How one man went from China’s Communist party golden child to enemy of the state

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How one man went from China’s Communist party golden child to enemy of the state

By Verna Yu

Originally published by The Guardian on Apr. 17, 2023

Experts say Xu Zhiyong’s fate symbolises the rise and fall of China’s ill-fated rights movement

Xu Zhiyong, human rights lawyer and champion of social equality, has been sentenced to 14 years in prison. Photograph: Liau Chung-ren/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Xu Zhiyong’s dream is for China to become a democratic country that is “beautiful, free, fair and happy.” It is a simple wish, yet in the eyes of the authorities, his vision is dangerous and subversive.

The 50-year-old human rights lawyer and champion of social equality was sentenced to 14 years in jail earlier this month, along with fellow activist and lawyer Ding Jiaxi, who was jailed for 12 years. Both were convicted of the crime of “subversion of state power.”

The Communist party-controlled court has accused Xu of intending to overthrow the current regime by promoting his vision of “a beautiful China.” According to a court indictment, with a series of articles, blogs, websites and secret meetings, Xu, Ding and other activists were “seriously endangering national security and social stability.”

But the government once felt very differently about Xu, and experts say Xu’s dramatic life symbolises the rise and fall of China’s ill-fated rights movement.

Twenty years ago, Xu was a golden boy feted by the Chinese government and the state media. Along with fellow PhD law graduates Teng Biao and Yu Jiang, he successfully lobbied the national legislature to abolish rules on detaining and repatriating migrants after a young man was beaten to death in custody. The trio were hailed by the Ministry of Justice and state broadcaster CCTV as “the top ten legal figures of 2003.”

The “Sun Zhigang incident” in 2003, named after the young man who died, marked the beginning of China’s rights defence movement.

In the following years, Xu and Teng made it their mission to seek justice for the underprivileged. They and other lawyers set up the Open Constitution Institute, a non-profit legal aid centre, to provide free legal advice for people with grievances. Xu also campaigned for children of migrant workers’ education rights, investigated extralegal “black jails” which locked up petitioners and wrote research reports on social issues. He was showered with awards by the state media, and was named one of “Ten most outstanding young leaders” by a state-run magazine in 2006.

But as Xu’s popularity grew, the authorities became increasingly wary. In 2009 the authorities closed Open Constitution Institute, accusing it of tax evasion. Xu, a lecturer, was taken into custody and barred from teaching.

Upon his release in 2009, he said in an interview that his vision remained unchanged: “I dream of a country that has democracy, rule of law, equality, and justice … a simple and happy society.”

Protesters in Taiwan call for the release of Xu Zhiyong and other activists Photograph: Wiktor Dąbkowski/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

In the following years, Xu set up the social campaign New Citizens Movement, a loose network of activists who met regularly to discuss rights issues and the country’s future. When Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, Xu wrote an open letter, challenging him to implement constitutional democracy. Around then, the police stepped up their surveillance on him, frequently detaining him or putting him under house arrest .

Xu would end up paying dearly for his dream.

‘Someone has to pay a price’

After staging protests for equal rights for migrant children and demanding official transparency over private assets, Xu was arrested in July 2013 and jailed in January 2014 for “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” He wept when his lawyer showed him a picture of his baby daughter, born two weeks before the sentencing.

Even after his release in 2017, he insisted on pushing his civil society initiatives – efforts that the court indictment called “subverting state power through advocating non-violent ‘colour revolution’.” After a gathering of about 20 lawyers and activists in Fujian province in December 2019, the authorities arrested more than half of the participants, including Ding. While hiding, Xu published an essay to urge Xi to resign over the coronavirus crisis and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. He was arrested in Guangzhou in February 2020 and along with Ding, were tried in June 2022 for “subversion of state power.”

Teng Biao (left), Yu Jiang (middle) and Xu Zhiyong (right) on their PhD graduation day at Peking University in 2002 Photograph: Teng Biao

Fellow activist Teng Biao said Xu’s strong conviction of democratic values, his advocacy for non-violent regime change and ability to attract supporters, are seen by the Communist party as “a huge threat.”

“His determination and beliefs in freedom and democracy was directly opposite that of the Communist dictatorship,” Teng said.

William Nee, a researcher at US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, says Xu’s two-decade career is “a mirror that reflects the dampened hopes for what China could have been.”

The Communist party has reason to fear idealistic activists with a sense of mission — before it came to power in 1949, the underground Communist party grew quickly through networks of young intellectuals who swore to fight dictatorship under the Nationalist government.

​​Eva Pils, a law professor at King’s College London, says Xu and Ding’s harsh sentencing may not achieve its intended effect. Last November’s nationwide protests “must have reminded the [authorities] of the enduring potential of resistance to autocratic governance.”

“Chinese human rights defenders are a very resilient lot,” she said.

Xu’s will has certainly not been broken. In his self-defence, he wrote: “Dictatorship shall end, democracy shall come.” According to Teng, after his sentencing last Monday, he told the court: “Dawn will soon come.”

However, observers fear that the long sentence and harsh conditions of jails means Xu and Ding may never come out of jail alive.

Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years, died in jail in 2017. But Xu has always said he was aware of the heavy cost of his dream.

“I think it’s glorious to sacrifice for the sake of social progress and fighting injustice.” he said under house arrest in a phone interview in 2012. “For the world to become a better place, someone has to pay a price.”

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