Xu Zhiyong is a lawyer. He founded a legal research group called the Open Constitution Initiative. He investigated the tainted-milk scandal, fought for the rights of migrant children, and spoke out against corruption. In a system awash with injustice, he believed in the law.
But the law turned on Xu. On Sunday, Xu Zhiyong was convicted of “assembling a crowd to disrupt public order” and sentenced to four years in jail. As he was led away from the courtroom, he denounced the trial, his lawyers later told journalists. “The court today has completely destroyed what remained of respect for rule of law in China,” Xu said.
He may be right. Xu’s arrest, trial and conviction does not bode well for China’s courts, or its government. He is the most high-profile activist to stand trial since the country’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition in late 2012. Some thought Xi Jinping, China’s current President and secretary of the ruling Communist Party, would prove a great reformer, making way for men like Xu. His sentence is the latest sign that those hopes were misplaced.
Far from a subversive dissident, Xu’s goals were in line with what China’s rulers say they want—cleaner and more lawful governance. Since coming to power, Xi has adopted the “Chinese Dream” as his signature slogan, vowing to push for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In his first speech as China’s top leader, he vowed to tackle graft and restore faith in government.
Xu shares that dream. Years ago, the young lawyer was featured in a ‘Chinese dream’-themed magazine spread, expressing his wish that China be “happy” and “free.” His conviction on Sunday stems from his leadership of the New Citizens Movement, a network of lawyers, activists and ordinary people fighting for government transparency.
But even as the Party fills the pages of state-backed papers with reports of anti-graft campaigns and party purges, it silences similar calls from the outside. Three members of Xu’s New Citizens Movement — Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua — are being tried for posting a picture of themselves holding a banner calling for Chinese officials to disclose their assets. Their trial, like Xu’s, was held behind closed doors.
The prosecution of Xu and his supporters is part of a broader crackdown on critical voices under China’s new regime. Over the last year, authorities have rounded up bloggers and businessmen for speaking out on microblogs and implemented new rules governing online speech. Last week, police in Beijing detained Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uighur scholar, on charges of separatism. He has yet to be formally charged.
The arrests send a clear message that the “game has not changed,” says Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. And as Xi consolidates power, he doesn’t want to show weakness. “It doesn’t cost him much to give them Xu’s head, or Tohti’s head,” says Bequelin. “His cold calculus is that he has to be hard line.”
And that, of course, is where Xi and Xu’s Chinese dreams diverge. In a closing statement read by his lawyer and translated by China Change, a website that tracks Chinese civil society and human rights news, Xu called for Chinese people to change their country through “small acts,” inspired by the principles of “freedom, justice and love”:
What the New Citizens Movement advocates is for each and every Chinese national to act and behave as a citizen, to accept our roles as citizens and masters of our country—and not to act as feudal subjects, remain complacent, accept mob rule or a position as an underclass. To take seriously the rights which come with citizenship, those written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and China’s Constitution: to treat these sacred rights—to vote, to freedom of speech and religion—as more than an everlasting IOU.
He signed the letter “Citizen Xu Zhiyong.”