Human rights activists reacted with dismay Wednesday to news of the arrest of one of China’s most highly respected and moderate civic activists.
Xu Zhiyong appears to be the latest victim of a government crackdown on citizens demanding that officials be obliged to disclose their incomes and assets to help prevent widespread corruption.
A detention order addressed to Dr. Xu’s wife said he had been detained for “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public venues.” It is unclear when he is alleged to have committed this crime; Xu has been under house arrest since April 12.
In May, Xu published an open letter to the authorities calling for the release of 10 activists who had been arrested earlier for holding public demonstrations in favor of officials' asset disclosure.
They remain in jail, according to their lawyers. Three other activists, arrested in Xinyu, in the southern province of Jiangsu, for holding a similar demonstration, have been told they will be brought to trial soon on charges of “illegal assembly.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The recent crackdown on anti-corruption activists has raised doubts about the sincerity of the new Chinese government’s own much publicized campaign against official corruption. Since he took office last November, President Xi Jinping has spoken repeatedly about the need to curb official greed, warning that it risks undermining the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.
A handful of high-ranking officials have been detained in recent months and are being investigated for corruption.
That has not persuaded skeptics that the official campaign means business. “A government which really wants to take serious measures against corruption would not arrest people who are helping by calling for the disclosure of official assets,” says Zhang Xuezhong, a lawyer representing one of the defendants in Xinyu, Liu Ping.
She and two colleagues took photographs of themselves holding banners reading “Strongly urge officials to disclose their assets,” which they then circulated on the Internet.
The charge of illegal assembly is “totally false,” says Mr. Zhang, but points to the authorities’ nervousness about organized action outside Communist Party control.
“The government fears more people will take to the streets,” he says, "so high ranking officials think something has to be done to stop this. They have decided to send [the three protestors] to jail.”
Xu was taken from his home in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon by police. They also seized his computers and a mobile phone, according to friends.
A constitutional scholar who teaches at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Xu is renowned for his public interest legal work on behalf of victims of official injustice, such as children sickened by melamine-tainted formula, and for the care he takes not to demand more than the Chinese Constitution provides for.
He founded the Open Constitution Initiative, also known as Gongmeng, a nongovernmental organization that was closed by the authorities in 2009 for alleged tax evasion. He has been detained several times, though never brought to trial.
Xu is known in activist circles as unusually selfless. “He is a complete idealist and he has always stood firm for his beliefs,” says Li Xiongbing, a lawyer who knows him well. “The authorities cannot forgive him for that.”
Two volunteers with Gongmeng were arrested on July 12, and another disappeared that night, according to ChinaChange.org, an activist website.
In a related development, muckraking blogger Zhu Ruifeng, whose revelations recently led to a 13-year jail sentence for a corrupt local official in the western city of Chongqing, said Wednesday that his four accounts on “weibos,” Twitter-like social media platforms, had been suspended since Monday.
Officials have said that they hope citizen-reporters such as Mr. Zhu could help uncover corruption; the current crackdown on activists, however, suggests that the Communist Party is anxious to ensure that any anti-corruption campaign remains strictly within the limits that the authorities set.