Police have levelled subversion charges against several top activists who urged Middle East-style protests in China, in what appears to be a severe crackdown on dissent, rights groups said Friday.
Ahead of an appeal for fresh "Jasmine rallies" in 13 Chinese cities on Sunday, skittish authorities in Beijing called the foreign press into line, telephoning journalists and using state media to reiterate the reporting rules.
More than 100 activists have been subjected to interrogation, house arrest and other restrictions or have "disappeared" since the online "Jasmine" campaign first surfaced last week, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders said.
Police are now beginning to file charges against those rounded up, CHRD director Renee Xia said in a statement.
"The numbers point to a bad situation that is only getting worse," Xia said.
"In the matter of a few days, we have seen more cases of prominent lawyers subjected to prolonged disappearances, more criminal charges that may carry lengthy prison sentences for activists, more home raids, and a heavier reliance on extra-legal measures."
Leading writer Ran Yunfei and Liang Haiyi were among those charged with subversion, while veteran dissidents Ding Mao and Chen Wei -- both imprisoned after the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests -- were charged with inciting subversion, the Hong Kong-based group said.
A fifth activist, Hua Chunhui, was arrested on charges of "leaking state secrets" -- a vague charge often used in China to silent dissent.
"Signs are emerging to indicate that the current crackdown may be one of the most severe actions taken by the government against Chinese activists in recent years," the CHRD said.
In China, charges of subversion, incitement of subversion and leaking state secrets almost always result in conviction, the group said.
The New York-based Human Rights in China described the clampdown as having "a severity rarely seen in the past few years".
Online campaigners this week urged people in 13 Chinese cities to rally every Sunday to press for government transparency and free expression, following last week's calls for protests echoing those sweeping the Arab world.
Calls for protests last Sunday sparked a heavy police turnout at designated protest sites in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. The events appeared lightly attended, however, and free of major incidents.
In Beijing, authorities have erected giant blue barricades in front of a McDonald's in the central Wangfujing shopping district, apparently to block access to the designated protest site for Sunday.
Journalists were also called to order, with authorities telephoning numerous media outlets or requesting meetings on Friday to remind them they are required to obtain consent before interviewing any individual or organisation.
AFP received a call from Beijing police reminding journalists about the interview rules, and also to carry their press cards when covering news events.
"Journalists must apply for approval... before they conduct interviews in Beijing," the China Daily reported, citing the city's information office, but without saying who would authorise such requests.