New Citizen Activists Defiant as Crackdown Culminates

A week of legal proceedings against the New Citizens’ Movement rights and anti-corruption group culminated on Friday in the upholding of a four-year sentence against its founder, Xu Zhiyong. Xu was originally sentenced in January after being convicted of gathering a crowd to disturb public order. From Reuters’ Sui-Lee Wee:

The ruling sparked fresh criticism from the United States, European Union and rights groups, though it had been expected as China’s courts are controlled by the Communist Party and almost never rule in favor of dissidents.

“This ridiculous judgment cannot hold back the tide of human progress,” Xu Zhiyong told the court loudly after the verdict was read out, his lawyers told Reuters.

“The haze of the communist dictatorship must eventually lift and the light of freedom, fairness, justice and love will eventually fill China,” he added.

[…] One of Xu’s lawyers, Zhang Qingfang, said he was unsurprised by the verdict, and called the reasons offered by the court “extremely ridiculous”.

“Xu Zhiyong created a path for citizens to push for social progress within the legal framework because he has always been against the past revolutionary practices of overthrowing or subverting (the system) to promote society’s progress,” Zhang said. [Source]

See also ‘Who is Xu Zhiyong?’ on CDT.

The cursory hearing of Xu’s appeal followed trials, on the same charge, of fellow New Citizens Zhao Changqing on Thursday, and Zhang Baocheng, Ding Jiaxi and Li Wei starting on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Ding and Li’s lawyers walked out in protest at what one declared “an unabashedly illegal trial.” From AFP:

Sui [Muqing], who represented activist Ding Jiaxi, and Jiang [Yuanmin], whose client was co-defendant Li Wei, both said they left the courtroom in Beijing’s Haidian district after they were presented with photocopies of evidence against their clients rather than originals.

“They were all copies. We demanded that the court show us the originals. The court refused,” Jiang told AFP. “This goes against the requirements of Chinese law.”

The court also prevented the defence from calling witnesses and did not allow any journalists or foreign diplomats to observe the trial, they said. The only observers allowed from the defendants’ side were Li’s parents, Sui noted.

[…] “The trial will still go on even if we all quit,” Sui said. “The court doesn’t care about our presence. They just want to finish the trial.” [Source]

As a heavy security presence surrounded the courthouse, search terms related to the trials were blocked on Sina’s Weibo microblogging platform. On Friday, ahead of the news on Xu’s appeal, China Media Project’s David Bandurski posted a brief quote from Xu on Sina Weibo:

Citizens, let us begin from this moment. No matter where you are, no matter what your profession, rich or poor, let us in the depths of our hearts, in our daily lives, on the internet, and on every inch of this vast land, firmly and loudly declare the identity that rightfully belongs to us: I am a citizen; we are citizens.

This was quickly deleted, with a message from Sina explaining that it had “already been designated as inappropriate for public sharing.” When Bandurski queried this judgment, he was advised “to share healthy and upright Weibo content” in future.

One supporter near the courthouse on Tuesday, Qi Yueying, took pains to emphasize the alignment of the New Citizens’ anti-corruption goals with those of the Party itself. “President Xi asked us to fight corruption, and the corrupt officials violated ordinary people’s rights,” she told USA Today’s Calum MacLeod. “What we did is good for our country and for President Xi too.” A statement from Human Rights Watch also highlighted the incongruity between the government’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign and its prosecutions of anti-corruption activists:

“If Chinese authorities insist that these people’s peaceful civic activism constitutes a threat to public order, it’s hard to tell what doesn’t,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The selective persecution of those who are doing nothing more than trying to improve governance through legal means has to stop now.”

[…] The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement has also taken place during the new leadership’s avowed fight against corruption among officials and Communist Party members. President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric of targeting both “tigers and flies,” who are corrupt, had energized many of the detained individuals, according to interrogation records recently made public by one of Xu’s lawyers.

“Ironically, it was in part Xi Jinping’s ideas – as well as Xu Zhiyong’s and others’ – that inspired these activists to take to the streets to peacefully support the official campaign,” Richardson said. “For the authorities to preach anti-corruption but practice repression is hypocritical and counterproductive.” [Source]

Nicola Davison also examined the contradiction at The Economist’s Analects blog:

Mr Xu, a legal scholar, believes in the advancement of social change within the bounds of Chinese law. His movement seeks to encourage citizens to stand up for the rights they should have under the country’s constitution. Core issues for the New Citizens have been the disclosure of officials’ wealth and the improvement of education rights for children from the countryside.

These in theory chime with government objectives. Since assuming office, President Xi Jinping has spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign aimed at rooting out the “tigers and flies”—officials both high and low—who abuse office. The government has also pledged to reform the hukou household-registration system, the administrative device which has long prevented the children of migrant workers who are living in cities from receiving an education equal to their urban peers.

The problem with the New Citizens Movement is that the party wants to be the harbinger of popular change. The crackdown also displays its consistent intolerance of organised dissent. In this, Mr Xi’s administration has shown arguably less patience than its predecessor. Since he came to power in March 2013, controls over the internet have tightened, journalists have faced greater strictures and free-thinking academics have been evicted from prominent posts. [Source]

While the outlook may appear bleak, several figures associated with the New Citizens’ Movement have expressed defiant optimism like Xu’s own. Despite his frustration at the conduct of Ding Jiaxi’s trial, Sui Muqing told USA Today that “it’s time for China to change. I believe the day will come soon.” Ding himself wrote, in a letter from prison translated at China Change:

[…] During the preliminary interrogation, they repeatedly threatened me of a lengthy sentence, but this kind of threat doesn’t work on me anymore. I am 46years old, have practiced law for 16 years,  and headed a law firm for 10 years. I am fully aware of the consequences of my actions, and I can face prison time with composure.

