It was just a picture. Three friends gathered outside an apartment block, holding a sign. But the trio in the photograph are affiliated with China’s New Citizens Movement, a loose network of rights campaigners, legal activists and ordinary citizens whom the country’s rulers don’t much like. And the sign called for Chinese officials to fully disclose their assets. After it was posted online, the picture got the three locked up.
The people in the photograph — Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua — on Tuesday will face charges of illegal assembly, a vague, catchall charge often used to net dissidents. The case, to be tried in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, first opened in October, but was adjourned on Day 1 after the defendants dismissed their lawyers in protest. It was a rocky start to the first trial of New Citizens Movement activists since a crackdown on the movement began last spring. “This is definitely a test case,” says Maya Wang, a Hong Kong–based researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It may tell us something about the new leadership’s attitude toward peaceful activism.”
It is increasingly difficult to gauge what that attitude might be. Since he came to power, President Xi Jinping has made tackling corruption a top priority, pledging to target both “tigers” and “flies” — top officials and rank-and-file bureaucrats — who have enriched themselves at the people’s expense. There have been some high-profile takedowns, but the arrest of Liu, Wei and Li highlights the limits of the campaign: the Chinese Communist Party wants to fight corruption, but it also targets those who expose it.
Officials are going after exactly the type of people the new regime should, theoretically, back. The New Citizens Movement’s founder, Xu Zhiyong, is a legal activist who started the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research group. He has investigated the Sanlu tainted-milk scandal, worked to end illegal detention and pushed for officials to be more transparent. He is known for working within the system, not against it, calling on China to enforce its own laws. When he was detained in 2009, a memorable New Yorker profile likened it to the head of the American Civil Liberties Union being whisked away at night. Xu was once again detained in July and formally charged with “assembling a crowd to disrupt order.” There has been no trial.
Then there’s Wang Gongquan, a venture capitalist who was detained in the capital in September. Unlike most Chinese dissidents, Wang is a plutocrat, part of the country’s rarefied — and very wealthy — elite. After making a fortune on real estate and other investments, Wang turned to activism, speaking out on social media and publicly supporting the likes of Xu. Wang now faces the same charge. After he was detained, a group of businessmen and academics issued a petition calling for his release. “No matter what the name of the crime the authorities try to impose on Mr. Wang Gongquan, it is plain to all that this is nothing more than political persecution,” it reads.
Supporters of the Jiangxi trio say their arrests are also about politics, not the law. Liu’s daughter, Liao Minyue, questions the nature of the charge and the handling of the case. Her mother was arrested for holding a sign on the grounds of their compound, not in the middle of a demonstration, says Liao, a 21-year-old student. “How can they claim that she had committed illegal assembly?” she asks. “My mom just wants to help the weak,” she says, and she wants to do so “through legal methods.” Will the law prevail? “I don’t think she will get a fair trial,” Liao says. Wang of Human Rights Watch agrees. Based on past trials, she calls the odds of justice “unlikely.”
If they are right, it does not bode well for Xi’s pledge. The Chinese President likes to talk about the “Chinese dream” — a slogan that draws rhetorical force from the fact that it means different things to different people. Indeed, Xu Zhiyong was once featured in the Chinese edition of Esquire magazine in a feature on the Chinese dream. “I wish our country could be a free and happy one,” he was quoted as saying.
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing