China Change, September 25, 2021
On December 7 and 8, 2019, twenty or so people – more than half of them human rights lawyers and the rest citizen movement enthusiasts – gathered in Xiamen, Fujian Province, for a day-and-half informal gathering. It was a mixed affair of chatting, debate, karaoke, lunch, and dinner, and the topics they touched on were current affairs affecting China and the world — Hong Kong, the U.S.-China trade war, human rights cases, and the state of citizen activism. Days following the gathering, on December 13 apparently, the Chinese domestic security police opened an “investigation” of the event with a team called the “1213 Special Case Group” (1213专案组). On December 26, lawyer Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) and at least four participants of the gathering were simultaneously apprehended in different parts of the country, sending other attendees scuttling for cover. Some fled China on the first flights they could get on; others went into hiding, including Xu Zhiyong (许志永), the renowned legal scholar and a long-time citizen movement proponent and practitioner. Xu was apprehended in mid-February 2020 in Guangzhou.
Over the course of the first six months, most of those involved in the case were released, except for Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, who were formally arrested in late June and moved out of Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) in Yantai, Shandong Province, and transferred to the remote and obscure detention center in Linshu county of Shandong’s Linyi city. The two did not have any access to their lawyers until January 2021.
Now, after more than a year and half in detention, six months of which were spent in RSDL, a lengthy “investigation” and repeated “supplementary investigations,” Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were indicted on August 5, 2021. Though their lawyers were notified of the indictment at the time but didn’t receive a copy of indictments until early September. Without legal grounds to do so, the court arbitrarily forced the lawyers to sign a confidentiality agreement barring them from sharing hard copies of the Indictment with family members or making them public.
Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were indicted separately as two cases, though by law they should be of the same case.
Xu Zhiyong’s Six Counts of “Crimes” and the Context That the Indictment Deliberately Omits
Xu Zhiyong was charged with six counts of “crimes” as follows, while Ding Jiaxi was charged with five of them (1, part of 2, 3, 5, and 6), verbatim. We will go over them one by one, brown italics being translations from the indictment of Xu Zhiyong with links embedded by China Change for your reference.
1. From 2012 to 2013, defendant Xu Zhiyong, colluding with Ding Jiaxi and others using communication applications, organized “citizen meal gatherings” and “same-city meal gatherings” in Beijing, Xuzhou (徐州), Wuhan (武汉) and other cities to recruit members for the illegal organization “New Citizens Movement.”
In 2017, after being released from prison, defendant Xu Zhiyong, colluding with Ding Jiaxi, continued to network with Wang Jiangsong (王江松), Liu Jiacai (刘家财) and other members of the illegal organization “New Citizens Movement” and travelled to Yantai, Xiamen and other cities to connect with Zhang Zhongshun (张忠顺), Dai Zhenya (戴振亚), changing “New Citizens Movement” to “Citizens Movement,” establishing the illegal organization “Citizens Movement,” and organizing, planning and executing a series of criminal activities to subvert state power.
This charge starts off with a reference to the New Citizens Movement from 2012 to 2013 as an “illegal organization” without establishing how theMovement violates the law. As the first wave of crackdowns on civil society after Xi Jinping took power in 2012, more than a dozen or so citizen movement participants were arrested in the spring of 2013 and tried for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order.” Xu Zhiyong, who received the longest sentence and whose alleged crimes included campaigning for children of migrant workers to have equal education access in where they live and pay taxes, as opposed to strictly where their household registration is, served four years in prison from July 2013 to July 2017. Ding Jiaxi, a lawyer-turned-activist, served a three-and-half-year prison term from April 2013 to October 2016 for demonstrating with fellow activists on the streets demanding officials to disclose their personal assets.
During the New Citizens Movement trials in 2014, it was never identified and proved in the court to be an “illegal organization.”
Xu Zhiyong’s activism can be traced back to the early 2000s, shortly after he graduated from Peking University with a Ph.D. in law. “Gongmeng” (公盟), known as Open Constitution Initiative, a NGO founded by Xu and legal colleagues in 2003, championed constitutionalism, citizen participation in grassroots people’s representative elections, among other causes, and provided legal aid in some of the most high-profile cases of the time involving journalists, private entrepreneurs, believers and more, and his group of rights lawyers represented countless victims of egregious injustice. The citizen movement, whether by the name “New Citizens Movement” or“Citizens Movement,” has been a continuation of what Gongmeng spearheaded in late 2000s after it was “outlawed” in 2009. Ding Jiaxi, a lawyer specializing in intellectual properties and other commercial fields, joined hands with Xu Zhiyong around late 2011 to promote the citizen movement.
