Why is the Chinese Communist Party so afraid of legal activist Xu Zhiyong? 

Getty Images
Getty Images

On Jan. 22, Xu Zhiyong, co-founder of the New Citizens’ Movement, went on trial in a Beijing court on the charge of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place"; on Jan. 26, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. The conviction relates to activities organized by Xu and other Chinese civil rights defenders to demand fair education opportunities for children of migrant workers and asset disclosure by government cadres. That might not sound like revolutionary behavior — but it may have been the final straw in convincing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that Xu constituted a clear and present danger to its authority.

Since Xu was detained in July 2013, his case has received extensive international media coverage. In the majority of reports, Xu is described as a "legal scholar," "legal activist," "rights advocate," or "rights lawyer" — not a "dissident." That may be because Xu has always insisted that he is a "peaceful reformer" who does not espouse radical action to bring about rapid political and social change. As Xu emphasized in his final statement in court, he and fellow rights advocates have been "moderate and reasonable" in their approach. In demanding asset disclosure by officials, for instance, they avoided organizing large crowds, choosing instead flash mob-style actions that only involved a small number of participants, as they believe that "reform requires stability and social progress needs to advance gradually." 

But despite Xu’s efforts, it is hard to imagine that the Chinese authorities view him as anything other than a diehard dissident. Some well-connected Beijingers believe that party leaders think Xu and his fellow activists in the New Citizens Movement had formed an "anti-CCP clique" — a very serious charge.  and have decided they therefore do not deserve lenient treatment. 

If this rumor is true, it should not surprise anybody with basic knowledge of the rules of the Chinese political game. Chinese civil society actors have long known there are three red lines they mustn’t cross if they don’t want to end up on Beijing’s list of troublemakers. The first is between the political and the non-political: If the issues they engage with are political in nature, civil society actors must find ways to depoliticize them and present them as technical issues instead. The second line is between national and local: Any attempt to establish cross-regional organizations or movements must be strictly avoided. Everything must be kept localized and uncoordinated with activities in other locations. The third is street campaigns. Criticizing the authorities in conference rooms, advocacy reports, or on the web is one thing. Once critics take to the street, it’s a different ballgame. 

Staying away from these red lines doesn’t guarantee that civil society activities will be free from government intervention or harassment. But the consequences of crossing them is usually much worse. Xu and his fellow campaigners stepped beyond all three.

In his May 2012 essay "New Citizens’ Movement," Xu was clear about the movement’s true nature. The essay’s opening line calls it "a political movement," one where "this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance." Xu called on Chinese citizens all over the country to participate in the movement by organizing regular meals to meet like-minded people living in the same cities to discuss the current political situation. "Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance," the essay read. The campaign has reportedly attracted 5,000 supporters across China. So much for the first two red lines. 

Xu and his friends refrained from mobilizing large-scale street rallies — but they did organize activities in public venues, which facilitated the criminal charge of "disrupting order in public places," justified or not. That stepped beyond the third unspoken line the Communist Party has drawn in the sand.

Making things worse in the eyes of party authorities, movement advocates campaigned on the issue of asset transparency of government officials, one that resonates deeply with the Chinese public, as rampant corruption fans mounting anger. The authorities may think that Xu and other members deliberately made this issue the centerpiece of their campaign, in an effort to gain maximum popularity for their movement and cause maximum embarrassment to the party.

In short, Xu may be a moderate in his own estimate, but he and fellow activists almost certainly knew the party would see them as mounting a direct challenge to the existing political system. Those who know Xu have not accused him of naïveté, so observers have offered various speculations as to what prompted him to stride across the party’s tripwires. Some international media reports have suggested that after China’s new leaders took office in late 2012, promising to deepen reform, attack corruption, and promote the rule of law, Xu and other members of the movement became emboldened and decided to test the new leadership’s tolerance for grassroots political activism. If indeed they felt the time was ripe for a courageous move, they were also surely aware of the great risks it entailed.

The sentencing of Xu — and the crushing of the New Citizens Movement that it represents — does not necessarily mean that the new leadership will not contemplate any political reform. But the party will not allow any outside force to dictate reform’s timing, pace, or agenda; if reform happens, it will be from the top down. The party is convinced that the day that grassroots political movements born without party blessing can flourish is the day when it loses full control of the country’s political process.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola