China: Free Prominent Legal Advocate


A demonstrator raises a poster of Xu Zhiyong during a protest against his sentencing, Hong Kong, January 27, 2014.


© 2014 AP Photo

(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately and unconditionally release a well-known anti-corruption activist who had eluded arrest after a new government crackdown on rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 15, 2020, authorities in Guangzhou apprehended Xu Zhiyong at a friend’s home where he had gone after authorities in December detained participants of a gathering on human rights in Fujian province.

Xu, 46, is one of China’s most prominent activists and human rights advocates. He was a co-founder of the now-banned legal aid center Open Constitution Initiative and the New Citizens’ Movement, a nongovernmental group advocating for civil rights.

“President Xi Jinping claims the government is ‘open’ and ‘transparent,’ but the authorities have without basis detained one of the country’s best-known anti-corruption advocates,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of arbitrarily detaining Xu Zhiyong and other human rights activists, the Chinse government should listen to what they have to say.”

In late December 2019, police across the country began to detain participants of a December 7 and 8 gathering in Xiamen, Fujian province, where they discussed human rights and China’s political future. On December 26, in what has become known as the 12.26 crackdown, authorities detained prominent human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, scholar Zhang Zhongshun, and activists Dai Zhenya and Li Yingjun. Since then, Xu had been traveling to different cities, updating his Twitter account, and criticizing the government’s authoritarian rule and its mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak.

It is unclear what charges authorities might bring against Xu. Police had accused the four men detained in December of “inciting subversion” – a crime that carries up to 15 years in prison – and placed them under “residential surveillance in a designated location,” a form of enforced disappearance in which police can hold individuals in undisclosed locations for up to six months. This places them outside the formal detention system, denying them access to legal counsel and family members, and increasing the risk of torture and ill-treatment.

Hours after the police took Xu away, his girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based women’s rights and labor rights activist, also went missing. In January 2020, Beijing police searched Xu’s home, detained Li for 24 hours, and denied her adequate medicine in the detention center.

A former lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, Xu has long advocated for legal reform and equal rights. In 2003, he achieved national attention when his joint petition to the National People’s Congress led to the abolition of the administrative detention system called “custody and repatriation.” That year, he was named by the state broadcaster CCTV as one of the “top 10 rule of law figures” in China.

In 2009, Xu was forced to disband the Open Constitution Initiative, the legal aid center he helped set up, after police detained him and a co-worker in a trumped-up case of tax evasion. From 2014 to 2018, Xu served four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” after a series of small-scale protests by members of the nongovernmental New Citizens’ Movement, an initiative he cofounded in 2012 to develop civil society in China within the confines of the one-party political system.

“Once again, Xu Zhiyong has been detained despite breaking no laws, simply for advocating rights-respecting policies,” Wang said. “Governments are increasingly recognizing that they pay a price for Beijing’s hostility toward peaceful criticism, and should press China to release Xu immediately.”