Xu Zhiyong’s arrest: How far backwards can China go?

If I looked at the news out of China today and saw good things I’d perhaps put up positive posts, provided i felt I had anything useful to add. But looking at the news today, and over the past several days, I see really bad news, to the point of alarming. Arresting good people on trumped-up charges and holding them in secret places and giving them obscene sentences has been an ongoing topic here for many years. But usually these are isolated instances. Shi Tao. Zhao Yan. Hu Jia. Aside from the typical pre-party congress and pre-Tiananmen anniversary sweeps, we don’t often see a calculated nationwide roundup of innocent Chinese citizens the government sees as potential threats.

We’re seeing it now, and it looks like another huge leap backwards. While the Chinese media spew forth one story after another on the need for greater rule of law, fair representation, no arrests without transparent processes, etc., the government that supports these media is going in the exact opposite direction, reminding us that absolutely no one on Chinese soil is safe. As Evan Osnos in an excellent post makes clear, even the best and brightest are at risk.

Imagine, for a moment, how it might sound to turn on the news one day and hear that the head of the A.C.L.U. had vanished from his home in the predawn hours. Or, think how America might be different today if a pesky young Thurgood Marshall had been silenced using an obscure tax rule and kept out of the courts.

At around 5 A.M. on Wednesday, Chinese authorities visited the home of Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal scholar and elected legislator in Beijing, and led him away. He has not been heard from again. Unless something changes, he is likely to stay away for a long time, with or without formal charges. Anyone with an interest in China, its economy, its place in the world, or the kind of future it will fashion, please take note: This is a big deal.

Xu might not have reached Marshall status yet, but he is as close as China gets to a public-interest icon. He teaches law at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. He has also run the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research organization that worked on many of China’s path-breaking cases. He and his colleagues had investigated the Sanlu milk scandal, in which dangerous baby formula harmed children’s health, and assisted people who had been locked up by local officials in secret undeclared jails. All of those activities are emphatically consistent with the goals of the Chinese government, even if they angered the local bureaucrats who were caught in the act.

Xu has never set out to undermine one-party rule; he is enforcing rights guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution. He has enough faith in the system that he joined it: in 2003, he ran for and won a seat as a legislator in his local district assembly, one of the few independent candidates to be elected in an open, contested election. He even received the recognition, rare among activists, of being profiled last year in a Chinese newspaper. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” he said at the time.

As Osnos goes on to say, few in China have done more for the good of the general public than Xu. He urges the government to release him “before the full bureaucracy gets too much invested in holding him, but time is limited. China deserves better than this kind of behavior.”

Does it really all go back to the October beauty pageant? We just saw the 20th anniversary of the CCP’s greatest source of insecurity and paranoia, and the actions taken in the months prior seem relatively lame compared to the 60th anniversary. My own site pumped out posts about June 4 for weeks before the anniversary, and for five days following. (The ax didn’t fall until June 9 for reasons I still don’t understand and probably never will.) And the detentions at the time seemed at least explainable – the usual suspects who get detained every year. This seems different. They are going after people who are heroes to many in China. Even a defender of the rights of marginalized citizens.

This nacht und nebel approach makes China look absolutely atrocious. People like me who have tried to seek out the positive achievements the party has made in order to provide a fair picture of China today have no choice but to express deep criticism (and that’s a wonderful link).

The lives of your average citizens in China have become so much freer and more open in recent years, and criticism of the government has become so much more accepted and even expected (within the usual constraints, of course) that what we’re seeing now can only be described as a tragedy. Will they take advantage of the very small window of opportunity they still have and show that they are capable of living up to their own doctrines of rule of law? I hope so. But I seriously doubt it. With a few minor exceptions, China has consistently disappointed us when it comes to its treatment of high-profile cases of alleged “dissidents.” It’s their choice. They are on the verge of an unprecedented drop in goodwill.

