China has in recent weeks held around 40 people on the mainland who had expressed support for the  universal suffrage protests in Hong Kong, according to rights groups.

Zhang Xiuhua and Li Lihua, both middle-aged women, were detained by police last week on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", their friend Zhou Li told AFP, citing a police notice.

The vague charge of "picking quarrels" has been increasingly used by Chinese police to hold human rights lawyers and activists in recent months.

In July, Zhang and Li spoke in Hong Kong to foreign media affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned on the mainland, as they took part in a pro-democracy march that drew tens of thousands of people.

Zhou added that their detentions were related, saying: "Before the arrest Li Lirong was questioned by the police, and they specifically mentioned the Hong Kong interview she had given."

Demonstrations in Hong Kong demanding open elections have brought tens of thousands to the streets in recent weeks, and Beijing has declared them "illegal".

Hong Kong police today removed some of the barricades at sites where pro-democracy demonstrators have been holding more than two weeks of rallies, allowing some traffic to move through previously blocked parts of the city.

More than 40 mainland Chinese have been detained in the last two weeks for supporting Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, according to reports compiled by the US-based advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Rights group Amnesty International estimates that a further 60 activists have been questioned by police.

Among those held were a group of 10 artists in Beijing who had arranged a small gathering in support of the protests, according to lawyer Li Fangping.

They include poet Wang Zang who was detained after he posted a picture of himself online holding an umbrella, a symbol of the Hong Kong protests, his wife Wang Li told AFP.

Police had not stated any reason for the arrest, she said, adding that after she spoke to foreign media she and her young child were detained for around a day.

Scholar and longtime human rights advocate Guo Yushan has also been held on a charge of "picking quarrels", his lawyer Li Jin said.

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