Irony in China: Anti-Corruption Activist Xu Zhiyong Marks Two Years in Prison
Today marks the two-year anniversary of the arrest of Chinese activist Xu Zhiyong under charges of disrupting public order. Following a closed door trial, Xu, 42, was sentenced to four years in prison for organizing a number of peaceful demonstrations for government transparency and education rights for children of rural migrant workers. Xu is currently serving the second year of his sentence.
A co-founder of the New Citizens Movement, Xu is a vocal advocate for the rights of all Chinese citizens, especially the underprivileged. The Movement operates at a grassroots level and started gaining momentum among thousands of followers, which worried and alarmed the authorities. As a human rights lawyer, Xu often worked within China’s existing legal framework to provide aid and counsel to victims of illegal activities like the tainted milk scandal of 2008.
Spurred by President Xi Jinping’s own rhetoric about stamping out corruption within the government, Xu’s New Citizens Movement also calls for government officials to disclose their assets to the public. Since Xi became the leader of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, hundreds of thousands of officials—including high-level Party leaders once thought to be immune from criticism—have been subjected to investigation and subsequently disciplined for corrupt activities. But Xi’s authorities responded swiftly and brutally against the Movement’s attempt to expose corruption, arresting dozens of members and putting them on trial for “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” After previous attempts to detain Xu on charges like tax evasion, authorities finally arrested him on July 16, 2013, for his role in planning small-scale protests during 2012 and 2013. The court found him guilty of obstructing the law.
Human rights groups widely condemned Xu’s conviction as an act of retribution and hypocrisy on the part of Xi’s government, which has become increasingly fearful of any kind of independent expression or assembly by its citizens, even if their views align with the cornerstones of Xi’s policies. The prosecution of Xu—a moderate activist who has been accused of trying too hard to appease the government—conveys the message that even reasonable calls for change within China will not be tolerated under Xi’s watch.