Harsh Prison Sentences for Pioneering Civil Rights Lawyers Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi

Civil rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi have been sentenced to 14 and 12 years in prison, respectively, on charges of “subversion of state power” after closed door trials in Linshu County, Shandong. The charges stem from a private gathering they hosted in Xiamen in 2019 to discuss the future of China’s civil rights movement. Xu and Ding have been in custody for over three years, including a period spent in “residential surveillance at a designated location,” detention at a secret location without access to lawyers or family members, during which time both were allegedly tortured. The lengthy sentences shocked observers and highlighted the hard-line position the Party-state has taken against peaceful activism in the Xi Jinping era. At The New York Times, Vivian Wang reported on Xu and Ding’s trials and the reactions from human rights groups, their loved ones, and friends

The lawyers, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, had been charged with subversion for promoting what they called a “New Citizens Movement,” which encouraged ordinary Chinese to exercise the rights such as free speech guaranteed by the country’s Constitution, at least in theory. They had been detained after organizing a gathering of about 20 lawyers and activists in the seaside city of Xiamen in 2019, where they discussed their plans to work toward those goals, and about the future of the human rights movement in China broadly.

[…] Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group, denounced the latest sentences as “cruelly farcical” and called for the men’s immediate release. Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding were tried in secret, and the sentences handed down by a court in eastern Shandong Province were not publicly announced, but were confirmed by Mr. Ding’s wife, Luo Shengchun, who also goes by Sophie.

[…] “Since it was a secret trial, we knew it wouldn’t be light, but we didn’t think it would be this heavy. Because everything they did was within the scope of free speech and what criminal law permits,” said [Luo Shengchun, Ding Jiaxi’s wife,] who lives in the United States. “More than 10 years shows that this government has absolutely no ability for self-reflection or self-restraint anymore.”

[…] Teng Biao, a lawyer and friend of Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding, said Monday’s sentences showed how rapidly human rights had deteriorated under Mr. Xi. Mr. Teng, who left China in 2012 after being detained himself several times, said that under Mr. Xi’s predecessors, it was “not possible to imagine” that a small-scale private gathering like the one in Xiamen could lead to such lengthy sentences. [Source]

Authorities quickly moved to arrest the participants in the 2019 Xiamen meeting. Ding was arrested in December 2019. Xu Zhiyong managed to escape detention for nearly two months—he was eventually captured in Guangzhou in February 2020. While on the run, Xu penned an open letter to Xi Jinping urging him to retire and detailing Xi’s perceived failures as a leader. Both men have been kept in harsh conditions without regular access to lawyers. In February of this year, Ding told his lawyer, Peng Jian, that he was looking forward to the verdict in the hope that he would have access to pen and paper once he was moved from a detention center to a prison. Peng said that Ding’s beard had turned white, that he was “often unwell,” and had asked for vitamins. At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd reported on the secrecy surrounding both men’s trials:

Luo, who lives in the United States, accused Chinese authorities of “behaving like gangsters” by refusing to allow her husband’s lawyer to share the final verdict with her, meaning she only knows the basic content of the judgment. “They are worried that I will send the name of the presiding judge to Congress for him to be sanctioned,” she said.

[…] Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said it is unsurprising that authorities decided to make an example of the two activists, in part because they have been imprisoned before and have strong reputations among Chinese rights defenders.

[…] A number of other attendees of the Xiamen event and supporters of Xu and Ding were also rounded up. While some have been released, Xu’s partner, Li Qiaochu, a labor rights and feminist activist, was charged with “inciting subversion” for uploading articles written by Xu. She is awaiting trial. [Source]

In a tweet, human rights lawyer Teng Biao, a friend of both Xu and Ding, reported that Xu said, “It’s almost dawn,” after hearing his sentence, but was not permitted to say more. Teng also noted that Xu’s lawyers were barred from visiting him in the detention center where he was being held after the trial. Anticipating that they would be denied the opportunity to speak in court, both men dictated statements (to be published abroad) detailing their hopes for a democratic China. China Change published and translated their statements. Xu Zhiyong said, “A democratic China must be realized in our time, we cannot saddle the next generation with this duty”:

I abhor a society where power is unrestrained and human nature is distorted, and where a few bureaucrats decide what 1.3 billion people should believe and speak, what news they should listen to, and what movies they should watch. They’ve built a high firewall to isolate China from the civilized world. They’ve kept millions of internet inspectors, police, and commenters to beat down people’s voices. They’ve created an air-tight surveillance network using ubiquitous cameras and big data that renders everyone naked. They’ve also invaded the spiritual world of the people, burning crosses, demolishing Buddhist seminaries, and forcing newer and native religions into exile.

[…] I yearn for a free China where power can not run amok, where our freedom to believe in a religion or an -ism is a personal choice and cannot be interfered with by those in power, and where we have the freedom of speech without large-scale censorship and political restriction, and no one is imprisoned for expressing their political beliefs. In a free China, we have the freedom to participate in public affairs without fake and manipulated elections, without such a thing as “wanton talk” [about the communist leaders]; everyone has the freedom to form a political party or association. In a free China, we are free to live our lives without Big Brother watching over everything we do, and privacy and dignity are not to be trampled by those in power. In a free China, people thrive to bring the rebirth of our ancient civilization in which we live in truth and become the best of ourselves without being bent out of shape by power.

[…] Why is it “subversion” to aspire to be real citizens? Why is it “subversion” for Chinese to exercise their core values and pursue democracy and freedom? Why is it “subversion” for them to sing “Arise! Those who do not want to be slaves,” which is the opening stanza of the national anthem of China? How hypercritical and absurd their regime is! How rotten it is!

I’m proud to suffer for the sake of freedom, justice and love. I do not believe they can build national rejuvenation on the quicksand of lies. I do not believe the Chinese nation is destined to authoritarianism and slavery. I don’t believe freedom can be forever imprisoned behind high walls. And I do not believe the future will forever be a dark night without daybreak. [Source]

Ding Jiaxi vowed to persist in his beliefs and said it is the “historical responsibility” of his generation to “eradicate autocracy”:

It has always been our sincere desire to avoid social turmoil and human suffering during the transformation period. We firmly believe that the most stable model for China’s transformation is one that is peaceful, rational, and non-violent. However many have doubted me, no matter many difficulties and setbacks I’ve encountered, including physical torture that I’ve suffered, I will not part from my steadfast convictions.

All Chinese who care about our country’s future must shoulder the historical responsibility of our generation, which is to eradicate autocracy and build a beautiful China. This demands that we overcome the fear in our hearts, speak loudly for justice, resolutely oppose dictatorship and privileged interest groups, and reject their authoritarian rule. As long as we work as one, the light of freedom, democracy and the rule of law will surely shine on the land of China!

[…] I have always believed that despite all the efforts by the authoritarian regime to reverse the historical current of human civilization’s progress by eliminating 1,000 existential threats to their rule, there will always be the 1001st threat that leads to their collapse. This is the law of history.

Let’s begin the countdown: five, four, three, two, one… [Source]

The lengthy prison sentences shocked many international observers. William Nee, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told The Wall Street Journal: “I’ve been observing the Chinese criminal justice system for well over twenty years, and this is one of the harshest sentences we’ve ever seen.” On Twitter, many prominent experts expressed outrage over the harsh sentences: 


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