By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Police have arrested one of China's most prominent rights activists who has called for officials to disclose their wealth, his lawyer said on Friday, raising the stakes in the government's crackdown on anti-graft campaigners.
The arrest of Xu Zhiyong, who has pushed for greater civil rights, could trigger an international outcry over Beijing's tightening grip of a fledgling movement. It also exposes shortcomings in the government's drive against corruption.
Western governments have sparred repeatedly with Beijing over human rights and the United States raised Xu's case this month during its annual rights dialogue with China.
Xu, the founder of the "New Citizens' Movement", advocates working within the system to press for change.
On the Internet, he has called on officials to disclose their assets and fellow activists have gone into the streets to urge citizens to combat corruption.
Beijing police arrested Xu on Thursday on a charge of "gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place", one of Xu's lawyers, Zhang Qingfang, said by telephone.
Xu was detained last month on the same charge. Before that, he had been under house arrest for three months, with no reason given by the authorities. Xu had previously told Reuters that "it could be due to my campaign to push for asset disclosure".
Wang Gongquan, a venture capitalist and an old friend of Xu, said he was shocked at the arrest.
"What I'm shocked about is that the government and the police have gone farther and farther down the wrong road on the matter of Xu Zhiyong," he said.
"I feel sorry because there was an opportunity to release him before his arrest, but they are too overconfident and accustomed to doing their own thing regardless of right and wrong."
Police in Beijing could not be reached for comment.
China has detained at least 16 activists involved in pushing for asset disclosure by officials, in what rights groups say is a new, coordinated crackdown by the stability-obsessed ruling Communist Party against graft campaigners.
Xu's arrest coincided with the opening of the trial of former senior leader Bo Xilai on corruption charges, a case which has so far focused on Bo's alleged ill-gotten gains.
LAWYERS PRESS FOR ACTIVIST'S RELEASE
In China, a formal arrest usually leads to a trial, though Zhang said he was relatively confident that Xu could be released before the case comes to trial.
"I'm convincing Xu Zhiyong to express his views on social issues more rationally, in a more moderate way," Zhang said. "Xu has accepted this point."
Zhang said the lawyers were also trying to persuade authorities that litigating the case "is not necessarily the best way".
In a rare video-taped message from a detention center issued in early August, Xu, wearing handcuffs and an orange vest, urged the Chinese people to fight for their rights.
"Somebody has to pay for the society's progress, I am willing to bear all the costs for freedom, justice, love and faith," Xu said in his video.
In 2009, Xu was briefly arrested on tax evasion charges his defenders said were trumped up in a bid to stifle his work. The charges were dropped after a furor.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)