China Detains Prominent Activists as Olympics Near, Citing State Security

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By Chao Deng

Originally published by The Wall Street Journal on 19 January, 2022

Appeared in the January 20, 2022, print edition as ‘China Detains Activists Ahead of the Olympics.’

Detention of free-speech advocate Yang Maodong, missing since December, is confirmed days after wife’s death from cancer in the U.S.

Lawyer Xie Yang, here outside a court in Xuzhou in 2019, has taken up politically sensitive cases related to religion and land rights.

TAIPEI—Chinese authorities have detained two prominent human-rights activists, quietly intensifying a crackdown on dissent weeks before Beijing hosts the most politicized Winter Olympics in recent memory.

Free-speech advocate Yang Maodong was formally detained in the southern city of Guangzhou on suspicion of inciting subversion on Jan. 12, two days after his wife died of cancer in the U.S., according to his sister.

Mr. Yang, who writes under the pen name Guo Feixiong, has been blocked from leaving China for the past year. Authorities rejected his pleas, and entreaties from friends and family, that he be allowed to be with his wife in her final months. Friends said they had lost contact with the 55-year-old in early December, though it was only on Monday that police officially confirmed his detention to his family.

“It’s really too cruel, too heartless,” Yang Maoping, his sister said, adding that police had been vague about the reason for his detention.

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Xie Yang, a 49-year old lawyer who has taken up politically sensitive cases related to religion and land rights, was detained on Jan. 11, also on subversion charges, and is being held in the southern city of Changsha, according to his family.

Human-rights advocates linked the detentions to the coming 2022 Winter Games, scheduled to begin on Feb. 4, which have been dogged by criticism over China’s human-rights record.

“You can imagine authorities all over the country are tightening control pre-emptively to strike out any potential dissent and criticism,” said Renee Xia, a senior researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Washington, D.C., based group.

Police in Guangzhou and Changsha didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Asked about the detentions, the International Olympic Committee said that it takes human rights seriously but has “neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.” It added that “given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues.”

A Berlin protest against the Beijing Olympics earlier this month; for its part, China’s Foreign Ministry has protested what it calls attempts to politicize the Games.

Chinese authorities also pressured dissidents and activists ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, though space remained for some critics. Under President Xi Jinping, China has grown less tolerant of dissent, tightening controls over the media and the internet while pursuing a campaign of forcible assimilation against ethnic minorities in remote regions of the country.

The U.S., Australia and U.K. have said government officials won’t attend the 2022 Olympics, to protest Mr. Xi’s treatment of ethnic minorities and other alleged human-rights abuses. Activist groups have pressed Olympics sponsors and other global brands to distance themselves from the Games.

China has rejected criticism of its human-rights record and called it interference in the country’s internal affairs. Its Foreign Ministry has protested what it says are attempts to politicize the Olympic Games.

Mr. Yang, the free-speech activist, has been in police custody on and off since 2013, when he joined in protesting Communist Party efforts to censor Southern Weekly, a Guangzhou newspaper once celebrated by Chinese liberals for its unusually hard-hitting coverage. He spent six years in prison for disrupting public order and “picking quarrels.”

Some of his supporters, including his former lawyer, say they believe he is being targeted because of his public conflict with authorities over being allowed to visit his wife, Zhang Qing. After Ms. Zhang was diagnosed with terminal cancer roughly a year ago, Mr. Yang wrote an open letter to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang seeking the return of his confiscated passport and permission to leave the country.

China is enforcing a strict set of Covid-19 rules at the Winter Olympics to stop the fast-spreading Omicron variant. From a “closed-loop” system to a ban on shouting, WSJ explains how some of these restrictions will work, and why despite all efforts, an outbreak could still derail competitions.

After briefly being detained, Mr. Yang stayed quiet in the hope the government would yield, but he went public again in December after learning that his wife was on the verge of death.

“It put the government in an awkward position,” Mr. Yang’s former lawyer, Sui Muqing, said.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement offering condolences after Ms. Zhang died and called on the Chinese government to let Mr. Yang travel to the U.S. to grieve and be reunited with his family. Mr. Yang has two young-adult children in the U.S.

Mr. Xie, the other activist in custody, was previously detained as part of a sweeping crackdown on human-rights lawyers in 2015. Charged with inciting subversion, he was released after two years following a guilty plea.

Mr. Xie’s wife, Chen Guiqiu, confirmed his most recent detention Tuesday. Ms. Chen, who fled China in 2017 and now lives in Texas with the couple’s two daughters, said she suspects the detention is related to her husband’s trip this past Christmas to Yongshun county in southern China’s Hunan province. He unfurled a banner near a police station there calling for the release of a schoolteacher who had accused the government of sending her to a psychiatric facility against her will.

The government “can make up anything” as an excuse to detain someone, Ms. Chen said of her husband’s situation.

Legal scholar and activist Xu Zhiyong, here in 2013, is expected to face trial soon on subversion charges.

Inciting subversion is typically punishable by up to five years in prison, and sometimes more in cases deemed severe.

Two other influential activists, legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and lawyer Ding Jiaxi, are expected to face trial soon on subversion charges. Both were leaders of the New Citizens Movement, a now-defunct civic group founded by Mr. Xu. According to the prosecutor’s latest indictment, the two men organized a 2019 meeting of more than a dozen people in Xiamen city to plan activities against the state.

Supporters of the two men called for their release, saying their arrests were arbitrary.

The squeezing of dissent is likely motivated by this year’s coming Communist Party congress as well as by the Olympics, human-rights activists say. Mr. Xi is expected to break with recent precedent at the twice-a-decade meeting by taking a third term as the country’s top leader.

“The intentional use of such strong-arm tactics is intended to warn possible opponents within and outside the system, and to tell the West that China will not compromise on human-rights issues,” Wang Dan, a student leader during the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, said in response to the detentions of Messrs. Yang and Xie. “The international community should have a tougher way of responding.”

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