Chinese activists face subversion charges over weekend rally
About twenty lawyers and activists discreetly arrived in a garish “Nice Home Party” rental villa near the Chinese seaside. They ate take out, sang along with karaoke, and played foosball. But they also had a serious goal: to discuss the besieged human rights movement in China.
Two years after that weekend rally in December 2019, the two best-known participants – Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi – are awaiting trial on charges of subversion related to the rally, the indictments show. Police and prosecutors used the weekend’s meeting to strike a hammer at China’s embattled ârightsâ movement of lawyers and activists seeking democratic change.
Meetings like this, once common among Chinese rights activists, have become increasingly risky under Xi Jinping’s hardline regime. Under him, many newspapers, research organizations and groups that once supported independent activists in China were dissolved.
As it prepares to extend its era in power, those who speak still wonder how the Chinese human rights movement can survive an increasingly strict circle of surveillance, house arrest, house arrest, detentions and trials.
“It shows how terrified they are of even small buds of Chinese citizen consciousness and civil society,” Liu sifang, a teacher and amateur musician who attended the rally, said in an interview in Los Angeles, where he now lives. He fled abroad in late 2019 after police began arresting those who attended the villa meeting. Border police in China prevented his wife from joining him, he said.
âThey don’t want to allow these shoots to survive,â Mr. Liu said, âso our little rally was treated as a big political incident.â
During a restaurant lunch on the second day of their two-day meeting, some noticed people appearing to be looking at them and taking pictures. Even if they had been monitored, Mr. Liu said, most believed that it might lead to brief detention and severe interrogation by the policemen in charge of monitoring them.
They were wrong.
Several people who attended the weekend session in Xiamen, east China, were quickly arrested, spending weeks or months locked up before being released. One participant, attorney Chang Weiping, was detained a second time and arrested on charges of subversion after he videoed that interrogators tortured him during his first stint in detention.
Mr. Xu, 48, and Mr. Ding, 54, both told lawyers that they had done nothing illegal, but they face prison terms of 10 years or even more if a court checks. by a party condemns them, which seems almost inevitable. Some experts and supporters expected them to stand trial at the end of 2021. However, that period has passed without a trial announcement. They are still awaiting news of a hearing, possibly in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, which kick off next month in Beijing.
While Western governments have focused on the massive detentions of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, the lawsuits against Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding highlight the Chinese Communist Party’s intense campaign against dissent across China. Security officials have pledged to eliminate all political opposition before a party congress later in 2022, when Xi is set to get another five-year term as top leader.
âHe and Xu Zhiyong were so confident,â said Mr. Ding’s wife Sophie Luo, who lives in the United States and has campaigned for their release. âIt’s their faith and also their weakness, I would say. They think history is heading for democracy and freedom.
By the time Mr. Xi came to power in late 2012, Mr. Xu had already spent a decade as one of China’s best-known human rights defenders.
Mr. Xu sometimes noted with a smile that his home county in central rural China was called Minquan, which means “people’s rights.” In 2003, he and two other classmates at Peking University Law School rose to prominence thanks to a successful campaign to abolish a widely despised detention system used against migrant workers in Chinese cities. .
Over the next decade, he and other activist lawyers sought to awaken citizens’ initiative and expand rights by dealing with cases highlighting flaws in China’s legal system: of farmers whose lands had been destroyed. were confiscated, prisoners who claimed to have been tortured and concocted police testimonies, and aggrieved citizens held in informal prisons for trying to file a complaint with officials in Beijing.
âWe have to find a way to develop the political forces that exist outside the system,â he wrote in âA Beautiful China,â a manifesto of his beliefs. The way forward, he said, was to find ways for independent social groups to “dig themselves into the loopholes of the autocratic system.”
In 2012, Mr. Ding, an engineer turned successful business lawyer, joined the cause.
He and Mr. Xu turned to promoting a “New Citizens’ Movement”, which encouraged the Chinese people to exercise the rights given lip service to in the Chinese Constitution: to association, freedom of association. expression and the word to the government. Mr. Xu was the theorist of the cause, while Mr. Ding tended to focus on meeting supporters.
Mr. Ding and Mr. Xu seemed to hope at first that Mr. Xi’s government would not be tougher than its predecessor. But they were arrested in 2013 after distributing an open letter urging China’s most powerful officials to disclose their wealth. They were convicted in 2014, when Mr. Xu was sentenced to four years in prison and Mr. Ding to three and a half years.
In the years that followed, an increasing number of outspoken rights activists and lawyers were arrested, and some were sentenced to prison terms. Yet after their release in 2017, Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding quietly reconnected with supporters. Even as Mr. Xi tightened political controls, Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding appeared hopeful that the party regime was more fragile than many foreigners realized.
“They just wanted to keep the movement alive,” Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer and longtime friend of Mr. Xu’s, said in a telephone interview.
âThey knew the risk was higher than before,â said Dr. Teng, visiting professor at the University of Chicago. “But they didn’t expect it would lead to a huge crackdown.”
In 2018, Mr. Xu, Mr. Ding, and like-minded friends and acquaintances met in Shandong Province, east China, to relax and discuss their cause.
When they met a year later in the Xiamen villa, no one noticed anything alarming there, said Mr. Liu, the songwriter present.
The participants thought they had temporarily shaken the police officers responsible for monitoring them. But they were discovered anyway.
Eighteen days later, the detentions began.
Among those arrested was Mr. Ding, who later told his lawyer that investigators forced him to stay awake by constantly showing him a glowing documentary on the Chinese leader, Mr. Xi, at a breathtaking volume for 10 days and 10 nights.
Mr. Xu went into hiding, sheltered for a time by a former prosecutor from southern China.
By that time, the Covid epidemic was spreading across China, sparking anger the government failed to act sooner to quell the infections. From underground, Mr. Xu issued a letter urging Mr. Xi to resign, arguing that he was trying to “defy the course of history.”
He was arrested in mid-February 2020. His girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, who spoke about Mr. Xi’s treatment and his own secret detention, was detained again and officially arrested last year.
Xi now appears confident that China has largely contained Covid, while the United States, Britain and other Western countries have suffered waves of infections and deaths that have diminished their reputation in the eyes of many Chinese. His power seems entrenched and the party officially praised him as one of its great leaders.
But Mr. Xu remains adamant as he awaits his trial in Shandong Province, said Liang Xiaojun, who was one of Mr. Xu’s attorneys until Chinese authorities removed him from the bar, citing his comments on the law. politics and human rights.
“He has the demeanor of a revolutionary – that he cannot envisage anything other than building a beautiful China,” Liang said of his last meeting with Mr. Xu at the end of November. Still, Mr. Liang added, âIf they had thought the consequences would be so severe, I don’t think they would have held this meeting.