Thursday, 23 January 2014

Fighting Words

Xu wants to create a more just society in China... what's wrong with that?
Xu Zhiyong is an activist lawyer and academic who is considered to be the leader of the New Citizens' Movement. In 2012 he wrote the movement sought "to completely destroy the privileges of corruption, the abuse of power, the gap between rich and poor and to construct a new order of fairness and justice".

The group called for the end of corruption, which is also in line with what Chinese President Xi Jinping is doing with his current campaign, but the leadership was not happy that this grassroots organization was advocating this and promptly arrested Xu.

He was put on trial yesterday without specific charges -- and no foreign media nor diplomats allowed in. As a result, Xu and his lawyers felt the proceedings were not open nor just, so they refused to speak in court.

Xu's lawyer said his client tried to read out a statement that spelled out his ideas of "liberty, justice and love", but was cut off by court officials after 10 minutes after he asked why China did not follow the practices of other countries having officials declare their assets.

His full statement was made available online, in which he questioned whether the authorities took citizens' constitutional rights seriously and said they had "deep fears" of public trials and "the looming free society".

Six other activists were also put on trial today and Xu added in his statement that the others were not guilty because they were pushing for democracy and the rule of law, and that he was willing to pay a price for his ideals.

There's no verdict yet in Xu's trial, but it is expected he and the others will be found guilty of the alleged crime of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place".

The thing is, 40-year-old Xu is anything but a radical. He is a soft spoken, rational person who has thought a lot about what is wrong about China and wants to fix it in a logical way -- on a case-by-case basis.

Born in central China's Henan province, Xu was 14 years old when he decided "to be a worthy Chinese citizen, a member of the group of people who promote the progress of the nation", he said in 2008. "I want to make people believe in ideals and justice, and help them see the hope of change."

He studied law at Lanzhou University in Gansu province and then later at Peking University. He then became a law lecturer at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.

In recent years he has tried to help many people, such as doing pro bono work in 2009 for families who were affected by the melamine milk scandal, and he was beaten for trying to visit blind activist Chen Guangcheng who was under house arrest.

He and a group of legal scholars started the Open Constitution Initiative in 2003, a grassroots organization promoting rule of law and constitutionalism. However, the authorities tried to shut down OCI by slapping it with a massive tax bill (claiming its donations were from overseas and should be taxed), and declared the group illegal. Xu was arrested but then released a month later after international outcry.

By arresting Xu and putting him and others on trial this week show the government's paranoia in grassroots groups that are pushing for rule of law and more openness, and is trying to squash the New Citizens' Movement.

Conversely by trying to destroy this group, other Chinese have taken an interest in New Citizens' Movement -- because if the government doesn't like it, the group must be doing something right.

So if and when Xu gets locked up behind bars, there is hope others will pick up the mantle and continue spreading his words behind the New Citizens' Movement. All he wants is for people to be more aware of their rights, as well as their right to protect their rights.

They shouldn't have to fight for rights that are inherent... but in China it's an ongoing battle between the state and the individual.

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