Activist Xu Zhiyong Leaves Prison, But Situation Unclear

Rights lawyer, activist, and New Citizens’ Movement founder Xu Zhiyong left prison on Saturday at the end of a four-year sentence for gathering crowds to create disturbance. But supporters fear that, like others including rights lawyer Xie Yang, he may simply have been shifted into what NYU law scholar Jerome Cohen has called a “‘non-release “release”‘, which usually means formal release from prison into another form of coercive confinement.” From Philip Wen and Natalie Thomas at Reuters:

Xu’s lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, told Reuters he had brought Xu up to speed with "events on the outside", including the death of fellow activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, . He said Xu was "upset" upon hearing the news.

Zhang said Xu, who was released from his jail on Beijing’s outskirts on Saturday morning, was in good physical condition and had few immediate plans beyond spending time with family.

[…] As international rights groups and foreign governments call for Chinese authorities to guarantee freedom for Liu Xiaobo’s widow, , Xu’s supporters have also expressed concern whether he will remain under close watch or effective house arrest. Some said on social media they were barred by security guards and plain-clothed officers from entering Xu’s apartment compound on Saturday.

Other high-profile and politically sensitive released from jail, including rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and journalist Gao Yu, remain closely watched by Chinese authorities.

"I hope he will be completely free," Zhang said. [Source]

Supporters’ experiences described by China Change on Saturday offered little encouragement:

Yesterday, scores of citizens traveled to the vicinity of Kenhua Prison in Ninghe District in Tianjin where had been imprisoned since he was sentenced in February 2014. […]

Friends who tried to visit Xu this morning were blocked by three plainclothes security agents at the entrance of his residential compound. It’s unclear whether Dr. Xu will be placed under some kind of restriction in his movement and communications — illegal but common practices used by the Chinese government against leading dissidents.

Yesterday, activists who went to the prison to welcome Dr. Xu found that the roads around the prison were closed, allowing only inbound traffic. During the night, police raided the guest rooms of the activists. On the morning of the 15th, police stopped activists approaching the prison, telling them that Xu Zhiyong had been released already. [Source]

Xu worked on a wide range of causes including anti-corruption, petitioners’ rights, and access to education for migrant workers’ children. He was known as a moderate voice, and was sometimes "accused of bending over backwards to meet the other side" according to Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang. In a 2014 interview about Xu at China Change, which offers a thorough account of his career, his colleague said that Xu "hoped to be [a] mediator between the government and the people, to the greatest extent possible using peaceful and legal means to resolve conflict." His clients consistently refer to his insistence on calm, non-confrontational action. But some have argued that his reputation for moderation is misleading, and his ultimate goals were certainly beyond anything the Party would tolerate. Andrew J. Nathan described Xu’s vision of a "China of Citizens" at Foreign Affairs in January, as well as his evolving strategies for bringing it about. Comparing Xu’s approach with those of and Liu Xiaobo, Nathan wrote:

The most creative approach to dissent, however, was perhaps that of a young lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, who in 2013 was arrested and later sentenced to four years in prison for his role in leading the New Citizens’ Movement. This movement was based on his bold idea to take seriously the rights and duties of citizenship enshrined in Chapter II of China’s constitution, entitled “The Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens,” which lays out extensive rights—to vote, to speak, to criticize the government, to enjoy dignity of the person—and duties for all who hold Chinese nationality. […]

[…] Xu was also highly practical, developing the nearest thing China has seen to a strategy of U.S.-style impact litigation by selecting cases of egregious injustice that had broader policy implications. […]

Xu’s strategy involved using social media to draw attention to the problem, attracting print media coverage, generating petitions, convening academic conferences on the underlying issues, and then proposing a resolution too moderate for the authorities to refuse. It was a combination of legal argument and public relations. […]

Also in 2003, Xu formed the Citizens’ Alliance, also known as Gongmeng, or the Open Constitutional Initiative (OCI), the organization that would eventually morph into the New Citizens’ Movement. The members of the OCI—more a group of activists than a proper organization—sought to change China through gradual, legal mechanisms such as running for office, writing policy letters to the National People’s Congress, seeking to rescue victims from black jails, agitating for regulatory changes, and pushing for equal access to education. Xu explained the thinking behind this strategy in the preface to his memoir, writing that “the most ideal reform model for China is to develop constructive political opposition groups outside the existing political system that can negotiate with progressive forces within the system to enact a new constitution and, together, complete a transition to constitutional democracy.” [Source]

