Sentencing of Xu Zhiyong Proves Backward Step for Chinese Transparency
by Becky Hodson
As what has become the latest addition to China’s less than exemplary human rights record, the trial of Xu Zhiyong has aroused international condemnation from human rights activists, as well as from domestic agents. The activist was sentenced to four years imprisonment last week, completing a lengthy legal procedure which began in April last year with his house arrest, on charges of “gathering crowds to disturb social order.”
The ‘disturbances’ arose amidst recent investigations from human rights activists, including emerging social group the New Citizens’ Movement, concerning the keeping of offshore accounts by government officials. Though this practice is not technically against the law, its exposure would raise important questions about the inexplicable wealth of many figures amongst the Chinese leadership and potentially cause acute embarrassment. After pledges from President Xi Jinping to tackle corruption and work towards transparency, Amnesty International are calling the persecution a “hypocritical step.” In an attempt to further curtail activity and step away from freedom of expression and information, searches for “Xu Zhiyong” and “constitutional rule” were blocked from Chinese search engines.
Josh Chin, correspondent for the Wall Street Journal has identified several key features of the New Citizens’ Movement. Critically, the movement is distinguishable by its heterogenic membership, which includes white-collar professionals and “winners in China’s economic growth” in a somewhat unprecedented trend. The group attempts to escape China’s restrictive assembly laws by focusing their meetings around monthly dinners under the slogan “eat to change China.”
International scepticism surrounding China’s respect for human rights and governing integrity has been heightened by the trial, with journalists banned from the trial itself and forcibly removed from the surrounding areas. Reporters from both the BBC and American network CNN were physically prevented from filming near the courthouse. David McKenzie of CNN was “pushed and punched by Chinese security before being forced into a nearby van and driven away.” These public demonstrations of rights violations from the Chinese state apparatus do little for its reputation on the international scene.
The injustices of the Chinese judicial system have been exposed by Mr Xu’s defense lawyer Zhang Qinfang. Before the trial Mr Zhang stated that “justice looks very unlikely” and described how his application for five witnesses to testify in the case was rejected by the court. Following the sentencing he said, “he can still appeal, but this outcome was decided by the senior leaders, and there’s no hope of changing the verdict.” Mr Xu was denied the completion of his closing statement after just ten minutes but the statement has circulated online. It includes such powerful accusations to the court as “you are attempting to crush the New Citizens’ Movement and block China’s road to democratic constitutional government through peaceful reform.” As he was led away Mr Xu pronounced “the court today has completely destroyed what remained of respect for rule of law in China.”
It is too soon to say what the exact implications of Mr Xu’s imprisonment will be, but his supporters remain adamant that it will not mark the end of their struggle against corruption in the country. Teng Biao, a co-founder of the New Citizens’ Movement summarised this resilience in his twitter message: “prison never suppresses the people’s will to resist, but further ignites people’s fervor to fight.”
Becky Hodson is a second year History and Politics student at the University of York with a commitment to the cause of human rights.