Beijing authorities have detained the head a legal research and advocacy group, the latest blow in a continued drive against China’s activist lawyers. Police took Xu Zhiyong, a human right lawyer who runs the recently shuttered Open Constitution Initiative (or Gongmeng in Chinese), from his Beijing apartment early Wednesday morning, according to a posting on the group’s website. Another Gongmeng employee, Zhuang Lu, was also detained.
Earlier this month police closed the Open Constitution Initiative on the grounds that it owed $208,000 in tax penalties. Xu admitted the possibility of flaws in the group’s bookkeeping, but its closure and now his arrest indicate that this is more than just a question of accounting. In recent years OCI has been involved in a variety of sensitive cases including last year’s tainted milk powder scandal, defending a waitress who stabbed to death a Communist Party official, and investigating the causes of last year’s Tibetan unrest. Rather than actively oppose the government, their goal has been to work within the system, fighting for the rights granted citizens under Chinese law.
That sort of loyal opposition would seem to offer OCI a measure of defense. In interviews Xu denied that there was anything controversial about the group’s work, that they were merely helping China develop the rule of law. But for activists pursuing a similar agenda this has been a perilous summer. More than 50 lawyers who handle sensitive rights cases have had their licenses revoked. And this week authorities also raided a Beijing group that works with hepatitis patients, apparently because they were not authorized to print an anti-discrimination newsletter.