The Trial of Xu Zhiyong and China’s Political Reality

By Yaxue Cao, published: January 20, 2014


Xu Zhiyong (许志永)

Xu Zhiyong (许志永)

Four days before Dr. Xu Zhiyong’s arrest on July 16, 2013, a Chinese businessman named Zeng Chengjie (曾成杰) was executed. He was a private entrepreneur in Hunan province who financed his business by raising money from ordinary citizens, and he was put to death for having “more debt than assets” and “cheating a lot of people,” according to the court. But the court did not mention that he had paid off half of his liabilities and his assets had been sold to state-owned companies significantly below market prices. Nor did it explain why the execution had to be carried out secretly without notifying his family and allowing him to meet them before his death, a breach of Chinese law. The cruelty and absurdity surrounding Zeng’s death provoked an online backlash and speculations about corruption and possible organ harvesting. The Chinese authorities censored the outcries on social media.

The day after Dr. Xu’s arrest, also in Hunan, a watermelon farmer named Deng Zhengjia (邓正加) died of cerebral hemorrhage when an urban management enforcer bludgeoned him with an iron weight for “occupying space improperly” when selling his crops on the street. Then people sent by the government snatched his body away from his family to “eliminate the source of stimulation,” in the parlance of China’s stability maintenance. Journalists who came to report on the incident were beaten and chased away.

Five days after Dr. Xu’s arrest, a man on wheelchair named Ji Zhongxing (冀中星) set off a home-made bomb in Beijing’s Capital Airport. He was not a terrorist but a man from the countryside of Shandong, and he wanted the world to hear him. A migrant worker making a living as a motorcycle taxi driver in Guangdong a few years back, he was caught by police enforcing a new policy that banned his business. The severe beating and torture at the hands of police paralyzed him. Year after year he petitioned courts and government agencies, from local ones to Beijing, in vain. No one would take up his case. Now there is a case against him for the explosion, and he’s waiting to be tried.

Dr. Xu Zhiyong is not related to these three men, but these grievances, rife in China, are what he has endeavored to address through advocacy for rule of law, through social activism and through changing China eventually into a place where “Freedom, Justice and Love” prevail. Now, his endeavor has turned him into a criminal, not under the Chinese law but by the Chinese Communist Party that fears and crushes any sign of social organizing for change.

The 40-year-old Xu Zhiyong is a legal scholar and one of the pioneers of China’s rights movement. In 2003 when he was still a PhD candidate in law at Peking University, a young college graduate named Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) was beaten to death in Guangzhou’s Custody and Deportation Center. Xu Zhiyong, along with two fellow graduate students Teng Biao (滕彪) and Yu Jiang (俞江), appealed to the National Congress of People’s Representatives to abolish what was known as the custody and deportation policy that limited Chinese citizens’ freedom to live and work in places other than where their household registrations were. The Chinese government, in a surprising move, ended the policy. The event marked the beginning of China’s rights movement.   

Xu Zhiyong and Teng Biao and their friends went on to found the Open Constitution Initiative (better known as Gong Meng in Chinese) to provide legal assistance to the disempowered and the wronged. Over the years, rights lawyers working with Gong Meng have represented petitioners, Christians, Falungong practitioners, entrepreneurs, criminals, enslaved workers, Tibetan “rioters,” victims of melamine-contaminated baby formula, dissidents, activists of social initiatives, and more. They have scored disproportionally more failures than victories, not because they are bad lawyers or inept citizen representatives, but because China is a country that has courts but not the rule of law. That is because courts, just like the Congress of People’s Representatives, are subordinates of the Communist Party.  

Gong Meng’s offices have been shut down; rights lawyers, activists and volunteers associated with Gong Meng have been routinely threatened and harassed. For Dr. Xu himself, police interrogations and house arrests have become a fixture in his life. In 2009 Xu and a Gong Meng staff member were detained for “tax evasion” for over a month, and were released only after overwhelming cries of support from the public.

Despite hindrances posed by the government, Dr. Xu and Gong Meng have persevered to find every possible opportunity to work with people from all walks of life to seek justice. He regularly accompanies petitioners to go to the courts, and once at the reception hall of the People’s Supreme Court, he was slapped in the face by a guard. In the winter, he organized volunteers to send comforters and coats to petitioners scattered in the city without shelters. He and his volunteers rescued petitioners from black jails in Beijing. One of their many initiatives over the last two years has been campaigning for an “equal education right” so that children of migrant workers are allowed to go to local schools and take college entrance exams locally where they live and pay taxes now, not where their household registrations are. The campaign has collected over 100,000 signatures. It has held monthly demonstrations outside the Education Ministry, and scored limited but still significant victories across the country, though not in Beijing and Shanghai, over these discriminatory and inhumane policies against millions of migrant workers and their children. Until last February, Dr. Xu was seen outside subway exits in Beijing handing out flyers and urging more people to join the campaign.

