Tan Qiyuan, known as Nicole, has been incommunicado since entering mainland China to visit her mother in 2021.
By Wu Yitong, Chingman and Mia Ping-chieh Chen
An undated file photo of Nicole taken during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Authorities in the southwestern Chinese region of Guangxi have detained a resident of Hong Kong for taking part in the city's pro-democracy protests, RFA has learned.
The woman, whose birth name is Tan Qiyuan, but who is widely known by her nickname Nicole, was detained by police in Guangxi's Liuzhou city in April 2021 when she took a trip to her hometown after many years of living in Hong Kong.
Nicole has been incommunicado since April 2, 2021, when she messaged a cousin saying she was flying back to Liuzhou that afternoon.
Nicole's friend, who wanted to be identified only his nickname A Feng, said she was on the way to celebrate her mother's birthday. He messaged her on April 2, 2021, but never got a reply.
"I thought she might reply later. I waited and waited but she didn't reply," he said. "I started to think something wasn't right, and she still hasn't replied to this day and ... her phone is switched off."
"She told me she'd be back in Hong Kong by the end of April at the earliest, or maybe in May ... she wasn't going to stay very long in mainland China," he said. "She knew, and everybody else knew, that it was dangerous."
Activists said little is known of Nicole's fate, as her family are likely being targeted by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s "stability maintenance" teams, which place people under surveillance and prevent them from contacting the outside world in politically sensitive cases.
A fellow activist surnamed Duan in the southern city of Shenzhen, who has some knowledge of Nicole's fate, said the authorities in China have ways to track people arriving across the border.
"If you enter the CCP's jurisdiction with your mobile phone, even if you switch it off, they can track you if you are deemed sensitive," Duan said.
"The CCP also intimidates the relatives and friends of the parties involved, meaning that many of them daren't speak out," he said.
Hong Kong rights activist Liao Jianhao believes Nicole was detained for her role in recent mass protest movements in Hong Kong.
"The whole case is likely about prosecuting her for taking part in the Occupy Central movement of 2014 and the anti-extradition movement of 2019," he told RFA.
Prior to her detention, Nicole was an active citizen journalist, using Twitter to post real-time news about the protests, and resident of Hong Kong, although she was born in Guangxi.
Liao said she is currently being held in the Liuzhou Detention Center on charges of "incitement to subvert state power."
"One of her [alleged] crimes was hosting mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong," he said. "She was also part of the press team and was involved in helping those injured [in clashes with police]."
Liao said the authorities may have targeted Nicole in the hope of obtaining the names of mainland Chinese residents who supported the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong.
She had earlier taken part in demonstrations in support of the 47 former opposition lawmakers and pro-democracy activists arrested for "subversion" under a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing from July 1, 2020.
"I took part in a demonstration in Causeway Bay on Sept. 27, 2019, and Nicole gave me first aid when I was hit by a tear gas grenade," Liao said. "I am very grateful to her."
He said it was illegal under Chinese law to detain someone for a crime committed outside mainland Chinese jurisdiction.
"The location was Hong Kong, which has nothing to do with [the authorities] in Liuzhou," Liao said. "Liuzhou shouldn't be able to bring a case against Nicole under Chinese law, but everyone knows what kind of country China is."
He said the CCP regards the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement as an attempt by foreign powers to instigate a "color revolution" in the city.
"They think it's a political activity created by hostile factions aimed at overthrowing CCP rule, which is actually pretty absurd," Liao said.
Former Hong Kong University of Science and Technology student Zhu Rui, who was also born in mainland China, said the CCP won't stop pursuing mainlanders who took part in the Hong Kong protests.
"We are facing an unscrupulous and evil regime," Zhu told RFA. "We have to keep telling ourselves to keep trying to damage the CCP regime for as long as we're free, because once they catch us, we'll just be prisoners or hostages."
"Nicole was merely expressing her demands for freedom, democracy and the rule of law peacefully like any other Hongkonger," Zhu said. "These were freedoms we should have had, but which were taken from us by the CCP."
He said CCP leader Xi Jinping is imposing oppressive controls on Hong Kong along the lines of the oppression of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
"They're putting everyone they lay eyes on in jail," Zhu said.
Lydia Wong, a researcher at the Georgetown University Asian Law Center who specializes in Hong Kong, said the Chinese authorities are increasingly keen to pursue dissidents far beyond mainland China, citing the fact that Beijing made Hong Kong National Security Law applicable to anyone of any nationality, anywhere in the world.
"You can commit these actions anywhere in the universe, but you can still be arrested wherever police in Hong Kong or mainland China are able to arrest people," Wong told RFA.
"It is entirely plausible that they will use their domestic judicial system to target certain people they think are participating in the anti-China movement in Hong Kong," she said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.