Xu’s detention and the demolition of his movement were pivotal moments for Xi Jinping’s handling of civil society. Amnesty International’s statement marking the end of Xu’s sentence also highlighted the danger of a "non-release ‘release,’" New Citizens like Liu Ping and Wei Zhongping who remain in prison, and the crackdown’s role as a signal of tightening controls under Xi:

“Xu Zhiyong’s release is long overdue. His conviction was a sham and he should never have spent a single day in jail for simply exercising his right to freedom of expression,” said Patrick Poon, China Researcher at Amnesty International.

In recent years, activists have been released from prison, or on bail, only to find themselves under intense surveillance and round-the-clock monitoring by unidentified security personnel or thugs.

“The authorities must not continue to harass or intimidate Xu Zhiyong or his family, and instead let him again enjoy the freedom that was unjustly taken from him.”

[…] The crackdown against the was the first clear sign that President Xi Jinping would show zero tolerance to those who questioned the government. Four years on, it has only escalated the attacks and harassment against those legitimately exercising their human rights.

More than 65 people who were allegedly connected with the movement were targeted in the nationwide sweep in 2013. Fourteen were convicted and sentenced to jail terms ranging from one and a half years to six and a half years. [Source]

Bloomberg News further described the crackdown on the New Citizens and its place in China’s recent history:

The loosely knit New Citizens’ Movement drew authorities’ ire even though they backed policies that appeared to be in line with Xi’s campaign against corruption. Several members were jailed for displaying banners, passing out pamphlets or holding meetings amid a wave of reports about the wealth of the party’s most powerful officials.

“There’s very little room for democracy advocates in China since Xi took office — too much risk and lots of political pressure,” said Teng Biao, a longtime friend of Xu’s and a co-founder of the movement. “Lots of people had hoped that Xi could be a driving figure behind changes. They underestimated Xi,” he said on Friday from the U.S.

Xu had campaigned for democracy and other political reforms for more than a decade before his detention, petitioning China’s top legislature in 2003 for greater protections for rural migrant workers. He helped several Chinese families whose children were sickened by tainted milk in 2009 file lawsuits.

After a Beijing court rejected his appeal in April 2014, Xu was defiant. “The ridiculous ruling will not stop the tide of the people’s progress,” he said, according to his lawyer. “The haze of Communist autocracy will fade away.” [Source]

More than three years on, the situation now appears bleaker to many. At China Change on Sunday, Yaxue Cao wrote that the crackdown on Xu and his fellow activists was the start of a path leading through the Black Friday or 709 crackdown on rights lawyers in 2015, and on to the death of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo last week.

I have been pointing out that over the past few years, starting from the now benign-looking crackdown on the New Citizens Movement in 2013, the Party has been carrying out a what I call “targeted elimination” of key activists, dissidents, and intellectuals across the country. In Guangdong, they imprisoned Guo Feixiong, Tang Jingling, and those pesky grassroots street demonstrators. In Wuhan, they put a few key activists in jail; the same was done in Suzhou and Shenzhen. In Xinyu, Jiangxi, they jailed Liu Ping and her small cohort. In Zhengzhou, a nascent, bustling citizen network used to gather frequently — but no more. In Beijing, Xu Zhiyong and key activists in the New Citizens Movement were sentenced, and prominent lawyers such as Pu Zhiqiang, as well as influential intellectuals, have been taken out one way or the other. The Sakharov laureate Hu Jia spent much of the year under house arrest in his Beijing home. Then in 2015, there was the consummate 709 Crackdown that targeted no fewer than 300 human and activists across the country. I can go on with the list, but you get the picture.

Those considered less than “leaders” have been chased around, driven out of their rentals, and subjected to all manner of harassment. Liberal commentators, journalists, and intellectuals have mostly stopped writing, because it has become too dangerous to analyze and reflect on the current conditions and the behavior of the government. Well, even if they write, their writings won’t survive anywhere inside China’s system of omnipresent censorship.

[…] What is the path forward? What’s going to happen next in the struggle for democracy? The path forward is that there is no path forward. The Party has been working systematically to block that path: The elimination of key activists has been successful, and they are either in prison or have been rendered ineffective. […] [Source]