. "I will earnestly and sincerely take a lesson from this, and I admit my guilt."
Gao's journalism has landed her in jail before. The former deputy editor of the progressive Economics Weekly
— a magazine run by dissidents that was closed by authorities in the wake of the Tiananmen demonstrations — Gao, starting in 1989, spent 14 months in detention for writing articles in support of the student-led movement. In 1994 she was sentenced to six years in prison for leaking state secrets to Hong Kong media.
Some analysts say the latest charges are retaliation for her outspoken comments about the Communist Party's campaign against free speech, Chinese politics, and activism on behalf of Tiananmen victims.
'Document No 9'
While state media say Gao leaked secret documents to editors of foreign publications, authorities have not released information about what the documents contained or who received them.
Observers have speculated the leak could be linked to a party policy paper called “Document No. 9,” which Gao wrote about last summer.
According to foreign media who had access to it, the document was a strong warning aimed at Communist officials to reject Western political values such as democracy, free media and civil society.
Wen Yunchao, a Chinese blogger and activist, says authorities may use “Document No. 9” as an excuse to punish Gao's candid reporting of political struggles in China.
“After the document was published, Gao Yu continued to write columns and release interviews to reveal inner struggles within China's power groups," he said. "I think that is what really enraged those in power.”
Chinese laws identifies seven types of state secret matters, ranging from information about major policy decisions to science and technology and military affairs.
Critics say the categories are deliberately broad, giving authorities excessive leeway in defining what constitutes a state secret.
Earlier this week a migrant worker living in the Southern city Guangzhou was handed a ten-year prison term for leaking military information in exchange for money.
According to reports, the man, known only by his surname, Li, had subscribed to secret military journals and passed pictures and other information about military items to a foreign national.
It remains unclear how the man could have gained access to information deemed secret.
“These cases bring out a lot of questions about China's state secret laws," said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The fact [is] that state secret laws have often been misused and abused to prevent people from distributing and talking about publicly available information.”
London-based Amnesty International has called the charges against Gao a “smokescreen to target activists,” suggesting Gao's televised confession was a way to protect her son who disappeared the same day and is thought to be in police custody.
Independent filmmaker and activist Ai Xiaoming says that the harshness used by the government against activists this year is a mark of the new leadership's resolve to wipe out dissent.
“It is a way for them to tune their domestic policies," she said. "They believe that they need to use these extremely intense methods to block any view that is different.”
Also on Thursday, a Chinese court issued a 10-year prison sentence to a Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian, who had been working on a book critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Yao, who has printed several books that are banned in mainland China, was arrested in Shenzhen last year on charges of smuggling chemicals across the border. His arrest came as he was preparing to publish a book by exiled dissident writer Yu Jie titled "China’s Godfather: Xi Jinping.”
Yao Wentian's lawyer, Ding Xikui, told VOA that his client, who is also known by the name Yiu Mantin, was only an accomplice and the sentence was too heavy. Critics of the Chinese government have accused authorities of targeting Yao because of his publishing activities.
Gao Yu's arrest comes just weeks ahead of the anniversary of the deadly 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen square, a traditionally sensitive time in China where authorities routinely suppress attempts to commemorate the date.
Gao went missing days before about fifteen people, including lawyers, scholars and activists, held a seminar about the Tiananmen anniversary last Saturday in Beijing. Police later arrested prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang; at least four others — Liu Di, Xu Yonyu, Hao Jian and Hu Shigen — have been detained. Other seminar participants have reportedly been placed under house arrest.
The U.S. State Department on Wednesday said it is "deeply concerned" at the reported detentions, and called for the dissidents to be freed immediately.
It has been almost 25 years since Chinese troops, backed by tanks, moved in to crush the student-led demonstration on June 4, 1989, triggering worldwide condemnation. Estimates of those killed range from several hundred to several thousand people.
China still considers the incident a "counter-revolutionary rebellion" and has never admitted any wrongdoing in its handling of the uprising or disclosed an official death toll or other key details of the crackdown, which is not discussed in state media.
Government censors also work hard to erase any reference to the incident in the country's very popular social media outlets.
Bill Ide contributed to this report in Beijing. Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.