BEIJING — A Chinese businessman who supports a grassroots group promoting civil society was detained by police on Friday on suspicion of gathering crowds to disturb public order, his friends said, in a sign the government is stepping up efforts to crack down on the loosely organized movement.
Xiao Shu, a family friend, said police officers took venture capitalist Wang Gongquan from his Beijing home for questioning and formally detained him several hours later.
"We believe this is an absurd allegation. It is impossible for Mr. Wang Gongquan to disturb order at any public place," his supporters said in a written statement, noting that Wang has been advocating peaceful social changes. Wang is known for his opposition to street protests.
Beijing police did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment on the case.
Wang's detention followed the detentions of two leading members of the New Citizens movement – Xu Zhiyong and Yang Maodong. Yang is better known by his penname of Guo Feixiong.
"This is an important sign that Beijing wants to nip the New Citizens movement in the bud," Xiao Shu said. "In the past, the authorities were ambivalent toward civil society, but now how they are treating Gongquan will send a clear signal that they consider the New Citizens movement as a hostile force that should be suppressed."
The group's members have done little more than lobby for rights of rural children and public disclosure of officials' assets, although they have urged people to meet for dinner to discuss such issues. Beijing is wary of anything it sees as having the potential to develop into a force that can challenge Communist Party rule.
Wang, who is a close friend of Xu, is believed to be the first supporter – rather than active participant – of the group to be targeted.
Because of his social status as a successful businessman, Wang's detention has attracted considerable public attention. Wang became the third most-searched person – behind two entertainment celebrities – on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo on Friday despite intermittent efforts to block searches of his name.
Guo Yushan, a Beijing scholar, said Wang has been targeted for his association with Xu. "In essence, this is political suppression," Guo said. "It is consistent with the political style of the new administration."
Wang has openly protested Xu's detention and vowed to help move the New Citizens movement forward.
He also posted online video footage a lawyer took of Xu, in which the civil rights campaigner delivered a bold message from behind bars, urging citizens to unite in pursuing democratic freedoms.
Wang is among a growing group of Chinese businesspeople who have been pushing for gradual social changes in China. He has been an advocate for building a civil society and always identifies himself as a "citizen." He has lobbied for equal rights for students and urged more public involvement in social events.
In a July interview with the Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post, Wang said he had feared political retribution for his social activism. "After doing it for a while, I realize I have broken no laws. I have no ill intent. Then what is there to fear? So gradually, I am no longer afraid," he said.