Activist Xu Zhiyong Detained After 50 Days in Hiding

Activist and lawyer has been detained, almost two months after he went missing following a police round-up of several activists on December 26. For the past 50 days, Xu has been in hiding, though he has continued publishing his writing on his blog, including a February 4 letter criticizing Xi Jinping for his handling of the outbreak. Emily Feng reports for NPR:

Friends of Xu Zhiyong confirmed to NPR that Xu was arrested at around 6 p.m. local time on Feb. 15 in the Panyu district of Guangzhou, a major metropolis in the south of China. Xu had managed to evade authorities for 50 days as police began rounding up fellow the day after Christmas.

His detention marks an escalation in an ongoing crackdown on Chinese civil society groups under the country’s leader , decimating a once burgeoning legal rights movement.

[…] How Xu avoided capture for so long in a country that has invested heavily in digital surveillance and laced its cities with cameras equipped with facial recognition capacities is unclear. Friends say he switched locations often and did not use a mobile phone, relying instead on Gmail to communicate with colleagues and loved ones.

Despite the intense efforts from Chinese authorities to locate and arrest him, Xu sometimes went for runs outside and occasionally took his meals at restaurants, according to an acquaintance. [Source]

The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández reports that Xu’s girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, has also gone missing:

The activist is the latest critic to be caught up in Mr. Xi’s far-reaching efforts to limit dissent in China. The crackdown, which has ensnared scores of activists, lawyers, journalists and intellectuals, is likely to intensify as the ruling Communist Party comes under broad attack for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, one of its biggest political challenges in years.

[…] It is unclear what charges the authorities might bring against Mr. Xu. The circumstances of the disappearance of his girlfriend, Ms. Li, were also ambiguous. The police in Guangzhou did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Xu’s friends defended his actions.

“It is within the scope of freedom of speech under the Chinese Constitution,” said Hua Ze, an activist based in New Jersey and a friend of Mr. Xu who confirmed his detention. [Source]

Verna Yu reports for the Guardian that Xu is likely to be hit with a lengthy sentence, given that he has already served time in prison. In July 2017, he was released after a four-year sentence for gathering crowds to create disturbance as part of a broader crackdown on the New Citizens’ Movement, a group founded by Xu to fight government corruption and social injustice. Xu had worked on cases involving anti-corruption, petitioners’ rights, and access to education for migrant workers’ children. From Yu’s report:

Xu published an essay early this month, which called on China’s president to resign for his lack of ability to govern China, citing the coronavirus crisis and the mishandling of the Hong Kong pro- protests – a dangerous move that guarantees official anger.

“You didn’t authorise the truth to be released, and the outbreak turned into a national disaster,” Xu wrote.

“Whenever you face looming crisis, you’re clueless,” Xu wrote. “I don’t think you’re an evil man, you’re just not wise … Mr Xi Jinping, please step down.”

[…] Xu’s detention is likely to end in a lengthy jail term, because he has previously been jailed and the authorities tend to punish repeated offenders harshly.

“We’re very pessimistic, it certainly won’t be a light sentence in view of the current situation,” his friend and fellow activist Hua Ze said. [Source]

The Chinese government has responded to the coronavirus, which has so far infected more than 72,000 and killed 1,868 in China, by censoring news and punishing individuals for “spreading rumors” about the dangers of the disease. Online anger has flared over government censorship, which many blame for contributing to the spread of the virus. Most recently, writer , who issued a strongly worded takedown of online censorship in the wake of the coronavirus, has had his internet access cut off after briefly being put under house arrest on the pretext of a health quarantine–a tactic increasingly used to silence government critics. Last year, Xu was removed from his position at Tsinghua University after publishing critiques of the Xi administration. He also co-signed an open letter to the National People’s Congress following the February 7 death of Doctor Li Wenliang, who had been admonished for discussing the virus’ spread online before contracting the disease himself and dying from it. Verna Yu and Emma Graham-Harrison write in the Guardian:

A friend of Xu’s who spoke on Sunday on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals said police placed Xu under house arrest soon after he returned to Beijing from his lunar new year break at his home town in Anhui province.

[…] Those restrictions were lifted late last week, but his internet connection has been cut off since Friday, the friend added.

“He tried to get it mended but found out that his IP [internet protocol address] has been blocked. He lives on the outskirts of Beijing and is far away from shops and other services. Under the current [coronavirus] situation, things are very difficult for him.”

Friends say that since publication, Xu’s account has been suspended on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, and many have been unable to get in touch with him for days. His name has been scrubbed from Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog, with only articles from official websites several years ago showing up on the country’s biggest search engine, Baidu. Calls to his mobile phone went unanswered on Sunday. [Source]

Read translated accounts of online censorship and public anger over the government’s handling of coronavirus via CDT. Read also more about Xu Zhiyong and his work, in his own words.

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