Update: See this outstanding piece by Isabel Hilton on how China’s formula – “if repression doesn’t work, add more repression” – illustrates the country’s political malaise, and could ultimately lead to implosion. I am not willing to go that far (yet). But we’ll be hearing a lot more about this if China keeps adding fuel to the fire. Hilton includes a beautiful quote from Xu after the closure of his NGO:

“It’s not us causing trouble, and the tens of thousands of mass incidents every year aren’t caused by us …. On the contrary, we strive to bring into line the contradictions caused by corrupt officials, we advocate absolute nonviolence and we hope we can ameliorate some of the endless hate and conflicts in our society… do not let this country once more be dragged by those in power to a place where we are dead but not buried.

Why have we been targeted with this retribution? Because we have an awe-inspiring righteousness, because we advocate for better politics, because our dreams are too beautiful, because we as a people have never given up hope, because no matter what befalls, our hearts are always full of the sunlight of hope.

…I am a poor man, so poor that all I have left are my beliefs. Great leaders, can I give you a little bit of my belief? You should be needing these beliefs and you should, like me, have the ability to show compassion, compassion to see the restless souls disturbed by evil spirits.”

Will the “great leaders” listen? I’m skeptical.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

This is truly terrible.

I have had a bad feeling lately, about the direction things are going in in China. Which, when I read things like this, seems to be backward. The fact that blogging platforms and social network sites have been shut down really concerned me before – it’s all about limiting the means for people to organize independently of the government. Now this. As you said, this is several steps more serious than what happened before the Olympics or the June anniversary.

August 1, 2009 @ 5:54 am | Comment

Nice piece Richard. Glad to see you got your fastball back.

August 1, 2009 @ 6:00 am | Comment

As always, I just want to know what their strategy is. Are people like Xu such a threat that they merit risking the reputation Hu has been striving so diligently to build up? (I know the answer already.) It’s so George Bush, squandering the opportunities in front of you and spoiling all the goodwill at your disposal. I can’t imagine how they could hurt their image more than going after these people, just as they are conducting a wave of coverage demanding greater transparency and accountability. Can they get any more ironic?

August 1, 2009 @ 6:02 am | Comment

Jeremiah, good to see you. I was ready to put up some posts about positive signs in China’s economy, and then I saw what they were up to, arresting and persecuting good people. Their choice; this is what the world will hear about and it will drown out everything positive they are hoping to tell us. As it should.

August 1, 2009 @ 6:07 am | Comment

Imagine, for a moment, how it might sound to turn on the news one day and hear that the head of the A.C.L.U. had vanished from his home in the predawn hours. Or, think how America might be different today if a pesky young Thurgood Marshall had been silenced using an obscure tax rule and kept out of the courts.

Stop joking me. The FBI had a “file” and surveyed the phones and read the letters of many famous civil rights activists and leftist and “Communist sympathizers” in the 50,60,70,80,90, and probably today. Remember Martin Luther King?

Only difference is, FBI is better at keeping those things secret, who knows what really happened to Doctor King.

Please, do not be hypocritical.

August 1, 2009 @ 7:01 am | Comment

Hoover’s secret files are one thing, and something I don’t particularly like. But if people in America were randomly arrested simply for criticizing the government, there would be anarchy, no faith in the government. It doesn’t happen, or else the US government’s critics – people like me – would be behind bars. Americans are very big on First Amendment rights, a major reason for the disgrace of the Bush administration and the objections to Cheney & Co.

If you think the FBI killed King, fine. The US government has killed people before or at least backed people like Pinochet who did the killing. Unlike China, we have a free media that reported on the covert involvement in Chile, for example, practically in real time. This helps keep government abuse of power (an inevitability with every government) contained, as does the ability to sue and/or prosecute our leaders. It was a lawsuit against Bill Clinton that led to his impeachment. Can you imagine a citizen filing a suit against Hu, and the party officials agreeing to impeachment hearings?

But I don’t know why I am bothering to explain or argue with you. I think you’re our friend Hong Xing, and if not you’re a clone. We all know where this conversation will go. (“The Indians..the slaves…Kent State.”)

