By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Political cartoonist Wang Liming has spent three years publishing caricatures skewering China's leaders and is no stranger to the country's police. But it was a microblog post that got him into trouble last week.
Wang, 40, was the latest person targeted by authorities in a widening crackdown on online "rumor-mongering". Hundreds of people have been detained since August, say Chinese media and rights groups. Most have been released, but some are still being held on criminal charges.
The latest clampdown reflects a desire among Communist Party leaders "to dampen the effectiveness of the Internet to embarrass the government and press it to change", said Maya Wang, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Western countries accused China on Tuesday of arresting activists, curbing Internet use and suppressing ethnic minorities, as the United Nations formally reviewed its rights record for the first time since Xi Jinping became president.
The crackdown is also significant because it is targeting Internet users, like Wang, who don't see themselves as dissidents.
Police in Beijing released Wang late last Thursday after taking him into custody at 11 p.m. on Wednesday. They had summoned Wang on a charge of "suspicion of causing a disturbance" for forwarding a post about a stranded grandmother holding her grandson who had starved to death in the eastern city of Yuyao, which was hit by floods two weeks ago.
"I told (the police), 'How can I be causing a disturbance? All I did was post a microblog'," he told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday.
Wang said he was furious that the Yuyao government was not providing enough relief and was concealing the truth, so he posted a microblog on Tencent's Weibo chat service. The Yuyao government later said on its official Weibo account that Wang's posting was a rumor.
Wang, who is known online by his nickname, "Rebel pepper", has had his microblog account deleted by censors 180 times, he said. Wang has more than 310,000 followers on his Sina Weibo account.
State security officers first questioned Wang in 2011 in Hunan province after he had drawn a cartoon that said "One person, one vote, to change China". Wang asked them whether he was still allowed to draw cartoons.
There is freedom of speech in China, the officers told him. This scale can be controlled by you and we'll not ask you to stop your work, they said.
Two years later, Wang is still drawing. Many of his cartoons depict the problems of life in China, like the one he drew during a visit by Reuters about China's pollution, inspired by the smog crisis in northern Hebei province last weekend.
Born in Tangshan city in Hebei - his parents are retired teachers - Wang said he started drawing cartoons when he was five years-old. He was exposed in the 1980s to a political magazine published in Beijing titled "Irony and Humour".
In one of Wang's drawings, the character Winnie the Pooh was seen kicking a football. At the time, many microbloggers had seized on the likeness of President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. Censors removed all the images and Wang's cartoon was also swiftly deleted.
"For them, drawing leaders in cartoon form is a big taboo," Wang said. "I think the controls on the Internet are too harsh. They have no sense of humour. They can't accept any ridicule."
In another drawing, a police officer is seen playing with a machine that catches stuffed toys with a metal claw. The machine is called "500 catch".
China's top court and prosecutor have said people will be charged with defamation if online rumors they create are visited by 5,000 Internet users or reposted more than 500 times.
Wang said he knows his work has the potential to anger government officials and could put him in jeopardy, but at the same time, he cannot imagine a life of not drawing.
"Many times, I tried to convince myself not to touch it anymore," Wang said. "But after a few days, I can't help it, I'm still concerned about these things. Perhaps it's the desire for a person to speak the truth, to express himself. This is very difficult to control."
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Matt Driskill)