Since late March, when China’s new president Xi Jinping took power, nearly one hundred Chinese human rights activists have been detained, on charges like “inciting subversion” and “unlawful assembly.” The crackdown reached a new level this month with the detention of Xu Zhiyong, a leading human rights activist, who was detained on July 17 for seeking to “gather people and disrupt social order in a public space.” After Xu was detained, the Transition Institute, an independent think tank that documents social injustice and advocates legal reforms, was shut down. The timing is particularly interesting, as these actions come on the eve of this year’s US–China “human rights dialogue,” which is taking place this week in Kunming.
The reasons for the current repression—the harshest since 2011, when police “disappeared” and tortured dozens of dissidents in a preemptive move against reports of plans for a “Jasmine Revolution”—might seem hard to fathom. Some China watchers have suggested that Xi Jinping and the Communist Party’s other new leaders are more liberal than their predecessors. After all, Xi has talked about his “Chinese dream” that China will “completely respect the constitution,” and Xu Zhiyong and fellow activists in the “New Citizens Movement” are seeking precisely that—to have the Chinese government uphold the rights that are guaranteed in China’s constitution.
Although he did run several times—once successfully—to be a local “people’s representative,” Xu is a soft-spoken intellectual who has pursued legal reform mostly through public discussion and proposing policy changes to the government. He and his colleagues have always treaded carefully, choosing issues that seem relatively apolitical and consistent with the government’s own policies, and that apply broadly to under-privileged groups. In 2003, for example, following the beating death in a “Custody and Repatriation” center of Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker, Xu and two other law students at Peking University wrote to China’s State Council calling for the abolition of these detention centers—and they were, subsequently, abolished. Other causes that Xu has embraced are protecting the rights of the children of migrant workers to go to school, holding officials accountable for food contamination, and exposing “black jails,” extralegal detention facilities that the government claims to be closing down.
In fact, most of the offenses that the recently detained activists are accused of do not seem directly threatening to Beijing: applying for permission to gather to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, uncovering and reporting to police a black jail, unfurling banners urging the government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights, which the government signed fifteen years ago, and protesting an official refusal to let the ten-year-old daughter of a dissident go to school. Perhaps most bizarre, the authorities have detained some of them for calling for an end to corruption in the Communist Party—something Xi Jinping himself has pledged to do under his new leadership. (Where they went too far, apparently, was in demanding that high officials disclose their own personal wealth.)
While the rationale for the current crackdown remains unclear, what all the detained activists seem to have in common is that they are accused of organizing actions that would take place not just in cyberspace but in the physical space of city streets. Chinese leaders always see such public campaigns as an open challenge to their control. They fear that activists are seeking to take China’s rising number of local protests about social and economic problems to another level—turning it into a political movement that could challenge the authoritarian regime.
Several more clues about the detentions can be gleaned from what lawyers and supporters of the activists have said about the police interrogations the activists have been submitted to. The goals of the police, according to these reports, have clearly been to find “behind-the-scenes organizers,” to identify “sources of funding,” and to challenge the legality of acting in groups. Police told one activist that he was detained for his “illegal organization.” But “we were only applying for a legal permit. How could that be a crime?” replied the activist. Another activist, who was detained for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order” asked her interrogators, “How could I have gathered any crowds or disrupt any public order while I was asleep?” The police explained: You joined others in organizing a rally at a trade show in Beijing.
Across China, there are now hundreds of thousands of spontaneous local demonstrations against layoffs, unpaid salaries, land grabbing, and pollution each year. The Chinese government has been unable or unwilling to suppress all of them, but it is determined to prevent the politicizing of these protests through the increasing involvement of rights activists and political dissidents, who live under close police surveillance but pursue their causes largely online.
Xu Zhiyong, who had lived under close surveillance and was frequently summoned to have “tea” with police, is one such activist. He had been under house arrest since the beginning of the current crackdown in early April. When authorities “disappeared” Xu back in 2009, they elicited some international condemnation. This time, authorities may have weighed such unwanted international attention against the threats Xu poses to their rule.
In late June, authorities summoned Xu to a police station and told him they had “evidence” of his “criminal acts,” which included instructing migrant laborers to file complaints to officials about the exclusion of their children from public schools, urging citizens to exercise their constitutional rights, and organizing a petition demanding that top officials disclose their financial assets. In a note that Xu was able to get out to his friends after the questioning but before his detention, he said the police said they would not detain him if he pledged to “give up on his citizens’ activities” and “love the Party.” Xu declined the offer. Twenty days later he was detained.
China’s rulers have always been nervous when others draw attention to disadvantaged Chinese, because the causes of their plight can often be traced to Beijing. The problem of denying education to the children of migrant workers, for example, has its roots in the Communists’ discriminatory system of household registry (hukou), which privileges officially recognized urban residents. This is a primary reason for China’s rapidly expanding social and economic disparities, which, in turn, contribute to the growing unrest in the country. Xu Zhiyong’s note to his friends reports that he made this point to his interrogators:
“Do you really believe that you can maintain social stability while you suppress calls for equal rights to education? What do you think the children of eight million migrants will do after they realize their futures have been ruined by discrimination?”
Concerning the problem of corruption, Xu’s interrogators tried to get him to acknowledge that the Party was heading in the right direction. Xu conceded that fighting corruption is good, but insisted that “the problem is the system.” It is impossible to end corruption, he said, in a system in which all the power is controlled by one political party—including the press, the courts, the schools, and the economy.
Party leaders today no doubt see Xu’s point. But in a sense they are trapped. Truly ending corruption would require scrapping one-party rule, and they cannot do that. Their power would perish with it, and maintaining power is the Party’s overriding aim.
So what can Xi Jinping do? He can “oppose corruption,” but in reality he is really serving two other purposes. One is to placate popular anger—showing the people that “we are on your side in wanting to end it”; the other is to provide a pretext to purge political rivals, as for example Bo Xilai, the deposed Party Secretary of Chongqing.
But what about activists like Xu Zhiyong and others who want a real end to corruption? The urgency with which the Chinese government is now moving to repress them is a good measure of the activists’ strength. Organized public actions were rare even a few years ago, and the men who rule China now regard activists like Xu Zhiyong, who are highly educated, well-versed in Chinese law, and adept at using social media, as a serious threat. Xu’s police interrogators told him that they watched his “New Citizens’ Movement” swell to several thousand members in just a few months. “If we don’t put a stop to this immediately, it will bring chaos and instability all over the country,” they said.
The crackdown poses a further challenge to the Obama administration as it confronts the many human rights violations in China. The Chinese government has already taken advantage of the US’s awkward situation because of the Snowden affair. It has been more defiant when the US criticizes the Chinese government’s behavior toward its citizens. But the recent detentions in China are a disturbing reminder that the new leaders are walking the old road of abusing the basic rights that the government grants its citizens on paper. If the US does not take up these issues at this week’s bilateral human rights talk, it will be vulnerable to the criticism that these “dialogues” are empty exercises. In Kunming, the US should identify some concrete steps for progress. Persuading the Chinese government to release prisoners of conscience, including the recently detained civil-society organizers, should be among them.