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Lawsuit looms after seaside rally of Chinese activists

By The Bharat Express News

January 9, 2022

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 this 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,

according to two indictments. Police and prosecutors used the weekend’s meeting to strike a hammer at China’s embattled “rights” 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 stringent network of surveillance, house arrest, detentions and trials.

“It shows how terrified they are even of small buds of Chinese citizen consciousness and civil society,” Liu Sifang, teacher and amateur musician who attended the rally, said in an interview in Los Angeles, where he said. lives now. 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.

“They don’t want to allow these shoots to survive,” Liu said, “so our little rally was treated as a big political incident.”

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, Liu said, most believed it might lead to brief detention and severe interrogation by the police officers assigned to monitor 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.

Xu, 48, and Ding, 54, both told lawyers that they had done nothing illegal, but face prison terms of 10 years or more if a party-controlled court. condemns, 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.

Although Western governments have focused on the massive detentions of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, the lawsuits against Xu and 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 convention later this year, when Xi is set to get another five-year term as supreme leader.

Liu Sifang at his home in Los Angeles on January 5. | ALLISON ZAUCHA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

“He and Xu Zhiyong were so confident,” said Ding’s wife Sophie Luo, who lives in the United States and has campaigned for their release. “It’s their faith and also their weakness, I would say. They think history is heading for democracy and freedom.

By the time Xi came to power in late 2012, Xu had already spent a decade as one of China’s best-known human rights defenders.

Xu sometimes noted with a smile that his hometown 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.

“We have to find a way to develop the political forces that exist outside the system,” he wrote in “A Beautiful China,” 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, Ding, an engineer turned successful commercial lawyer, joined the cause.

He and Xu turned to the promotion of a “new citizens’ movement”, which encouraged the Chinese people to exercise the rights given lip service in the Chinese constitution: to association, to freedom of expression and the voice of the government. Xu was the cause theorist, while Ding tended to focus on meeting supporters.

Ding and Xu seemed to hope at first that 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 Xu was sentenced to four years in prison and 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, Xu and Ding quietly reconnected with supporters. Even as Xi tightened political controls, Xu and Ding appeared hopeful that the party government was more fragile than many foreigners believed.

“They just wanted to keep the movement alive,” Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer and longtime friend of Xu’s, said in a telephone interview.

“They knew the risk was higher than before,” said Teng, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. “But they didn’t expect it would lead to a huge crackdown.”

In 2018, Xu, 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 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 Ding, who later told his lawyer that investigators forced him to stay awake by constantly showing him a beloved documentary about the Chinese leader, Xi, at breathtaking volume for 10 days and 10 nights.

Xu went into hiding for a while, sheltered by a former prosecutor from southern China.

At that time, the COVID-19 epidemic was spreading across China, sparking anger that the government did not act sooner to quell the infections. From underground, Xu issued a letter urging Xi to resign, arguing that he was trying to “defy the mainstream of history.”

He was arrested in mid-February 2020. His girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, who spoke about 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-19, 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 Xu remains adamant as he awaits trial in Shandong Province, said Liang Xiaojun, who was one of Xu’s attorneys until Chinese authorities kick him out of the bar, citing his comments on politics and rights. humans.

“He has the demeanor of a revolutionary – that he cannot envision anything other than building a beautiful China,” Liang said of his last meeting with Xu at the end of November. Yet Liang added, “If they had thought the consequences would be so severe, I don’t think they would have held this meeting. “

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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