China crushes dissent with trials this week

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Originally published by USA Today on January 21, 2014

Speaking freely is a great crime under President Xi Jinping.

Detained since July, Xu enters a Beijing courtroom Wednesday in the first of a rapid series of trials to punish numerous activists who tried to expose corruption and promote government transparency in China.

Both aims are stated goals of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, but the trials this week of up to nine activists show that the non-elected rulers of the world’s second-largest economy continue to abuse Chinese law to squash civil society, said legal experts and human rights groups.

In the first and most prominent case, Xu Zhiyong, 40, faces a five-year sentence for what his lawyers say are trumped-up charges meant to punish Xu for his expressed belief that one-party China should establish a liberal system of constitutional democracy.

All nine of the accused took part in small-scale protest gatherings under the umbrella of the New Citizens’ Movement, a social initiative and loose network of activists founded by Xu in 2012. The protesters demanded that government officials disclose their assets as well as equal education rights for children of migrant workers.

State prosecutors have charged Xu and the others with “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.”

Acquittals are rare in China, where the ruling party controls the courts and appoints all judges. Over 65 people have been detained in connection to the New Citizens’ Movement, and 37 formally arrested, according to the Hong Kong-based group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

“We are disappointed this case has not been handled according to the laws and regulations. This is not a fair trial,” said Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang.

Xu will remain silent during the trial in protest of the judges’ refusal to allow witnesses and co-defendants to testify in court. But he will make a closing statement, Zhang said.

“He was very calm as he knows he is not guilty,” Zhang said.

Innocence has not protected many other Chinese dissidents, and nor has Chinese law, despite official promises of greater judicial transparency. Xu’s trial “may make a public mockery of the recent efforts of China’s Supreme People’s Court to prevent further wrongful convictions by requiring investigation and verification of criminal evidence in an open court hearing,” said Jerome Cohen, a specialist in Chinese law at New York University.

Xu Zhiyong “hopes to help the government fight corruption, abide by the Constitution, laws and regulations. … It’s wrong to consider him an enemy or trouble maker,” said Teng Biao, another legal scholar who has joined Xu, his friend and classmate at Beijing University law school, in several rights cases over the past decade.

“But this is the Communist Party, they believe in class struggle and insist on their policy of excessive ‘stability maintenance,’ ” targeting critics such as Xu, said Teng, who is currently based in Hong Kong and expects to be arrested when he returns to the mainland.

Xu scares Beijing because his ideas “encourage so many Chinese people to stand up to fight for their fundamental rights” both online and in real-world street protests, said Teng. “The central government feels a threat to the whole political system,” he said.

Authorities “definitely censor the Internet for dissenting opinions, but they fear most that these protests were organized around the country, and centered on a theme (corruption) with great resonance in China,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International, the London-based rights group, called China’s purge of activists “hypocritical.”

“Instead of President Xi Jinping‘s promised clampdown on corruption, we are seeing a crackdown against those that want to expose it,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia research director.

“By denying a collective trial, the judge is preventing the full truth from being heard,” she said. “It is yet another example of the injustice these activists face.”

Despite the intense government crackdown, the New Citizens’ Movement will survive, Teng said.

“More and more Chinese people are joining the movement. They don’t believe the government or propaganda anymore,” he said.

Xu himself, inspired by the spirit of Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident-turned-president, is committed for the long haul, Teng said. During months of house arrest, state security officers tried and failed to make Xu relinquish his causes to avoid formal arrest, he said.

“He’s really ready for prison, and does not regret his choice.”

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