Who is Xu Zhiyong?

Following the imposition of a four-year prison sentence on Xu Zhiyong on Sunday, AFP’s Tom Hancock described the lawyer and New Citizens’ Movement founder’s career:

With a clean-cut, handsome appearance, he came to nationwide prominence in 2003, campaigning against a form of extra-legal detention allowing police to detain people arbitrarily if they travelled away from their rural hometowns. The law was ultimately changed.

[…] Xu provided legal aid to several defendants deemed sensitive by the ruling party including blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng ― who later made a spectacular escape from house arrest ― and families who sued after their children were poisoned by toxic milk powder in 2008. Chinese Esquire profiled Xu the following year.

He was seen as a moderate figure seeking to work within the system when calling for change, and fell out with more radical figures such as artist Ai Weiwei, who openly demanded an end to China’s one-party state.

[…] But Chinese authorities do not permit independent and organised forms of dissent, and Xu was arrested in 2009 on tax evasion charges.

They were later dropped but Xu ― whose wife gave birth to a daughter this month ― lived a Kafkaesque existence under surveillance, repeated periods of house arrest, and detentions by state security agents. [Source]

The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore talked to four Chinese whom Xu had helped. The four described his efforts to support petitioners against corruption and for education rights, as well as the homeless, and each stressed the moderate nature of Xu’s approach:

“In 2004, he told me not to petition at Tiananmen Square or Zhongnanhai (the Communist party’s leadership compound). He said : ‘If you do that, the government will suppress you even more harshly. We should not intensify the conflict.'”

“He is an intelligent and moderate person. He has simply promoted the rule of law and inspired people to speak up for their basic rights. He never tried to break the law. It is a shame for this country to sentence someone like that.”

“My impression of Mr Xu is that he is a moderate and prudent man. I have a hot temper, and once I yelled at him for a long time. But after I was finished, he simply asked me to calm down and said things would only be resolved when we were calm.["]

“He always told us we should act by the law and avoid radical action. Some petitioners did not quite agree with his moderate beliefs but he always patiently talked them through. Sometimes he would help us rephrase our petitioning letters, eliminating redundant material and any radical words. And he also bought lots of things for us with his own money.”

“He is a man with principles. He did not want parents to be in danger while fighting for their basic rights. So he always suggested that we should act by the law and be rational and moderate. [Source]

At The Wall Street Journal, however, Eva Pils and Joshua Rosenzweig argue that aside from his commitment to non-violence, the ‘moderate’ label “does a disservice to Mr. Xu and fellow members of the New Citizen Movement,” and “fails to recognize the force of popular resistance he and others have successfully coordinated”:

The New Citizen Movement trials signal a new stage in the evolution of protest in China. A decade ago, in the early years of what became known as the rights-defense movement, Mr. Xu was part of an effort to work within the system and focus on case-by-case legal advocacy to effect gradual institutional changes.

[…] But this strategy, also known as reform incrementalism, depended on the willingness of the authorities to listen and absorb the reform messages so patiently submitted to them. That never happened. Instead, advocates who wanted to change the system from within found themselves marginalized and stigmatized. […]

The unwillingness of the authorities to allow people like Mr. Xu to pursue a program of moderate institutional change contributed to the emergence of the New Citizen Movement. The human rights advocates’ ideas and goals have not become more radicalized. Rather, an environment of fear and instability has pushed them to seek new, extra-institutional forms of expression.

[…] In the process of taking its protests outside the system, the New Citizen Movement allowed disadvantaged segments of society to express their sense of injustice in more coordinated ways, and to derive new courage and power from their status as citizens with rights. In this respect, it is particularly worth noting the work of Mr. Xu and his colleagues with China’s petitioners—those trying to express their grievances and criticisms about governance through a system for submitting complaints that the government all too often ignores. [Source]

This approach, Pils and Rosenzweig write, is effective enough to pose “a new and serious threat to the regime.”

Nevertheless, many of the New Citizens’ goals are closely aligned with those stated by the central government. Echoing comments from Human Rights Watch’s Brad Adams on the incongruity between Xu’s trial and Beijing’s statements on corruption and judicial reform, New York University’s Jerome Cohen told South China Morning Post that the proceedings were “a farce and a huge disappointment. […] Everything in this trial has violated what the leader of China and the court have been preaching in the last year. This case, with all the procedural violations and the lack of transparency, has been a repudiation of the party line.” See more recent discussion of this contradiction and of dashed hopes for a different outcome via CDT.

HRW’s Nicholas Bequelin suggested to The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin and Jeremy Page that Xu and his fellow New Citizens had become bargaining chips in intra-Party wrangling:

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who officially took power in March, has pursued the crackdown to consolidate power while pushing an ambitious but potentially destabilizing package of economic reforms, analysts say.

“Xi is carrying out a very tricky balancing act between different factions and power bases within the party,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “There’s no political cost for him to give hard-liners the heads of Xu Zhiyong and Ilham Tohti. He can show them that he’s not soft and not bowing to international pressure.”

[…] Activists decried the verdict in Mr. Xu’s case, which had been widely expected because the Communist Party controls China’s judiciary. But some remained defiant, arguing that the trial had helped advertise the New Citizens Movement to a wider audience. “I think the authorities have helped Xu Zhiyong,” said Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based researcher and activist. “After four years, he’ll come out and keep doing what he does. Meanwhile, this verdict has helped spread his ideas about freedom.” [Source]

In an open letter translated at Siweiluozi’s Blog, Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang wrote that the verdict marked the turning of a page in his own life:

Though we will still appeal in order to create some space for Ding Jiaxi and the others whose case is still pending in the Haidian court, the appeal trial won’t change anything.

[…] Although I will still serve as Zhiyong’s defense counsel during the appeal, I will not submit any defense opinion to the appeals court, because I don’t recognize its legality. Also, if any lawyer friends has enough courage and knowledge and is willing take on the role of second-instance defense counsel in this case, I will actively recommend them to Xu.

For the next few years, I and Dr. Xu’s classmate Guo Yushan will take responsibility for looking after his family. We shall not let Ms Cui Zheng and their newborn daughter want for anything economically or face other life pressures. This is Zhiyong’s wish. [Source]

On Monday, meanwhile, four more New Citizens were tried. Like Zhao Changqing, one of two other activists who stood trial last Thursday, three of Monday’s defendants disrupted the proceedings by firing their own lawyers in protest.

The four activists put on trial on Monday — Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baocheng and Yuan Dong — advocated working within the system to press for change, including urging officials to publish details of assets.

[…] Ding’s trial was adjourned after he dismissed one of his lawyers, Wang Xing, and another lawyer, Cheng Hai, voluntarily withdrew his defense, because of improprieties in the judicial proceedings, Cheng told Reuters by telephone.

Li’s trial was also adjourned after he dismissed his two lawyers, said one of them, Wang Quanzhang.

[…] Zhang also dismissed his two lawyers, said Zhou Ze, one of the lawyers.

“He basically does not want this form of playacting by the court,” Zhou said, adding that the court had refused to let defense witnesses testify. [Source]

See also the official judgment in Xu’s case (in Chinese), leaked propaganda and stability maintenance directives related to it, and more on Xu Zhiyong and the New Citizens’ Movement at CDT.