They and their growing but loose network of citizens, who have embraced the concept of changing China for the better by putting into practice rights written on the paper, have carefully and deliberately avoided the perils of being an “organization,” precisely because there is no freedom of association in China — despite being guaranteed by the constitution — and all such attempts by dissidents were crushed with heavy-handed punishment during the 1990s and 2000s.
The citizens movement has never had an organizational structure, nor leaders and membership. Instead, this like-minded network of citizens gathered regularly in different cities across China, discussing China’s political system, people’s livelihood, human rights defense, and things they could do to be more like real citizens, rather than passive subjects.
But it has become clear from information made public by participants of the Xiamen gathering who had been interrogated and from lawyers who have met with Xu and Ding that the primary goal of the Chinese authorities was to frame this loose network of citizens as an “illegal organization,” and multiple participants of the Xiamen gathering were coerced to make false testimonies to that effect.
Wang Jiangsong is a professor and labor researcher in Beijing, one of the 20-plus participants of the Xiamen gathering. He was subject to intense interrogations during the early months of Xu and Ding’s detention but not charged said in a statement, “The New Citizens Movement has never been identified as an illegal organization before by any court or other authorities, yet Linyi Procuratorate’s indictments [of Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi] predicated on the New Citizens Movement being an illegal organization.”
Wang further pointed out that the “‘New Citizens Movement’ or ‘Citizen Movement’ is only a concept, and to equate a concept with an entity is pure idealist logic. By such logic, new concepts and thoughts such as the ‘rights defense movement,’ ‘labor movement,’ ‘feminist movement,’ and ‘environmentalist movement’ that flourished over the last decade or so can all be labeled as illegal organizations. Can Linyi Procuratorate blithely and successfully establish the charge of ‘illegal organization’ by simply attaching to its indictments the names of a few supporters of the concept of ‘citizen movement’ that Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi advocated? From a concept to an organization, from an organization to an illegal organization, facts need to be established and laws applied each step of the way.”
The indictment does not specify “criminal activities to subvert state power” that Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi and others allegedly “organized, planned, and executed.”
2. Since 2012, defendant Xu Zhiyong has written and disseminated a large quantity of inciting articles, such as “People’s Country” (《人民的国家》), “A Proposal to Citizens: Seek Candidacy in 2021 Elections” (《公民倡议：竞选2021》), “Non-violence” (《非暴力》), and “A Beautiful China” (《美好中国》), to attack and slander our country’s political system, promote ideas of subversion state power, deceive and incite others to oppose socialist system, and propose political goals such as “political opposition” and the so-called “constitutionalist transition.”
In 2017, after being released from prison, defendant Xu Zhiyong, colluding with Ding Jiaxi and Hua Ze (华泽), a member of an overseas organization, to jointly operate the website ‘China Citizen Movement’ ”[中国公民运动网], adding new columns, selecting and appointing website reporters and editors, fundraising for website operation, disseminating a large quantity of Xu Zhiyong’s inciting articles that promote ideas of subverting state power.
In September 2017, defendant Xu Zhiyong directed his girlfriend Li Qiaochu (dealt with in separate case) to establish a personal blog for Xu Zhiyong and arranged for Li to disseminate a large quantity of Xu Zhiyong’s inciting articles that promote ideas of subverting state power.
Let’s break down this count of “crime.” Before his first arrest in 2013, Xu Zhiyong had a personal blog hosted on blogspot.com. The last post before his arrest was a monthly report on donations received for the “Justice Fund” and expenditures in June 2013. It is also where readers can find an array of Xu’s writing on the citizen movement, including his well-known essay calling for “a new citizens movement” in the spring of 2012. Following his release in July 2017, Xu Zhiyong opened up a new blog to continue post his writings, and the last post in January 2020 was a chapter of “A Beautiful China,” a revision and extension of “To Build a Free China – A Citizen’s Journey” published in 2017 by Lynne Rienner Publishers.
