Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong detained and questioned a prominent rights lawyer for several hours on Friday after he reposted a satirical image of China’s president, linking him to the Panama Papers.
In a move that shows how twitchy Beijing has become in the face of revelations of offshore accounts held by the global rich and powerful, Ge Yongxi was taken from his home by five plainclothes police in the provincial capital Guangzhou in the early hours of Friday morning.
He was released after being held and questioned for at least 10 hours, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said via Twitter just after 9.00 p.m. local time.
The officers who detained Ge showed no official paperwork, and the lawyer was taken to Yanbu police station in Guangzhou’s Nanhai district, the Human Rights Campaign in China group said.
An officer who answered the phone at the police station confirmed Ge’s earlier detention, claiming police held ‘evidence’ against him.
“We wouldn’t have gone after him if we didn’t have evidence showing that he did something,” the officer said.
‘Crossing a river, feeling the stones’
Ge’s lawyer Chen Jinxue said he had been summoned because of a post he made to friends on the smartphone messaging app WeChat linked to the Panama Papers.
“It was a photo of three Chinese leaders crossing a river. It was about the Panama Papers,” he said.
A copy of the heavily manipulated satirical image was still circulating on Twitter, which is blocked in China, on Friday.
The ‘photo’ showed late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who was fond of the phrase “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” former president Jiang Zemin and current president Xi Jinping chest-deep in water labeled “the Panama Canal.”
“Hey, it’s pretty deep,” warns Deng, while Jiang adds: “You could easily drown.”
“Never fear,” says Xi, “I have a brother-in-law [to take the blame].”
The massive leak of 11.5 million files from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed details of the operations and ultimate, hidden ownership of a slew of offshore shell companies owned by the relatives of high-ranking Chinese leaders.
Included in the stash of leaked documents were details of an offshore shell company set up by Xi’s brother-in-law Deng Jiagui in the British Virgin Islands.
Highly sensitive information
Since the emergence of the leaked documents, Chinese censors have been fighting to ensure the top-down deletion of information that details how Chinese high-ranking political and financial elites managed and hid their wealth offshore.
Propaganda departments have issued a string of directives in recent days banning media organizations from publishing independent reporting or commentary based on the leaks.
There are growing signs that President Xi is highly sensitive over anything that mentions him by name.
Media insiders said an article defending the president posted earlier this week on Shanghai-based news website Jiemian, under the aegis of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, could only have been penned by the president’s office.
According to Ge’s family, the lawyer posted the photo at around 2.00 p.m. local time on Thursday.
“He posted it to his friends circle in WeChat, with the comment: ‘Aha, so the river they cross by feeling the stones is the Panama Canal!'” Chen said, adding that there were no guarantees that his client would be released soon.
Ge, who represented jailed Guangzhou democracy activist Tang Jingling, is a highly respected member of the city’s legal community.
“It is totally ridiculous that he has been called in for questioning just because he retweeted that photograph,” Tang’s wife Wang Yanfang told RFA on Friday.
Fellow rights lawyer Wen Donghai said the authorities were acting in accordance with the current atmosphere of censorship surrounding the Panama Papers.
“I think that this is a knee-jerk reaction by the authorities,” Wen said. “I think that the leaders of a country should be more statesmanlike about this kind of thing.”
“When they act like this, then the whole world knows about it.”
Ge wasn’t the first rights lawyer to run afoul of the Chinese government in the past year.
China has detained, questioned, held under house arrest or imposed travel bans on at least 317 lawyers, their colleagues and family members since launching a nationwide police operation targeting the profession last July, CHRLCG reported on its website.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Lam Lok-tung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.