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As Xu Zhiyong sat quietly in a Beijing trial room, the scene outside was anything but calm. Police had declared the area surrounding the Beijing Number 1 Intermediate People’s Court an “interview-free zone”. Plain-clothes officers pulled, punched and kicked broadcast journalists, making for dramatic live television footage. Supporters of the softly spoken lawyer’s self-styled New Citizens’ Movement were dragged off to waiting police vans.
China’s capital had not seen a trial like it since 2009, when Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion. The dissident scholar was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a decision that enraged Beijing and confirmed his place as China’s Solzhenitsyn.
On Wednesday morning Mr Xu’s international standing was similarly elevated. The trial will be a test of the Chinese Communist party’s pledge to enact bold new reforms, including a promise to protect people’s rights by “upholding the constitution and laws”. Like American civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr Xu is demanding that the law be taken at face value and applied to all citizens equally. It is a dream that, if realised, would profoundly change China.
The 40-year-old stands accused of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order”. It is a lesser charge than Mr Liu’s but still one that could keep him in prison until the middle of 2018, by which time his newborn daughter will be almost five.
Mr Xu’s causes include equality of opportunity for China’s hundreds of millions of migrant workers, especially for their children who are denied equal access to education, and a crackdown on corrupt officials. Ostensibly Beijing supports such goals. Yet in practice official sensitivity on these issues runs high.
In the days following Mr Xu’s court appearance, a further three people associated with the New Citizens’ Movement were prosecuted, with four more trials to follow next week. Their campaign for public disclosure of government officials’ assets was particularly sensitive in the wake of a series of international media exposés revealing the wealth accumulated by some of China’s most powerful political families. It does not take much for the party to conflate such investigations, along with the global media spotlight on the New Citizens’ Movement, into a broader international conspiracy.
The Global Times, a hardline state newspaper, warned officials prosecuting Mr Xu to beware “disruptions from the west”. But it is his longer-term aim, broadly defined as “constitutionalism”, that makes his movement so dangerous to the establishment. Simply put, he says China’s constitution means what it says. The civil rights enshrined in it, including “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration”, are inviolable. “I call on everyone to be a citizen, a forthright citizen who exercises their civil rights guaranteed under the constitution and fulfils a citizen’s civic duty, promotes educational equality . . . and calls for disclosure of officials’ assets,” he said in a video smuggled out of his detention centre last year. “In this absurd era, these are the actions behind the charges against me.”
Mr Xu’s lawyer argues that his client has been arrested because he dared to exercise his constitutional rights. “The prosecutor has brought a deer into court and called it a horse,” says Zhang Qingfang. “We say it’s obviously not a horse. But will the judge say that it’s not a horse? If his bosses say it’s a horse, the judge won’t dare to disagree.”
Citizen Xu’s journey to dissident stardom began in Minquan, a rural county in the central province of Henan. The characters for his home town translate as “Civil Liberties County”, which he took as a sign. “It was destiny that my life would be devoted to fighting for people’s rights,” he wrote on his blog. Mr Xu briefly tempted fate by applying to join his local police department. As a young graduate, he turned down a job offer from the police after being told he would have to work for at least three years before he could pursue a graduate degree in law.
The prosecutor has brought a deer into court and called it a horse. But will the judge say that it’s not a horse?’
- Zhang Qingfang, lawyer
As he began to make a name for himself in Beijing’s academic and legal circles in the late 1990s, the young lawyer impressed friends and colleagues with his doggedness. “He was always very moderate, rational and critical of our system’s many problems,” says Mr Zhang, who met his client when the two were legal PhD candidates at Peking University, China’s most prestigious university. “But his goal was always to be constructive and improve things.”
His determination to work within the system has been questioned. “Xu Zhiyong is representative of many young scholars who focused on social issues and sought practical ways to bring about reform,” says Ai Weiwei, an artist who has had his own run-ins with authority. “I know many of them and consider them friends. But when they say they have no enemies, I fear they are being unrealistic.”
In the early 2000s Mr Xu was elected to his local People’s Congress, as China’s representative assemblies are known, and defended workers, journalists and activists involved in disputes with authorities. Over time his network and causes grew, increasing the potential for friction with central authorities. In 2009 a non-governmental organisation he founded, the Open Constitution Initiative, published a report critical of Beijing’s policies in Tibet. He was subsequently detained for one month as part of an investigation into the tax affairs of the organisation, which was fined and disbanded.
Mr Xu emerged from custody bowed but unbroken. “I don’t care so much about my future,” he told the Financial Times then. “What is important is that we still have some space to continue doing some work for our country and society, that we still have room to promote the progress of democracy and the Chinese legal system.”
The verdict Mr Xu now awaits will determine whether this fundamental optimism was misplaced.
The writer is the FT’s Beijing correspondent. Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini
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