In his Introduction to “To Build a Free China,” renowned China scholar Andrew Nathan, reviewing the various calls for changing China from 1978 to date, deems Xu Zhiyong’s approach “perhaps more creative than any of the others.” He wrote, [Xu’s] career “has hinged on the simple yet weighty concept of the ‘citizen.’” “[I]t lays out extensive rights – to vote, to speak, to criticize government, to enjoy dignity of the person – and duties for all who hold Chinese nationality. Xu Zhiyong’s bold idea was to take these rights and duties seriously.”
Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi themselves have practiced what they promote and have been recognized for their work and dedication. Xu was the recipient of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award, along with Liu Xiaobo, in 2016; Ding was the recipient of 2013 Chinese Democracy Education Foundation’s Award for Outstanding Person for Chinese Democracy; both were recipients of China Human Rights Lawyer Award (Xu 2020, Ding 2021).
As for the origin of the China Citizen Movement website, Hua Ze explained in a recent statement: a long-time friend of Xu Zhiyong and supporter, she set up the website in April 2014 shortly after Xu Zhiyong’s appeal concluded. At the time, both Xu and Ding were in jail and therefore knew nothing about the website, let alone jointly operating the site with Hua Ze. She said the website is not affiliated with any organization, and she herself has been managing the site and covering the operation cost.
The site mostly publishes or reposts (more reposts than original content) human rights related reports and commentaries publicly available on social media and other outlets. It indeed hosts a Xu Zhiyong page, but Xu has a personal blog where he posted his articles that in turn were often widely reposted by numerous other Chinese language websites.
3. In 2018, defendant Xu Zhiyong, colluding with Ding Jiaxi, set up a Telegram group for the illegal organization “Citizens Movement” as the illegal organization’s platform for subversion activities. Ding Jiaxi and Wu Ming (吴明), a member of an overseas organization, were administrators at different points, and twenty or so key members, including Wang Jiangsong, Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, and Hua Ze, used Telegram to contact and communicate with one another; Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi also organized key members, using Zoom software, to hold illegal online meetings and trainings and plan activities to subvert state power.
From 2018 to 2019, defendant Xu Zhiyong, colluding with Ding Jiaxi, instructed Hua Ze to hold regular “non-violence” color revolution trainings for members of the illegal organization “Citizen Movement” to teach members methods of “non- violence” color revolution in order to subvert state power.
In addition to “illegal organization,” count 3 slapped the label “color revolution” on Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi without, again, specifying what “activities to subvert state power” that Xu and Ding and others “planned.”
As for the “trainings,” Hua Ze explains in her statement, “I’m an independent researcher, and non-violent social movements have been my area of research for years. Non-violent social movements include but are not limited to politics, and it has been applied in the broader struggle for social justice and civil rights. Having learned about my research, Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong believed that it is in accordance with the idea of “Freedom, Justice and Love” that the Chinese citizens movement promotes, just what the Chinese society needed. So they invited me to share my research, and materials about the cases of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela all came from publications legally published in China.”
She further stated that “the Chinese authorities bundled me and the cases of Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi together in order to falsely charge them of ‘organizing’ and ‘colluding with overseas forces.’ But apart from sharing my research on non-violence social movements with some Chinese citizens, I have never participated in any of their activities.”
4. From March to May, 2019, defendant Xu Zhiyong worked with Chen Yong (陈勇) (also called Chen Jiaping 陈家坪) and others to film the illegal movie “The Statesman”(《政治家》) in which Xu Zhiyong, speaking about his experiences in prison, about “equal access to education” and other topics, attacked our country’s judicial, educational, petition and other systems, denigrated our country’s political system, and promoted ideas of subverting state power.
In early March 2020, two weeks after Xu Zhiyong was detained, a Beijing-based documentary maker named Chen Jiaping was taken into custody and placed under RSDL for allegedly “inciting subversion.” Few knew of his detention until April when his wife posted a “letter” to him on WeChat. Over the years, the filmmaker filmed migrant workers and counter-cultural poets. And, starting 2010 and over the span of four years, he filmed the campaign for equal access to education for migrant workers’ children. He also filmed, along with Prof. Ai Xiaoming, the “New Citizens Trials” in 2014 (here, here, here, and here).
In 2014, supporters came out in droves to protest the trial of Xu Zhiyong and fellow new citizens, but in 2021, it’s no longer imaginable.
It’s unclear whether “The Statesman” is in fact the title of Chen’s unfinished documentary, or a title made up by the police interrogators to make innuendos about Xu’s political ambition – not that there’s anything wrong for a lawful Chinese citizen to have political aspirations.
