Officials Detain Xu Zhiyong Amidst a Crackdown on Individuals Calling for Greater Government Accountability

August 1, 2013

Authorities detained prominent law scholar and civic advocate Xu Zhiyong amidst a crackdown on activists, lawyers, and other Chinese citizens some have stated is the most widespread in recent years. According to reports, Xu and other individuals detained had publicly advocated for greater government accountability and transparency, specifically on issues of corruption and the disclosure of government officials' assets.  The escalating crackdown has called into question the extent to which China's leaders are committed to fulfilling pledges on political and institutional reform.

On July 16, 2013, public security officials from Beijing municipality's traffic security division criminally detained prominent law scholar and civic rights advocate Xu Zhiyong on suspicion of "gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place" (Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), 17 July 13; Human Rights in China (HRIC), 16 July 13). For more than a decade, Xu has been involved in rights advocacy as a legal counsel, law lecturer, and independently elected People's Congress deputy for the Haidian district of Beijing (Economic Observer, 13 November 08; China Daily, 17 December 03). Authorities reportedly refused on two separate occasions to allow Xu's lawyer, Liu Weiguo, to visit with him in detention, detaining Liu at one point for six hours, in violation of the PRC Criminal Procedure Law (art. 37), which guarantees the right of a lawyer to meet with a defendant in custody (HRIC, 22 July 13). According to human rights organizations and Chinese activists familiar with Xu's case, authorities detained Xu in connection to his anti-corruption advocacy and calls for public disclosure of government officials' assets, as well as his involvement in the "New Citizens' Movement," a loose affiliation of Chinese citizens who have advocated for social justice and rule of law reforms (CHRD,17 July 13; HRIC, 23 July 13).

Xu's detention is one of a series of actions authorities have taken against him in 2013. According to Xu's April 12, 2013, blog post, police prevented him from taking a flight to Hong Kong on April 12 to attend a legal symposium, detaining him at the Beijing International Airport and returning him to his university, the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (Xu Zhiyong: On the New Citizens’ Movement, 12 April 13, via China Digital Times, 13 May 13). Xu was subsequently informed by university officials upon his return that his salary had been suspended in March. Security officials also interrogated Xu that same day over his activism related to education equality and financial disclosure, as well as his research on black jails and encouragement of informal citizen dinners linked to the New Citizens' Movement. According to Xu's wife, Xu had been held "under informal house arrest for more than three months" prior to his July 16 detention (New York Times, 17 July 13).

Xu's detention takes place amidst a larger crackdown authorities have engaged in since March 2013 against activists, lawyers, and other citizens advocating for greater government accountability and transparency. A July 17, 2013, report by CHRD, confirmed that 26 individuals have been criminally detained as of July 18 in Beijing municipality and the provinces of Jiangxi, Hubei, and Guangdong, among whom 16 have been formally charged and arrested. According to CHRD, "more activists and lawyers [have been] criminally detained in this particular crackdown than in any other in recent years," (CHRD, 17 July 13). Human rights organizations report that a number of the individuals detained had been publically advocating for government action on issues including enforcing China's Constitution and laws, public disclosure of government officials' assets, and ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while others had engaged in public advocacy aimed at educating citizens on the ideas of democracy and the rule of law, and encouraging civic activism. According to CHRD, many of the detained individuals are associated or have identified themselves with the New Citizens' Movement.

Chinese authorities' actions against Xu Zhiyong and other individuals advocating for greater government accountability and transparency contravene protections under China's Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantee the rights to free expression, association, and assembly. In addition, the escalating crackdown has called into question the extent to which China's leaders are committed to political and institutional reform. Following a leadership transition in the Party and government in late 2012 and early 2013, top Chinese officials have emphasized rule of law principles and pledged to strengthen anti-corruption efforts (Xinhua, 17 April 13; Guardian, 17 March 13). In a January 2013 speech addressing corruption, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping stated that those in power should "be accountable to the people and consciously accept supervision by the people," pledging to further strengthen "restraint and supervision on the use of power" (Xinhua, 22 January 13). At the same time, scholars and activists have claimed the detention of individuals like Xu Zhiyong and others who have been calling for greater government accountability contradicts official calls for reform, with some further arguing that official actions demonstrate a clear aversion to adopting institutional changes that would guarantee true accountability (ChinaFile, 18 July 13; New York Review of Books, 29 July 13).