A Dream Deferred

How a recent exposé vindicates activist Xu Zhiyong's vision for China. 

Getty Images
Getty Images

Chinese legal activist Xu Zhiyong, likely sitting in a Beijing jail cell, may have appreciated the irony. On Jan. 22, while he endured the indignities of a politicized prosecution on spurious charges of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order," with police dragging off supporters of Xu gathered outside the courtroom, Chinese President Xi Jinping found himself the target of unwelcome global public scrutiny.

That day, the International Consortium of International Journalists (ICIJ) published documents suggesting "conflict of interest and covert use of government power" by China’s "princelings" — sons and daughters of current and former senior Chinese Communist Party officials — as well as other prominent business figures. The documents show that Xi’s own brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui, owns a 50 percent stake in a British Virgin Islands-registered real estate venture. Those documents are not in themselves evidence of any wrongdoing by Deng or Xi, but they bring scrutiny uncomfortably close to the Chinese president’s front door. 

While Xi likely considered on Wednesday how to distance himself and his family from what could be a burgeoning scandal, Xu was struggling against China’s politicized judiciary. After a trial marred by denials of due legal process — the court, for example, refused Xu’s lawyer the opportunity to cross-examine prosecution witnesses or produce defense’s own — Xu is in custody, awaiting a possible five year prison term when he is sentenced on Jan. 26.

The ICIJ exposé, and the challenge it poses to Xi’s reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, is a vindication of Xu’s advocacy. Xu had proposed requiring all government officials to publicly disclose their assets as a means to stem corruption; this call is widely thought to explain the government’s determination to imprison him. 

Xu is no stranger to government harassment and intimidation. He cut his teeth on legal activism in 2003 by successfully petitioning the Chinese government to abolish the abusive "custody and repatriation" system, which gave police wide powers to arbitrarily arrest and detain any "undesirables" on city streets, particularly migrants. Later that year, Xu co-founded the legal advocacy agency Open Constitution Initiative, better known as "Gong Meng," dedicated to the rule of law and the principles of China’s constitution. In July and August of 2009, police detained Xu for three weeks on trumped-up charges that Gong Meng had evaded tax payments due on a grant from Yale University. Government pressure led to Gong Meng’s closure the same year.

But it was Xu’s focus on official corruption via the New Citizens Movement, an organization he co-founded in May 2012 dedicated to the promotion of civic rights, which appeared to prompt Beijing to attempt to silence him for good. Police detained him in April 2013 and formally arrested him two months later. Xu’s indictment states that in July 2012, he was "the ringleader," who "organized and incited over 100 people to gather in front of the Education Ministry, where they unfurled banners, made a racket, and defied and obstructed public security police officers from enforcing the law, creating serious chaos at that location." The indictment further states that Xu used the issue of "public officials’ asset disclosure" to "organize and orchestrate the gathering of many people in public places," suggesting — in defiance of Article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guaranteeing freedom of association, of procession and of demonstration — that any protest was unlawful.

The plight of Xu — a moderate legal scholar who has devoted his career to working peacefully within the system in an effort to make it fairer and gentler — contrasts starkly to that of Xi, a powerful leader surrounded by associates and relatives who seem to be accumulating wealth beyond their means and stashing it in offshore tax havens. This should be a rude awakening to pundits who have cast Xi as a Chinese leader fundamentally different from his predecessors, a liberalizer who might even have reform "in his genes." Much of that speculation has roots in the reformist record of Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun, a former high-ranking official. And Xi’s charisma and colorful aphorisms provide a stark contrast to the aloofness and empty platitudes of his predecessor Hu Jintao. Indeed, Xi has sought policy reforms that his predecessors were unwilling or unable to risk political capital in pursuing, including moves to abolish the abusive Re-Education Through Labor system and to adjust the so-called One-Child Policy. 

But that progress must be bracketed by the detention and arrest of more than 50 civil society activists across the country since March 2013 in an attempt to reassert control over the acceptable boundaries for civil society activism. In August, Xi’s government launched one of the harshest crackdowns on the Internet in recent years, prompting police to detain hundreds of Internet users for days and the closure of over 100 "illegal" news websites run by citizen journalists. Xu’s prosecution and looming conviction is but another reminder that Xi remains as opposed to the efforts of citizens who question the workings of what for many is an abusive status quo as his predecessors.

Beijing’s victimization of Xu will, in the short-term, send a chill through China’s already cowed and besieged community of human rights defenders and civil society activists, and prompt an already cautious Chinese citizenry to second-guess the already blurred gray lines between acceptable dissent and government perceptions of criminality. 

In the longer term, however, the divide between Xu and Xi is that between competing visions for China’s future — and the imprisoned Xu has not yet lost. President Xi has articulated what he calls a "Chinese dream" in which the government fosters "national rejuvenation for the Chinese people." That vague phrase, implicitly linked to a continuation of the Chinese Communist Party’s 65-year monopoly on power, has been more of a source of confusion than inspiration. Meanwhile, Xu Zhiyong’s vision, contained in a written statement which court officials forbade him from reading in its entirety during his trial, is a more concrete and fulsome one, focusing on individual rights and a government that serves the people.

"What the New Citizens Movement advocates," the statement explains, "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," or "accept mob rule or a position as an underclass." It’s a vision that makes Xu, and the many other Chinese activists with similar beliefs, so frightening to China’s powers-that-be. 

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