In May, 2012, Dr. Xu posted an essay entitled The New Citizens Movement in China (translation). “The New Citizens Movement is a political campaign,” he wrote. “China needs to complete a political transformation, establish a free, democratic China with the rule of law. The New Citizens Movement is a social campaign. The solution to power monopoly, rampant corruption, wealth disparity, education imbalance, and similar problems does not solely depend on a democratic political system, but also relies on the continual implementation of a movement of social reform. The New Citizens Movement is a cultural campaign. It aims to rid of the nation of tyrannical culture, which is degenerate, depraved, treacherous, and hostile, and build a new nationalist spirit of ‘freedom, justice, and love.’”

The movement started modestly. It built on what the rights movement had practiced and learned over the past ten years. In cities across the country, like-minded people, be they rights lawyers, liberal intellectuals, petitioners, activists, or any citizens who embrace the idea of change in China, held monthly same-city citizen dinner gatherings where they discussed the current affairs, exchanged views, and made friends. They humorously called it fan zui (dinning and getting drunk), a homophone of “committing a crime.” Surely enough, the Chinese government, which is leery of any organized activities, considers such gatherings an offense. Using thuggish methods, police prevented or disrupted such gatherings, and subjected key organizers to surveillance, interrogation and harassment.

In March, 2013, before and after the National People’s Congress held its annual session, citizens associated with the Movement took to the streets in Beijing and elsewhere. In threes or fours, they unfurled banners demanding that China’s top officials take the lead to disclose their assets.

The arrests began promptly from the end of March, and by September, 18 activists in Beijing were arrested for their participation in the New Citizens Movement activities, including the billionaire activist Wang Gongquan, a close associate of Xu’s. This week, 8 of them, Xu Zhiyong first on January 22, will be tried.

The real reason behind the clampdown, as many China observers have pointed out, is the uneasiness of China’s new leadership as public dissent continues to rise and more Chinese demand a fair and just society. They particularly fear organization (more so than shrill anti-Party utterances by individuals and there are too many of them), any form or shape of it, although the New Citizens Movement is hardly an organization either in form or in essence.

Over the course of 2013, the CCP has issued documents and edicts, and its mouthpieces have published one commentary after another, to tie democracy and constitutionalism to capitalism that are not for China. It has moved to limit teaching and discussion of the rule of law and civil society in universities and the media, and curb public opinion online in the guise of a crackdown on rumormongering and defamation. In other words, instead of addressing the systemic problems to deliver justice and safeguard citizens’ basic rights, and instead of beginning to empower the people by allowing civil society to grow, the Chinese government under its new leader, Xi Jinping, has choosen to tighten the lid of a pressure cooker. Instead of governance, it resorts to political campaigns of terror and suppression, a legacy of Mao Zedong that Xi Jinping seems to embrace readily.

In the west, we have been obsessed with economic numbers coming out of China that might not even be real in many regards, and we tend to forget the fact that China is a dictatorship that opposes the universal values of the rest of the world.  Such omission will have global consequences even if we, outside China, choose to look the other way from the abuses inside China.

The week when Dr. Xu Zhiyong was arrested was nothing extraordinary in today’s China. Illegal expropriation of private property is done with nothing other than state power or by collusion of individuals with the state; enforcement brutalities are common and perpetrators enjoy impunity because it is in the interest of the Party to maintain their loyalty; corruption is rampant and its extent staggering; and the persecution of dissent has never slackened and is becoming more intense.

The Chinese government has gone out of its way at the expense of the country’s own law, and into petty meanness, to facilitate the political persecution that these trials represent. It arbitrarily divided a legal “joint case” into several cases so that, according the defense lawyers, the court can admit the testimonies of his friends as evidence against him while “diminishing the impact of a large trial.”

While the court promised an “open trial” of Xu Zhiyong, it lied about the size of the courtroom where the trial would be held on Wednesday. Earlier the judge told Xu Zhiyong’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) that the courtroom was very small and only two of Xu’s relatives could be allowed to observe the trial. Monday, the lawyer reported that talks with the court about witnesses collapsed. Also, he found that the courtroom had 24 seats. If the court really means to have an “open trial,” then there is amble room to accommodate the press and some members of the public.

Without doubt, Xu Zhiyong and the seven others will be convicted and locked up in prison. What cannot be locked up, however, is Dr. Xu’s vision of the future China, shared, and fought for, by millions of Chinese people.



The New Citizens Movement Trials, a compilation of related posts

5 responses to “The Trial of Xu Zhiyong and China’s Political Reality”

  1. […] The Trial of Xu Zhiyong and China’s Political Reality, by Yaxue Cao […]

  2. […] The Trial of Xu Zhiyong and China’s Political Reality, by Yaxue Cao […]

  3. […] and mobilizing accordingly — that Xu Zhiyong was found guilty. He was turned into a criminal, states Chinese writer Yaxue Cao, “not under the Chinese law but by the Chinese Communist Party that […]

  4. […] China, but Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July 2013 and sentenced the following January to four years in prison for the crime of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Lawyer Ding Jiaxi, […]

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