Again, the indictment is free of details as how Xu Zhiyong “denigrated our country’s political system, and promoted ideas of subverting state power” in the documentary. It’s all for the prosecutors to say, nothing for the public to know and judge for themselves.
Chen Jiaping was released in June 2020.
5. On September 22 and 23, 2018, defendant Xu Zhiyong, colluding with Ding Jiaxi, organized a secret meeting of 13 people, including Zhang Zhongshun, Chang Weiping (常玮平), Wang Jiangsong, and Wu Ming, in Zhang Zhongshun’s villa in Yinhe Yihai Tianyuewan residential area, Gaoxin District, Yantai, Shandong Province, to organize and plan activities to subvert state power. [During the meeting they] reviewed lessons of the subversive activities of the “New Citizens Movement” and “Citizens Movement” hitherto, analyzed problems facing the current “Citizens Movement,” and asked members to infiltrate grassroots communities to subvert state power by means of “non-violent” color revolution.
6. On December 7 and 8, 2019, defendant Xu Zhiyong, colluding with Ding Jiaxi, organized a secret meeting of 20 people, including Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, Wang Jiangsong, in Naisihongpa villa (奈斯轰趴别墅) and Mohe house (墨和小院), Jimei District, Xiamen city, Fujian Province, with Wu Ming and Liu Shuqing (刘书庆) attending via online connection. Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi summarized the activities of the illegal organization “Citizens Movement” in 2019, proposed activity plans for 2020. They discussed topics such as organizational development, opposition to government, operation fundraising, and social transition. They identified forms, methods and objectives of subverting state power, namely, infiltrating grassroots communities, seeking to hold power on grassroots levels, and developing so-called “citizen community groups” and “a national citizen community” by means of “non-violent” color revolution in order to eventually subvert state power.
Retching up incriminating labels but free of evidentiary details, count 5 and 6 of the indictment casts the two gatherings, in the space of a few lines, as conspiratorial events with malicious purposes. It continues to repeat unsupported claims like “illegal organization,” “color revolution,” and “subversion.”
In case our readers wonder what “infiltrating grassroots communities, seeking to hold power on grassroots levels” mean, it is how the indictment characterizes the Chinese citizens’ effort to get involved in the county and district (in urban areas) level of people’s representative elections that is held every six years now either being an independent candidate or helping other independent candidates to get votes. Xu Zhiyong himself ran as an independent candidate three times and was successfully elected in 2003 and 2006 in the precinct of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications but was “defeated” in 2011 by Fang Binxing (方滨兴), the president of the university and the father of China’s Great FireWall. In 2008, Xu Zhiyong’s Gongmeng helped a group of lawyers in Beijing to campaign for direct election of Beijing Bar Association — unsuccessfully. During the 2016 people’s representative election, while Xu Zhiyong was in prison, the Chinese authorities harshly cracked down on independent candidates in Beijing and elsewhere.
In April, 2019, Xu Zhiyong posted an article “A Proposal to Citizens: Seek Candidacy in 2021 Elections” (《公民倡议：竞选2021》) that the Indictment cited earlier as evidence of his “inciting subversion” in in which he encouraged concerned citizens to “put down roots in communities, serve the society, and be part of the 2021 county/district level elections of people’s representative.” Among other things, he also encouraged citizens to compete for directorship of their property owners’ committee where they live and own property. Meager as they are, these are political rights provided by the Chinese law, but have never been protected, and now distorted, by the indictment as basis for subversion.
Of course the Indictment does not spell them all out for all eyes to see. Indeed, the Chinese authorities don’t want to make public the flimsy, despicable indictments of Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi: it’s a house built with match sticks and collapses on touch.
But they own the kangaroo public security bureau, they own the kangaroo prosecutorate, and they own the kangaroo court. The law can be perfectly written, but it doesn’t matter.
