Crackdown on Speech Culminates in Activist Trials

Several activists will go on trial this week, in the culmination of a sustained crackdown on Internet and street protests which was launched when President Xi Jinping took power last year. The most prominent defendant is lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who initiated the New Citizens Movement to fight for constitutionality and against corruption and social injustice. But hopes that the new leadership would exhibit more tolerance for dissenting views were quickly squashed when Xu and several of his associates were detained. Xu, whose wife gave birth to a baby girl last week, is scheduled to go on trial on Wednesday and has said he will remain silent to protest procedural flaws.

All the defendants are being tried on charges of “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” some for their involvement in a protest in Beijing calling for officials to disclose their assets. The New York Times posted footage of the demonstration:

NBC News reports on the the crackdown on individuals opposing corruption, even while the government has put the fight against corruption at the top of their agenda:

After setting up the New Citizens Movement in 2010, [Xu] and other activists hoped the rise of Xi would mean more wiggle room for anti-corruption advocates. But, with Xi intent on tightening his grip amid a slowing economy and other internal pressures, this proved to be a miscalculation.

In total 16 activists have been detained in the anti-activist crackdown, including five from within Xu’s New Citizen Movement.

“While Xi Jinping has spoken a lot about tackling corruption and there have been some high-profile arrests, the government has harshly retaliated against those who exposed high-level corruption in the government and party,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

The vast majority of Chinese trials end in a conviction, and if found guilty Xu could face up to five years in jail. [Source]

Observers believe that the trials are intended to serve as a warning against others who independently oppose government policy, in one form or another: From the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog:

The cluster of likely trials – all almost sure to bring guilty verdicts and prison sentences – is intended by President Xi Jinping’s government to warn off others who support demands for reining in party power, said Teng Biao, a human rights advocate and law lecturer who knows many of the defendants.

“They’re likely to be sentenced from one to two years, and up to five years for Xu Zhiyong,” Mr. Teng said in an interview. “The government is conducting this ferocious counteroffensive, because Xi Jinping felt that if the rights defense movement wasn’t stamped on, it would pose even bigger troubles for him.” [Source]

In the same post, Sinosphere summarizes the cases of each of the activists. While these trials are one of the most high-profile actions against activists so far, the ongoing crackdown has targeted a range of lawyers, Internet commentators, journalists, and others who speak out on politically sensitive topics. From the South China Morning Post:

Analysts said that the authorities have over the past year stressed the need to step up control over the internet and escalated crackdowns on freedom of expression by targeting activists and online opinion makers.

The prosecution of the New Citizen activists appears to be part of that drive, they said.

Teng Biao , a legal scholar who has known Xu since his university days, said the authorities have been wary of Xu’s campaigns during the past 10 years.

And Xu’s New Citizen movement – with its extensive network and ability to mobilise campaigns – combined with his writings on his political ideals “have made them feel he is posing a huge threat”, Teng said. [Source]

And from the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time:

The trials come after what for activists has been a dispiriting first year of President Xi Jinping’s rule. A broad crackdown on dissent has included new rules criminalizing the spread of rumors online and increased control of the traditional media as well as detentions of dozens of rights campaigners. The multipronged approach is more sophisticated than previous crackdowns, rights advocates said, and demonstrates the new leadership’s determination to maintain tight political control as it confronts a slowing economy.

“In the past, you would see dissidents get arrested, followed by more control over the print media, followed by a crackdown online. This time it was everything all together,” said Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “It’s one of the most strategic battles over public opinion we’ve seen.” [Source]

For more background on the related cases, see this blog post from the Foreign Policy Association. See also more by and about Xu Zhiyong and his New Citizens Movement via CDT.