Four citizen activists involved in public calls for high-ranking officials to reveal their assets in 2013 have each been found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Two of them — Ding Jiaxi and Zhao Changqing — were accused of planning street actions in the early months of 2013 in Beijing where participants displayed banners and made public speeches; the other two — Li Wei and Zhang Baocheng — were among the participants of those actions. Asset transparency is a key demand of the New Citizens Movement, which is a loose network of activists urging citizens to exercise their rights and assume their responsibilities as citizens.
The activists were sentenced for their participation in citizen actions calling for disclosure of officials’ assets as a way to fight corruption since 2012. The trial concluded on April 9 without a verdict. Ding Jiaxi received a sentence of three years and six months; Zhao Changqing, two years and six months; Li Wei, two years; and Zhang Baocheng, two years. Lawyers for Ding Jiaxi, Zhao Changqing, and Zhang Baocheng said their clients will appeal.
The rulings, announced this morning by the Beijing Municipal Haidian District Court, where the activists were tried last week, continue a pattern of criminal prosecution of citizen activists who take part in peaceful assemblies to promote asset transparency as a way to fight corruption, a problem that Chinese president Xi Jinping himself exhorted the government to address after taking office in November 2012.
In court and in written statements, the defendants and their lawyers have repeatedly protested the sham nature of their trials—that the prosecutions are retaliations against the lawful exercise of rights protected by Chinese law. In particular, the right to freedom of expression and assembly and the right to criticize and make recommendations to the government are protected under articles 35 and 41 of the Chinese Constitution. They have also rigorously protested what they saw as serious procedural violations.
The following is an excerpt from Ding Jia’s Xi’s Final Statement to the court: ‘’In order to promote asset transparency, we distributed 100,000 flyers, made more than 100 banners, participated in two demonstrations, gathered more than 7,000 signatures, and made appeals to the National People’s Congress and the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council to promulgate law on asset transparency. But we have received no response. There are not even one million people with a concept of official asset transparency, not even one in 1,000 among our 1.3 billion people. My actions are insignificant. But I do not regret them—these are actions following my conscience. I want to be a citizen who has an opinion and a voice. I want to be a butterfly. The incessant fluttering of the wings of butterflies will certainly fan the wind of social transformation. [Our] future society will certainly be one where citizens enjoy freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Justice belongs to us!”
Sui Muqing, one of Ding Jiaxi’s lawyers, received a phone call from the Haidian District Court yesterday informing him of the court’s decision to strip him of his status as Ding’s lawyer in response to Sui’s decision to leave the court on April 8 to protest procedural problems. As a result, the court did not accept his defense statement or allow him to come to the court today to hear the verdict.
While not surprised by the outcome, the activists’ lawyers called these verdicts shameful. Lawyer Wang Fu, one of Zhao Changqing’s lawyers, said on his Weibo account that the verdicts represent “the darkest hours for the rule of law,” but that he “firmly believes that in the not so distant future, Mr. Zhao and others like him will be declared innocent.”
In a defense statement submitted to the court, Zhang Baocheng’s lawyer Ge Yongxi argued that recent trials of citizen activists are nothing but reprisals and that such prosecution will neither intimidate the people nor dampen their aspiration for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law.
In January 2014, Xu Zhiyong, a key advocate in the New Citizens Movement was sentenced to four years in prison, also for disrupting public order; on appeal, the conviction was upheld by the Beijing Higher People’s Court on April 11. On April 16, another asset transparency advocate, Yuan Dong, who was tried and convicted in January, also lost his appeal when the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court upheld his first instance verdict and 18-month prison sentence.