Xu Zhiyong: A closed-door trial

VA good two years ago, one of China’s best-known civil rights activists published an open letter to state and party leader Xi Jinping. “Dear Chairman Xi, it is time for you to go,” Xu Zhiyong wrote. “Anyone who surrounds himself with creeps will easily develop an exaggerated self-confidence.” Among other things, the civil rights activist Xi Jinping criticized the handling of the Corona outbreak in Wuhan, the trade war with the United States and the mass protests in Hong Kong.

Friederike Böge

Political correspondent for China, North Korea and Mongolia.

At that time the author of the letter had gone into hiding. Eleven days later he was caught by state security and charged with “undermining state power”. The focus of the allegations was a meeting of democracy activists in the city of Xiamen, which the civil rights activist is said to have organized.

On Wednesday, Xu Zhiyong was tried in Shandong Province in camera. A prison sentence is considered safe. The verdict was not announced publicly until the evening. Xu’s lawyer was banned from speaking to the media. Xu’s sister was thrown out of a hotel at the courthouse by the police at night and forced to leave. A fellow civil rights activist, lawyer Ding Jiaxi, is due to appear in court on Friday. He also faces a prison sentence.

He has been in prison before

It is the second time that 49-year-old Xu Zhiyong has been imprisoned. The former lawyer and lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunication founded the “New Citizens’ Movement” in 2012. Among other things, the group campaigned for the disclosure of officials’ financial circumstances. The activists used the Internet, which was much less censored at the time, to mobilize supporters in different parts of the country for small protests. They printed T-shirts and stickers with pro-democracy slogans, ran their own candidates in village elections, and collected money for the families of political prisoners. The number of members rose to more than 5000. That was a lot by Chinese standards.

Today it is hardly conceivable that such a group would publicly call itself a movement. In 2014, Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in prison for “disturbing public order.” As soon as he was released in 2017, he continued his activism. The professing Christian rose to prominence in 2003 when he campaigned to abolish a rule that allowed police to deport anyone who does not have household registration for the city in which they live, which is the case for millions of Chinese. Xu later spoke up for the victims of a scandal involving adulterated milk powder.

Information remains confidential

Under Xi Jinping, the air for civil rights activists has become increasingly thin in recent years. This also applies to groups that, like the “New Citizens’ Movement”, are demanding more transparency, even though Xi Jinping presents himself as a pioneer against corruption. The Communist Party has just decided on stricter reporting requirements for investments and assets of the children and spouses of the leading cadres. But she keeps the information under wraps. The public should not know anything about it.

Attorney Xu Zhiyong originally pinned his hopes on Xi Jinping. He wrote to him in a first public letter in 2012, shortly before Xi Jinping rose to become party leader. At the time, there were many who viewed him as a political reformer because of his father’s political legacy and because Xi himself had been persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. In 2020, civil rights activist Xu wrote, “Once again, I am summarizing what many think when I ask you to resign.”

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