A week ago, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker wrote an excellent profile of a man who should be considered a national hero, Xu Zhiyong, who fought for greater government transparency to rein in corruption. I recommend everyone read it to see how this was no ordinary activist, but a courageous reformer whose crime was founding a grass-roots movement to promote citizens’ rights and rule of law.
[In 2009] Xu was known for his work as a legal activist, one who had made the rare choice to push for reform not from outside the system but from deep within it—he ran for, and won, a seat on a local district assembly in Beijing. In his work as a lawyer, he had been honored by the government for investigating contaminated baby formula and helping people who had been locked up by local governments in unofficial jails. In 2002, state television named him one of the “Top Ten Figures in the Rule of Law.” Xu projected a nearly evangelical sense of civic consciousness. In 2007, Susan Jakes, then a reporter for Time , wrote of him, “Xu is probably the person most committed to public service that I’ve met in China, and possibly in my whole life.” It was the kind of story that the Chinese press likes to promote now and then as evidence of the country’s capacity for pluralism within the wider confines of Party rule. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” The Economic Observer, a Beijing-based weekly, quoted him as saying.
As you probably know by now, today Xu, lauded a mere four years ago as a hero, was sentenced to four years in prison for organizing a crowd to disrupt public order. The news just broke, and I can’t find any articles in English yet, but according to several posts on Twitter, Xu said at the trial “this destroys the last remaining dignity of the Chinese legal system.” The sentence, the finale of a mock trial, will send out shock waves to all Chinese reformers. It was inevitable — you don’t get put on trial in China without being found guilty — but it is still a shock. Not a surprise, but a shock, a frightening reminder of just how, for all the new freedoms and rights and openness, there are still fat red lines that must not be crossed, like demanding a crackdown on government corruption. This is meant to cause shock waves, it’s a wake-up call to all activists: kick the hornet’s nest and we will come for you, no matter who you are.
As Osnos writes in his story, the great irony here is that Xi Jinping says one of his top priorities is rooting out government corruption and putting corrupt officials on trial. He is crusading even more zealously, however, for complete control over the flow of information in China, tightening the controls of censorship, especially on the Internet. As Osnos notes, “To tame the unruly power of the Web, the Supreme People’s Court declared that “false defamatory” comments, viewed five thousand times or forwarded five hundred times, could result in a prison sentence of up to three years.”
This story, like that of Liu Xiaobo, will create some international outrage and will reinforce stereotypes of China remaining a prickly authoritarian state that remains terrified of public scrutiny. It won’t matter a bit. This story is for China’s domestic consumption, and sends a clear and powerful message. It’s a tragedy.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.