[…] I know that family and friends all hope that I can get out of prison. What I do inside and what I do outside are different. If they (the authorities) want me to stay here to do things, I will stay here. If they release me, I will be able to do things more meaningful and valuable. It’s just a matter of doing things differently. I believe there will be a lot of people who will do things that we were not able to do, and do them in their own ways. I believe more capable and more courageous people, groups and incidents will unfold.

[…] There is still a long road to go to truly realize the goals of democracy and rule and law. Living today, we are luckier than our predecessors. If it were not for the efforts of those before us, our circumstances would be even worse. Many people, through their great efforts, have paved the way for us. Society is progressing, the conditions are improving, at least they are compelled to try to do things according to the law. Those who come after us will be even better off than we were. Many of our forebears paid the price of their lives. If all we lose is our freedom for a period of time, this is a price that can be borne. I am very optimistic. If it were not for us, there would definitely be others who would come and do the same, and this is an inevitability of social progress. [Source]

Xu Zhiyong’s fellow lawyer and former classmate Teng Biao voiced similar sentiments. (Teng also discussed his and Xu’s work in an interview posted at China Change.) From The Telegraph’s Tom Phillips:

“We will not stop,” Teng Biao told The Telegraph shortly after his friend’s appeal was rejected. “We will let the whole world know that this crackdown cannot stop us. We will keep following Dr Xu’s example. We believe that what we are doing and what we have done is legal and useful and important for society.”

[…] “I know that many citizens around China continue their activities, their dinner gatherings, their activities demanding the disclosure of officials’ assets,” he said.

“This kind of crackdown cannot prevent the New Citizens’ Movement from growing stronger. We have seen more and more people standing up and fighting for liberty and human rights.” [Source]

While Xu’s appeal prompted the pre-arranged release of an autobiography and essay collection—published in Hong Kong but intended for a mainland audience—the New Citizens’ Movement also launched a new website this week. In a preface translated by David Bandurski at China Media Project, former journalist Xiao Shu echoed the others’ conviction that long-term trends are in their favor:

As ever, it is within the capacity of the authorities to persecute any citizen who speaks up about problems in our society. But now, unlike the past, the authorities cannot possibly turn their backs on the problems themselves. They cannot dismiss the demands of the public.

[…] Civil movements in the broader sense — social movements of citizens pursuing their civil and constitutional rights — have continued unabated in China too. In south China, labor movements have advanced through organised rights defence actions. Networks of human rights lawyers have strengthened despite constant pressure. And grassroots NGOs on issues like public welfare, environmental protection and communal self-reliance have found space to grow like never before.

Freedom is our goal, justice is our spirit, and love is our foundation. Through the citizens movement we will galvanise society, rebuild our values, remake our social core. The new society that emerges will lead China’s transition to constitutionalism. This is the prevailing tide of our time, and any attempt to hold it back is destined to fail, like beating back water with a sword. [Source]

Other sources provide some qualified support for this confidence in an expanding Chinese civil society. On Thursday, Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin reported a “surge” of worker protests in recent months, though it also noted a correspondingly tougher response from local authorities:

There has been a noticeable surge in the number of strikes and worker protests in China since the Lunar New Year Holiday in early February. China Labour Bulletin recorded 119 incidents on our strike map in March alone. Overall, there were 202 incidents in the first quarter of 2014, up 31 percent compared with same period last year. This increase might partly be explained by greater social media coverage but there does seem to be a pronounced increase in activism on the ground.

Although the media coverage of recent worker activism in China has been dominated by several high-profile disputes involving multi-nationals such as Walmart and IBM, the workers’ movement continues to be broad-based, with protests in a wide range of industries across the whole of the country.

[…] The data also suggests that the increased worker activism across China has brought a more forceful response from the local authorities. Continuing the trend identified in CLB’s most recent research report on the workers’ movement, there has been a noticeable increase in both police involvement in and arrests stemming from worker protests. During the first quarter of 2014, police were present in 45 percent of all disputes, up from just 11 percent in the same quarter last year. In addition, the number of times arrests were made increased from three percent in the first quarter of last year to 18 percent this year. [Source]

See more recent news on the uncertain prospects for labor organization in China via CDT.

Also on Thursday, The Economist published a pair of articles on the Party’s cautious but growing accommodation of more independent NGOs:

The party appears to believe that it can encourage the expansion of NGOs without relaxing its political grip. Perhaps it is the Leninist chameleon changing colour again, developing a clever new brand of “consultative authoritarianism”, in the phrase of Jessica Teets at America’s Middlebury College, that leaves the realities of power unchanged and room for dissent constrained. But many who work for NGOs suggest the opposite: allowing new freedoms for civil-society groups will slowly transform the party from the inside—just the kind of “peaceful evolution” that party hardliners have always warned against. Though moves towards meaningful political reform remain glacial at best, activists say these new regulations are part of an unseen river of social change that is starting to erode the glacier from below.

[…] It is not clear that the party believes in civil society. More likely it sees NGOs as a useful tool to achieve its own ends. But with politics directed from on high unable to meet social needs, and a new generation that wants more participation, some increased role for civil society is unavoidable. So a strange, unspoken pact has evolved, where both sides accept the compromise as a way of furthering their goals in the short term, while hoping future developments work in their favour. [Source]

[…T]he most useful reforms for China’s nascent civil society are really the same things that all China needs: a stronger judiciary, more responsive people’s congresses, a more independent press. These will bring about more transparency and accountability.

These words still scare conservatives in the regime. But the old system cannot cope. If the regime wants to keep China united, a lively civil society could be a bridge to the future, empowering individuals and institutions so that when the crunch comes, as it inevitably will, China’s binary history does not end up repeating itself all over again. [Source]