February 20, 2014 10:46 am

Increase in China’s public order charges raises concern

Public order trials have been a feature of China’s legal landscape for many years, typically involving little known defendants. Last year, however, an unusual edict from the top prosecutor and the ensuing crackdown on Xu Zhiyong’s New Citizens Movement brought the issue centre stage.

Mr Xu, a legal activist, and his supporters had urged people to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.

Their pet causes included a campaign for legislation that would require Chinese government and Communist party officials to disclose their personal assets, and equal access to education for the children of migrant workers who currently face systemic discrimination.

The New Citizens Movement soon ran up against the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, which issued an internal notice in June warning prosecutors to beware of people who assembled and disturbed public order with the aim of subverting state power.

Though the notice was never published, it sparked much debate in Chinese legal circles.

Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based expert on China’s legal system, said the notice was odd given that subversion is well established as a crime in its own right.

Trial tests China’s tolerance of strikes

If Wu Guijun is sentenced to five years in a Chinese prison, it will be in part because he allegedly led workers in chanting a patriotic anthem. The irony will be of little comfort to Mr Wu, 41, who stands accused of “gathering a crowd and disrupting public order” . . . 

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“Why attempt to link what you would call an ordinary [public order] offence with a state security offence,” Mr Rosenzweig asks. “There seems to have been something different about the way [Mr Xu and his supporters] were perceived. They weren’t tried as state security offenders – at least not formally – but it does suggest that they were being seen in that light.”

When Mr Xu was sentenced in January to four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order”, the verdict made no mention of a broader plot to subvert state power.

Two other public order cases under way in southern Guangdong province, which stem from separate labour protests at a furniture factory and hospital, also do not cite subversion specifically.

But many feel that is precisely what the labour activists involved are being prosecuted for.

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