Chinese authorities tear down a cross from a Protestant church in Hangzhou's Dingqiao township last month (Credit: China Aid)
Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang on Friday detained and questioned a Hong Kong journalist who went to cover a story about the demolition of church crosses in the region.
Jiang Yannan, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Chinese-language news magazine Asiaweek told RFA's Mandarin Service that she was detained briefly in Pingyang county near Wenzhou, a city that has been dubbed "China's Jerusalem" because of a high concentration of Christian believers there.
"I was here to do some reporting and interviews on the demolition of crosses [on Christian churches] ... They didn't hold me for very long. They just stopped me from interviewing people."
She said police had continued to monitor her movements and contact her interviewees since her release after a brief period of detention at a nearby police station.
"I didn't pay any attention to them, but they asked me what I was doing," Jiang said. "They have been following me and bothering the people I am trying to interview."
She added: "I did a lot of interviews on this trip, and this time the local authorities are being much tougher [on journalists]."
Jiang, who arrived in Pingyang earlier this week, told RFA in a later interview that she had already left the province.
"I am no longer in Zhejiang. I have left the area," she said. "They were following me the whole time."
"But it's not convenient for me to give interviews right now," Jiang said, before hanging up.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Chen Jiangang, who has been following religious issues in Wenzhou, said he had received a phone call from Jiang earlier on Friday asking for help.
“She called me at around 1pm, when she was in the police car," Chen said.
"She said the police had dragged her into their vehicle against her will, and driven her to the police station and asked to see her ID," he said.
"She waited around at the police station for about 10-20 minutes, and then they released her," he said, adding: "I am in touch with her, and she could be subjected to further restrictions by police at any time."
According to the US-based Christian rights group China Aid, hundreds of Protestant churches in Zhejiang have been targeted for demolition in the past year.
The actions against churches in Zhejiang are all connected to the province's "Three Rectifications and One Demolition" campaign, which claims to target all illegal structures, the group said in a recent report on its website.
The campaign calls on local officials to take action to "demolish illegal structures that violate laws and regulations, occupy farmland, affect public safety and major construction, seriously affect urban and rural planning, and those that are located on both sides of main lines of transportation," it said.
A Wenzhou-based Christian church member who declined to be named said Jiang's detention could be linked to local tensions around plans to sue the Pingyang authorities over the detention of Fengwo Church pastor Huang Yizi.
Huang's lawyers plan to file three separate lawsuits against the county government and police department on Monday, according to a report on China Aid's website.
Huang Yizi was detained on August 2 on suspicion of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," following clashes between church followers and officials who demolished the church's cross in July.
"I think this has to do with the congregants' planning to sue the authorities," the church member said. "They have hired some new lawyers."
Zhejiang-based Protestants estimate that crosses were torn down from at least 410 churches in the province during 2014.
"According to our incomplete statistics, from January to November 2014, more than 400 churches with names have either been forcibly torn down or had their crosses forcibly relocated or demolished," China Aid founder Bob Fu told RFA in an interview earlier this week.
"Previously, these things only happened during the Cultural Revolution," Fu said.
"But in 2014, they happened in some major cities and regions of Zhejiang province, then sporadically took place in some other provinces," he said.
"This is a very noticeable change in 2014."
Jiang's detention, though brief, comes amid growing concern over the fate of Zhang Miao, a news researcher from the Beijing bureau of Germany's Zeit News, who was detained while covering a poetry recital at Beijing's Songzhuang Artists' Village last October.
Zhang and six others, including artists and a poet, were detained at the event on the outskirts of Beijing in support of the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
ZEIT correspondent Angela Köckritz, who has launched a social media campaign for Zhang's release under the hashtag #freemiao, said in a recent online account of her detention that she was accused of "brawling" and assaulting a police officer.
Zhang, who is now being held in a Tongzhou Prison on the outskirts of Beijing, was allowed a meeting with her lawyer on Dec. 10, Köckritz wrote on the ZEIT website on January 14.
"The law forbids police officers and guards to abuse inmates," she wrote. "But they often avail themselves of certain cell mates who will mistreat other inmates in the knowledge or at the request of the guards."
"[The lawyer] indicates that we can't speak freely on the phone, but he does share with me that Miao is suffering both physically and psychologically."
And in May Japan's Nihon Keizai Shimbun employee Xin Jian, who worked as a news assistant — a post which often involves reporting activities — was detained ahead of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
China doesn't allow its own nationals to work as reporters for foreign news organizations, which instead often hire local journalists to act as news assistants or translators.
China led the world in imprisoning journalists in 2014, with a total of 29 behind bars, according to Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which said the authorities are also holding 73 netizens out of a global total of 178 detentions.
However, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) put the figure at 44 jailed journalists in its 2014 annual report.
It said restrictions on state media have tightened significantly since President Xi Jinping took power in November 2012.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia ©2015