Poetry reading for Hong Kong protesters prompts detentions in Beijing

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Originally published by South China Morning Post on October 8, 2014

Police in Beijing detained at least seven people over a poem reading meeting last week in support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

They are among the dozens of people who have been reportedly detained in China as the country’s online censors mount their largest-scale censorship operations so far this year.

Two women and five men, most of them artists, were put under detention pending criminal investigation on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” in Beijing early last week, four people familiar with some of the detainees’ situation said.

The seven participated or intended to participate in an October 2 poem recital at the Songzhuang artists’ community in the capital in support of the Occupy movement in Hong Kong. It was unclear whether all of them were actually able to participate in the meeting or had been taken away prior to it.

A relative of one of those detained, Zhu Yanguang, said they only found out about his detention when rumours spread that he had been held at Beijing No. 1 Prison. Relatives took a spare set of clothes to the prison in case the rumours were true – but prison staff confirmed to them that Zhu was being held there.

A day before the poem recital, police had already detained 30-year-old poet Wang Zang in Beijing after he shared a photo online of himself holding an umbrella. Umbrellas have become a symbol of Hong Kong’s democracy protests after demonstrators used them to ward off pepper spray.

Police later searched Wang’s apartment and seized the blue umbrella, an internet router, sunglasses and a red, white and blue flag of Taiwan, according to his wife Wang Li.

Wang has also since been criminally detained on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”, she has been told by police.

Under Chinese law, suspects can be put under detention pending criminal investigation for up to 30 days, before passing the case to prosecutors. Wang hopes to see her husband on Friday.

The detentions come as the censorship on social media posts in the mainland increased fivefold in the first days of Occupy Central in Hong Kong, according to research by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

Rights groups including Amnesty International and China Human Rights Defenders suggested that dozens of others have also been detained or questioned in the mainland for their support of Hong Kong protests.

For Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, the detentions in Beijing mark an effort to suppress any attempt to stray away from the official stance of being critical of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“The idea is to prevent these activists from amplifying their message on democracy through Occupy,” she said. ““They are making sure that message is not spreading beyond a very small group of people.

“This time it could be a poetry reading, who knows what it could be next time,” she said.

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