Xu Zhangrun Detained Amid Broadening Crackdown on Government Critics

Xu Zhangrun, a former law professor at Tsinghua University, was detained on Monday morning in Beijing.

Xu is an outspoken critic of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party and had published a number of essays in recent years offering stark criticism of Chinese politics, society, and economy. Many of those essays have been translated by Geremie Barmé at China Heritage. In 2019, he was dismissed from his position at Tsinghua, and was later placed under house arrest, barred from social media, and in February had his internet cut soon after he published a blistering essay critiquing the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. In that essay, he wrote: “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance; the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of the state has thereby been shown up as never before.” His detention follows that of other prominent intellectuals, writers, and activists—including rights lawyers Yu Wensheng and Xu Zhiyong and outspoken property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang—amid a tightening of ideological and political control over speech and academia in China. At The Guardian, Lily Kuo and Verna Yu report on Xu’s detention:

Two friends of Xu, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, told the Guardian that he had been detained on Monday morning. According to one, around 20 police officers and 10 vehicles arrived at his home in Beijing and took Xu away.

According to a statement online, also by a friend of Xu’s, a dozen officers entered his residence, seizing his computer and other items before detaining him.

After publishing several public attacks on the Chinese leadership, Xu was placed under house arrest early this year and barred from social media with his internet cut off.

According to his friends, Xu had been confined at home since 30 June, ahead of anniversary of the founding of the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist party, as well as Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese control when protests erupted in the city over a newly passed security law. Xu was released from house arrest on Saturday. [Source]

At The New York Times, Chris Buckley reports that Xu was detained on suspicion of “soliciting prostitutes,” a common charge used against government critics which even generated its own internet slang, “to be johned.”

Now Professor Xu may join the growing list of critics of the party who have been imprisoned, unless the authorities decide that staining him with a lesser criminal charge — such as soliciting prostitution — is enough and let him go soon. The authorities have used similar charges in the past in what appeared to be attempts to discredit government critics.

“The old saying from the Song dynasty goes ‘If you want to accuse someone of a crime, there’ll always be an excuse’,” Geremie R. Barmé, an Australian Sinologist in New Zealand who has translated many of Professor Xu’s essays, said by telephone.

Over two years ago, Mr. Barmé said, Professor Xu mentioned the risk that “they would try and get him on soliciting prostitutes,” and he took care to avoid being set up for the crime.

The Beijing police did not respond to faxed questions and phone calls about Professor Xu’s detention and whereabouts; nor did the law school at Tsinghua University, where he has long taught. [Source]

Emily Feng at NPR gives background on Xu’s writing, including a forthcoming publication:

In the last weeks leading up to his detention, Xu had been preparing to publicize his latest book, Six Chapters from the 2018 Year of the Dog, a collection of 10 essays on Chinese politics and modernity.

Over the last three years, Xu, a prolific writer, has penned a series of scathing commentaries characterized as much by their candor as for their literary elegance.

“The last seven decades [of the People’s Republic] have taught the people repeated lessons about the hazards of totalitarian government,” Xu wrote of Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic in China in an essay published this February. “They stood by blithely as the crucial window of opportunity that was available to deal with the outbreak snapped shut in their faces.”

[…] “It is necessary to call for an end to the ever-increasing censorship and to give freedom of expression back to the intelligentsia,” Xu wrote in a widely circulated essay published in July 2018. “Whenever there’s been an outbreak of anything approaching normalcy, it has been crushed.” [Source]

Xu was highly influential in China’s academic and intellectual communities. When he was suspended from teaching duties at Tsinghua in 2019, numerous scholars published responses, including a public letter to Tsinghua president Qiu Yong calling for Xu’s reinstatement. In introducing translations of his writing, Geremie Barmé wrote:

In the persecution of Xu Zhangrun, which began surreptitiously at the behest of Chinese officialdom in August 2018, some of the country’s leading academics and intellectuals identify a ‘case study’ in the broader malaise affecting the country’s educational and cultural life. For years, it has been widely recognised that even the limited intellectual freedoms tolerated under previous Communist Party leaders were under increased threat as a result of the implementation of revived ideological controls throughout the publishing, academic and cultural spheres.

[…] The ‘Xu Zhangrun Incident’, as some call it, is not merely about intellectual and academic freedom. Rather, it reflects the Xi-generated crisis in China’s ability to think about, debate and formulate ideas free of Communist Party manipulation, ideas that rightful could and should benefit Chinese society, the nation and the world as a whole. [Source]


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