The Chinese authorities must immediately release prominent Chinese activist Xu Zhiyong, whose trial is due to start in Beijing on Wednesday, Amnesty International said. A highly regarded legal scholar, Xu Zhiyong wrote an article in May 2012 titled China Needs a New Citizens’ Movement, which is credited with spurring a loose network of activists who aim to promote government transparency and expose corruption.
Xu Zhiyong has been detained in Beijing since July. He faces charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place” after staging a demonstration calling on China’s leaders to reveal their assets. He faces up to five years in jail if convicted.
“Instead of President Xi Jinping’s promised clamp down on corruption, we are seeing a crackdown against those that want to expose it. The persecution of activists associated with the New Citizens Movement has to end,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.
Since March 2013, Chinese police have taken into custody dozens of activists, lawyers, and other citizens in a crackdown meant to suppress peaceful assembly, association and expression around the country. The strident response by authorities has partially been triggered by advocacy campaigns waged against official corruption and other politically sensitive issues.
Xu Zhiyong was one of several activists who organized a campaign demanding that more than 200 high-ranking Communist Party officials, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, publicly disclose their financial wealth.
Many of the detainees, particularly in Beijing, are believed to be associated with (or inspired by) the “New Citizens’ Movement,” a loose network of activists who have peacefully promoted social justice and political and legal reforms since 2011. The movement has been spearheaded by Xu Zhiyong, who founded the now-banned Open Constitution Initiative — from which the New Citizens’ Movement emerged — and who was himself swept up in the crackdown.
Xu Zhiyong has described the “New Citizens’ Movement” as a peaceful cultural, social and political campaign. Several of these activists have already been prosecuted simply for exercising their rights to assembly and free speech.
Several other activists are also due to be tried later this week.
At a pre-trial hearing last Friday, a judge rejected a request from Xu Zhiyong’s lawyer for his case to be tried alongside other defendants that have been jointly charged for their activities linked to the New Citizens Movement. Xu Zhiyong has said he will remain silent in court in protest of the decision and other irregularities. His lawyer Zhang Qingfang told reporters after the pre-trial meeting between lawyers and prosecutors that only two seats at the court have been set aside for Xu’s family.
“We consider Xu Zhiyong to be a prisoner of conscience and he should be released immediately and unconditionally. Anything less would make a mockery of the Chinese government’s ongoing anti-corruption efforts,” said Rife.
A further five activists are due to stand trial in Beijing later this week. Zhao Changqing and Hou Xin, are due to stand trial on Thursday. The trials of Ding Jiaxi and Li Wei, and Yuan Dong and Zhang Baocheng are expected to start on Friday.
“By denying a collective trial the judge is preventing the full-truth from being heard. It is yet another example of the injustice these activists face,” said Rife.
Three other activists – Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua – were put on trial in December 2013 in Jiangxi Province in southern China. Zhang Lin, a veteran activist, stood trial on December 18th. The verdict in these cases is still to be announced.
According to the organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders more than 65 people who are allegedly connected with the New Citizens’ Movement have been criminally detained or subjected to enforced disappearance as of early December. Among those detained on criminal charges, 43 are known to have been formally arrested, and 14 are known to have been indicted and/or tried while many are still under detention, have served brief administrative detentions, or have been released on “bail awaiting trial.” Those currently not in custody are believed to still be under surveillance.
Suggested activities for “New Citizens” include; practicing “New Citizen Responsibility” by rejecting corruption and by doing good for society; participating in civic life by holding meetings to discuss the political situation; helping the weak; and uniting to share and coordinate work.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement on the fifth anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s initial detention that he was deeply concerned about anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong and called for his and the Luis’ release: ”The United States is deeply concerned that Chinese authorities continue to imprison Liu Xiaobo, as well as other activists, such as Xu Zhiyong, for peacefully exercising their universal right to freedom of expression.”
No media or outside observers will be allowed to attend the trial.