Xu Zhiyong and the Future of China’s Civil Society

Lawyer and activist Xu Zhiyong was detained on July 16 and remains in custody at the Beijing No. 3 Detention Center, although little information has been released about any potential charges against him. Lawyer Teng Biao together with several Hong Kong-based rights groups have publicly called for Xu’s release. From the South China Morning Post:

Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Concern Group, Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and the New School for Democracy urged Beijing to release Xu immediately and halt the recent round of crackdown on human rights advocates.

Teng, a former PhD classmate of Xu, said his detention on the criminal charge of “gathering a crowd to disturb order in public places” bode ill for the rights defence movement as Xu, also a legal scholar, was known for his moderate approach, rationalism and non-violence in his civil rights campaigns.

[…] But he said the rights defence movement was likely to grow stronger despite official pressure.

“In the long-run, they can’t stop from developing… the situation isn’t something that government policies can decide.” he said. [Source]

But in an interview with USA Today, Teng expressed a more pessimistic attitude to the future of civil society in China under current conditions:

“The authorities try to control every movement. The government is worried about any kind of organization, and especially people who protest in the streets,” he says.

Despite multiple government crackdowns on corruption over many years, “under a one-party system, there’s no way to solve the problem,” says Teng, whose activism has led to his being banned, like Xu, from practicing as a lawyer in China, and from teaching at colleges.

“Dr. Xu and other citizens wanted to fight against corruption via civil society, but if civil society becomes powerful and influential, that will become a challenge for the authorities, and the top leaders will not tolerate it,” he says. [Source]

In the New York Review of Books, human rights activist Li Xiaorong puts Xu’s arrest in the context of a broader crackdown on activists who attempt to organize offline gatherings and actions:

While the rationale for the current crackdown remains unclear, what all the detained activists seem to have in common is that they are accused of organizing actions that would take place not just in cyberspace but in the physical space of city streets. Chinese leaders always see such public campaigns as an open challenge to their control. They fear that activists are seeking to take China’s rising number of local protests about social and economic problems to another level—turning it into a political movement that could challenge the authoritarian regime.

Several more clues about the detentions can be gleaned from what lawyers and supporters of the activists have said about the police interrogations the activists have been submitted to. The goals of the police, according to these reports, have clearly been to find “behind-the-scenes organizers,” to identify “sources of funding,” and to challenge the legality of acting in groups. Police told one activist that he was detained for his “illegal organization.” But “we were only applying for a legal permit. How could that be a crime?” replied the activist. Another activist, who was detained for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order” asked her interrogators, “How could I have gathered any crowds or disrupt any public order while I was asleep?” The police explained: You joined others in organizing a rally at a trade show in Beijing.

Across China, there are now hundreds of thousands of spontaneous local demonstrations against layoffs, unpaid salaries, land grabbing, and pollution each year. The Chinese government has been unable or unwilling to suppress all of them, but it is determined to prevent the politicizing of these protests through the increasing involvement of rights activists and political dissidents, who live under close police surveillance but pursue their causes largely online. [Source]

Writing before his detention, Xu expressed cautious optimism over the future of China’s civil society and rights movement, even while predicting his own arrest. China Change has translated two more installments of a transcript of a session when Xu was questioned by Beijing public security three weeks before he was detained (Read parts 1, 2 and 3). In the beginning of the transcript, Xu writes:

I am still harboring optimistic expectations. I have been trying to tell them that this group of people who call themselves Citizens are reasonable and moderate idealists who work toward freedom, justice and love in China, and that the Communist Party should tolerate the existence of these healthy forces and tolerate political diversity.

At the same time, I am prepared for the worst. If I am taken to a detention center as soon as I leave home this afternoon, I will be at ease with the prospect of ten years in prison. I told them in yesterday’s conversation that, if this happens, it would be my destiny personally but would also be a tragedy for the Chinese nation. If things deteriorate today, I will tell them that they are on the wrong side of history by trying the conscience of a people. It will be my glory to be locked in prison for wanting to be a citizen [with full civil rights]. Despite everything, I believe progress has been made in our time, that the new citizens’ movement is the correct path, that no one will be able to stop us from promoting civil responsibility in a totalitarian society, that the new citizens’ movement is both critical and constructive, and that the movement will push the country to change, not only ending the dictatorship but also by building a beautiful China where freedom, justice and love prevail. [Source]

Read more by and about Xu Zhiyong, and about China’s civil society, via CDT.

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