China: PEN Centers Call for Xu Zhiyong’s Immediate Release
PEN International, PEN America and the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) are gravely concerned over the ongoing persecution of imprisoned writer and legal scholar, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), and call on the PRC government to ensure his immediate and unconditional release.
On June 22, 2022, Xu Zhiyong’s trial took place behind closed doors on the charge of ‘subversion of state power’ under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law, which can result in a potential life sentence. Subversion charges have been routinely used by the authorities to target dissident writers, with examples including Nobel Peace Prize laureate and ICPC’s former president, Liu Xiaobo, who died in custody on July 13, 2017. It is unknown when the outcome of the trial will be publicly announced, with Xu’s family prevented from attending and his legal representatives warned against speaking with media.
Xu was initially detained in Guangzhou on February 15, 2020, shortly after he published an essay calling for Xi Jinping’s resignation in the wake of the PRC government’s initial handling of the pandemic, which Xu referred to as a ‘national disaster’.
At the time of his initial detainment, he had been living in hiding for several weeks out of concern of being targeted as part of a crackdown on fellow attendees of a private gathering of civil society activists in Xiamen in December 2019. In the weeks that followed the gathering, Xu was among over a dozen attendees who were arrested, in what was seen as a further escalation of the widespread crackdown on human rights lawyers and civil rights activists that took place across China in 2015.
Xu was initially held under a form of pretrial detention referred to “residential surveillance at a designated location”, or RSDL, which allows PRC authorities to hold individuals for up to six months in solitary confinement at a secret location before any trial takes place. This form of enforced disappearance exposes detainees to heightened risk of torture and is frequently used by authorities against dissidents and human rights activists, with other examples including the detention of PEN members Qin Yongmin, Gui Minhai, Yang Hengjun, and Liu Xiaobo. On June 19, 2020, Xu was formally arrested on subversion charges according to a written notification sent to his family.
On February 6, 2021, Li Qiaochu (李翘楚), an award-winning human rights defender, honorary ICPC member and Xu Zhiyong’s fiancée, was also detained on subversion charges following her public disclosure of details of Xu’s torture and ill-treatment while in detention, which included Xu being denied food and water, and being subjected to a torture device referred to as a ‘tiger chair’ for prolonged periods of time. It is thought that Li may have been detained in retaliation for her engagement with the United Nations human rights experts.
On reviewing Xu’s detention, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) have expressed grave concerns, stating that his deprivation of liberty is arbitrary in nature, resulting from the legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression (UDHR Art. 19) and other rights. In its conclusions, the WGAD has called on the PRC government to ensure Xu Zhiyong’s immediate release.
PEN International, PEN America and the ICPC urges the PRC government to ensure Xu Zhiyong’s immediate and unconditional release, and to end the persecution of writers and others who engage in peaceful expression in China.
Formally a lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, Xu has been involved in human rights advocacy since 2003 when he was elected as an independent deputy to the Haidian District People’s Congress in Beijing. He is also a notable essayist, having frequently published his writing on a range of social and political issues in China.
As a co-founder of the New Citizens Movement, Xu has selflessly used his legal expertise to peacefully advocate for the advancement rule of law and social justice in China. In 2013, Xu was detained as part of a crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers and was imprisoned on trumped up charges for four years until his release in 2017.
In the same year as his release from prison in 2017, a collection of his essays were translated into English and published as a book titled ‘To Build a Free China – A Citizen’s Journey’ (an English translation of a chapter from the book can be found here). His essay collection, titled ‘Beautiful China’ (美好中国), is also available on his personal blog (a translation of chapter 13 by writer and activist Andrea Worden can be found here).