August 1, 2009 @ 7:20 am | Comment

Yes, Hongqi, we know. America bad. Anything else?

August 1, 2009 @ 7:52 am | Comment

and as a p.s., though as Richard notes, why am I bothering to point this out…Richard has, and I have, written many many critical posts about the actions of the American government – in my case, more than I’ve ever written about China (I’m guessing the same would apply n Richard’s case as well). See, it doesn’t matter who does bad things, they are still…bad.

And this is bad. Stupid, counterproductive and a real step backward for China.

August 1, 2009 @ 7:55 am | Comment

please someone enlighten me, why our great leaders have to do this? what they could gain from this, there must be something…they don’t look all unreasonable and lunatic to me, or they can become ones if national day comes soon??

August 1, 2009 @ 7:42 pm | Comment


Answer. They are not great leaders.

Trust me, I lived through a transition, and know it quite well what is needed.

Someone asked my father how was is possible, his answer: they had greatness (grandeza)
The people from both sides who made it possible had it. They put the country and the people before themselves, even before their believes or before what they bitterly fought.

We were lucky then to have the right persons, or at least good enough ones, great enough. From the left to the right.

Something CH with all its opportunities it had during the last years, seems to be lacking.

Better luck one day?

August 1, 2009 @ 11:56 pm | Comment

ecodelta is right. Unfortunately these people are not great leaders.

Each generation appoints like-minded successors, and even if there are factions in the CCP who condemn these sorts of actions they’ve never had the influence (or been willing to use it) to change policy or bring in leaders with different ideas.

I think the last great leader China had was Zhao Ziyang. He was far from perfect, but at least after his time under house arrest he understood that the nation needed real political reform. If only he’d been able to return to politics…

August 2, 2009 @ 6:22 am | Comment

Oh, richard, thanks for blogging on this btw.

August 2, 2009 @ 6:23 am | Comment

Yeah, great leaders, if only we could all have one or two. The ultra-nationalist Chinese wave their flags and drink the tea (kool-ade just didn’t sound right), but the reality is that Hu, Wen and the rest of the CCP cronies only have one ideal in mind: self-preservation at all costs. Who pays for their single-minded strategy? The Chinese people, of course. The harmonious society reminds of me of Eden where Adam and Eve have no cares and no awareness, their only potential sin is to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge. The Chinese are supposed to be good little citizen machines, living in one unquestioning, ignorant bliss as long as growth and prosperity continue. Yet if they dare to question, explore or criticize they are considered a threat to the “country.”

August 3, 2009 @ 10:19 am | Comment

…not to the country… to them.

One question in my mind, where does the perversity really lies, on the people or in the system itself.

Even those working from within the system to make it more rational/humane may be thwarted by the system own dynamic. The moment one movement is done in one direction a counter movement is triggered. A vicious circle.

A reflection of the military-industrial complex advanced by Ike translated to China?

In the long run I don’t consider it sustainable. What can be achieved by a system that crush the very best people they have? Eventually it will reach stagnation.
If they were alone in the world it would matter much, but there is a world outside moving even faster forward. That is reason almost all totalitarian systems, from left to right, try to close th world oustide.

I remember when I commented my believes that the URSS+Satellites were in a dead end and would eventually collapsed. In the early 80s.
My leftist friends laughed at me. I even was lectured by an economic professor about the superiority of centralized run/command economy.

How times change…

August 3, 2009 @ 2:20 pm | Comment

I do not see the fall of the CCP leadership as inevitable, or the current Chinese political system as one which it is impossible to reform into something less dictatorial. That said, the leadership does not want political reform, has not instituted any meaningful reform since the 1982 constitution (which was itself in many ways less liberal than the 1978 one), and will continue to try to stave off political reform for as long as it can.

China’s GDP is now roughly twice what it was when I first arrived in mainland China in 2003, but political freedoms have not increased one iota. When it comes to the issue of their continued rule China’s leaders are little better than a grisly gang of crooks whose last innovator died in 1997.

August 4, 2009 @ 12:55 am | Comment

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