Legal Scholar Zhang Xuezhong Briefly Detained After Publishing Open Letter to NPC

Legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong, 43, was briefly detained in Shanghai after writing an open letter on WeChat addressed to delegates of the National People’s Congress, which is set to meet at the end of this month after delaying their usual February gathering due to the pandemic. In the letter, Zhang criticized the government’s response to COVID-19 and called for broader constitutional changes to protect citizens’ rights. In his WeChat post accompanying the letter, he wrote: “The best way to fight for freedom of expression is for everyone to speak as if we already have freedom of speech.” He was taken away from his home in Shanghai late Sunday night, but was then reported to have been released and returned home on Monday. William Zheng reports for the South China Morning Post:

The letter said the Chinese political system had resulted in a lack of transparency and scrutiny. China has dismissed claims that it mishandled the outbreak, against accusations led by the United States that it had withheld information and allowed the outbreak to escalate into a global pandemic. Beijing has strongly denied a claim – referenced repeatedly by US President Donald Trump – that the outbreak’s origin was linked to virus research lab in Wuhan.

“Since January 3, 2020, the [Chinese] foreign ministry had been regularly notifying the US government about the epidemic, but the disease control department was not notifying the people of [China] at the same time. Such an irresponsible attitude towards their people’s safety is rare,” Zhang wrote.

[…] “There were few independent professional media to investigate and report on the outbreak, nor did medical professionals provide independent advice to the public … It only shows that the government’s long-term tight control of society and people has almost completely destroyed the organisation and self-help capabilities of Chinese society.”

Zhang called on NPC deputies to turn the legislature into a “transitional authority” to create a broadly representative committee empowered to draft a constitution conforming to “modern political principles”. [Source]

On Monday at midnight, he posted to a group on WeChat that he had returned home.

“I saw so many friends showing concern for my current situation. Thank you so so much. I am now home and all is well. Good night everyone.”

Zhang was a lawyer and professor at the East China University of Politics and Law until he was removed from his teaching duties for promoting constitutional rights and given an administrative position in 2013. An official notice from the university said he was removed from the faculty for “forcibly disseminating his political views among the faculty and using his status as a teacher to spread his political views among students.” He still practiced law, defending several well-known activists until he was stripped of his law license last year. He continued to write and publish, including an article in January 2019 titled, “Bid Farewell to Reform and Opening Up –– On China’s Perilous Situation and Its Future Options” which was translated by ChinaChange. Last month, he spoke up online in defense of writer Fang Fang, whose personal journal about life under lockdown in Wuhan has become a lightning rod for nationalist netizens who claim she is damaging China’s international image. Zhang wrote about Fang:

I support her based on the principle of freedom of speech, the belief that as a writer, she should have the freedom to write and publish (which is a manifestation of freedom of speech for all citizens). To admire her for holding up her record of the epidemic, and for pressuring certain powers. But supporting and admiring someone doesn’t mean agreeing with everything she thinks. In fact, our support and admiration for others can only be solid and stable if we have our own independent view. [Source]

Chinese authorities have detained, censored, and reprimanded others who have spoken up against their handling of the spread of the coronavirus. Outspoken businessman Ren Zhiqiang is being investigated after writing an essay that was sharply critical of Xi Jinping’s response to the virus. Activist Xu Zhiyong has also been detained after writing an essay in which he called on Xi to resign for his handling of both the virus and last year’s protests in Hong Kong. Several citizen journalists have been forcibly quarantined or detained for sharing information about COVID-19 and its impact in China, including three volunteers who maintained a GitHub page which posted censored content about the virus. Internet users in China who have been angered by the government’s opacity and censorship of virus-related news, especially during the initial outbreak, have still managed to find ways online to call for free speech and combat censorship.


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