A Participant’s Account of the Xiamen Gathering
Now, just what happened at the Xiamen gathering? According to a participant’s account, the twenty or so attendees — over half of whom were human rights lawyers and the rest were civil rights proponents – spoke for about two hours in the morning of December 7. Some talked about their own situations and the persecution they faced, and others talked about their views of the Hong Kong situation and China-U.S. trade war,” each person given 5 minutes following Robert’s Rules of Order. After taking a 3-hour lunch break, the attendees returned and chatted some more in small groups in the afternoon, drinking tea or coffee. In the evening they had a rather lavish dinner. That evening the group moved to a different location, an AirBnB type of rental home. In the morning on December 8, the discussions were more concrete, focusing mainly on three items: to select the Ten Public Events of 2019; to draft a 2020 New Year’s Message; and to select the recipient of 2019 Outstanding Citizen Award.
During the tea break, someone proposed a game predicting when the Chinese Communist Party will collapse. Some said in the next two or three years, others said not in thirty years. What would a post-CCP China face? What kind of system should a post-CCP China adopt? Federalism or a centralized government? How to solve the ethnic tensions that have worsened over the recent years?
By noon, the Xiamen gathering was over, and the attendees went out in groups to have lunch, while a few had left early catching their flight or train. At lunch, “we noticed that a few suspicious-looking figures were taking pictures of us and following us. We weren’t particularly concerned. We thought it was just an ordinary gathering during which we discussed some social issues, and there was nothing secret and we didn’t have to be frightened by ourselves. But now we know that we were too naive, and never thought this gathering would become a major case of ‘subversion of state power.’”
Police Extracted ‘Evidence’ and ‘Testimonies’ Through Torture
Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were not granted access to lawyers until after a year in custody. Ding Jiaxi told his lawyer during the first two video meetings early this year that, during the six months under RSDL, “on 73 days they interrogated me under sleep deprivation. For the entire 6 months, I didn’t see a single ray of sunlight.” “The fluorescent light in the room was lit 24 hours. I was not allowed to shower, and to brush my teeth.” At maximum volume for 10 days in February, 2020, 24 hours a day, they played a propaganda film “Xi Jinping’s Strategy of Governance: The Last Five Years in China” at Ding Jiaxi’s cell. “From April 1 to April 8 , I was strapped to a tiger bench (老虎凳), with a restraining belt on my back and a belt around my waist tightened to the limit, making it difficult to breathe.”
All of these, and more, were used to extract confessions cooked up by the interrogators. Xu Zhiyong was subjected to similar torture.
Other detainees were tortured in similar manner to “confess” and to incriminate Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong to satisfy the interrogators.
Wang Jiangsong privately described how he was interrogated for days on a row and how the interrogators tried to lead him to testify that the purpose of the Xiamen gathering was to establish an opposition party.
Chang Weiping, a Shaanxi-based human rights lawyer, was placed under RSDL for 10 days in January 2020. For the entire 10 days, 24 hours a day, he was locked in an interrogation chair and made “confessions” according to instruction. After being released on “bail pending trial,” he was confined to his parents’ home and prohibited from leaving the city. In October 2020, he was detained and placed under RSDL again. His case was recently handed to Baoji municipal procuratorate for prosecution for “subverting state power.” He was only allowed to see his lawyers for the first time recently. As feared, he was tortured again.
Xu Zhiyong’s girlfriend Li Qiaochu was held under RSDL for 120 days from February to June, 2020, again detained on February 6, 2021, for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power.” She is held in Linyi Detention Center in Shandong and has yet to be indicted.
The trials of Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi are expected to be held in October.
According to Article 105 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, “Whoever organizes, plots, or acts to subvert the political power of the state and overthrow the socialist system, the ringleaders or those whose crimes are grave are to be sentenced to life imprisonment, or not less than 10 years of fixed-term imprisonment; active participants are to be sentenced from not less than three years to not more than 10 years of fixed-term imprisonment.”
The international governments, human rights organizations, and lawyers and jurists must speak out strongly against the aghast prospect of the two Chinese lawyers and proponents of civil rights and political rights being convicted of, locked up for years for, this baseless, ludicrous crime of “subversion.”
Four Years Afar, Xu Zhiyong, September 16, 2018.
For Freedom, Justice and Love — My Closing Statement to the Court, Xu Zhiyong, January 22, 2014.
The Last Ten Years, Xu Zhiyong, 2013.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong (1) — An Interview with Teng Biao, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong (2) — An Interview with Teng Biao, April 13, 2014.
Prominent Human Rights Activist Ding Jiaxi Tells Lawyer Details of Torture Throughout His Year in Custody, China Change, February 5, 2021.
120 Days in Secret Detention, Li Qiaochu, January 11, 2021.