Sunday, 26 January 2014

Trying to Crush Civil Society

Xu Zhiyong on the cover of Esquire in 2009
We are not surprised but very disappointed to see Chinese President Xi Jinping crushing any kind of development of civil society.

This morning lawyer Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in prison for "gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place".

His crime? Calling for transparency and accountability of the Chinese government, that the country should be governed by rule of law.

The government likes to say that is is, and hopes the more times it says it, the more it becomes fact.

But the government's claims are far from the reality.

In fact Xu's own case was hardly an exercise in the rule of law.

His lawyers were not allowed to cross examine the prosecutor's witnesses, who only had to give written testimony and not appear in court;

His lawyers were not allowed to bring in their own witnesses; and they unsuccessfully challenged the legality of holding separate trials for Xu and the other activists, as it would have helped them in their defense.

As a result Xu and his lawyers did not speak during the one-day trial and in the end he tried to read out a manifesto calling for democratic change, freedom of speech and rule of law. After 10 minutes he was cut off by the judge, but the entire speech was put online.

After the verdict was read out and Xu said, "The court today has completely destroyed what remained of respect for rule of law in China," according to his lawyer Zhang Qingfang.

There is no rest for the wicked because the Chinese government has arrested another mild-mannered, rational activist, a Uighur professor by the name of Ilham Tohti.

Ilham Tohti lecturing to students in 2009
The authorities have accused him separatism and inciting ethnic hatred, and to indite him further, have suggested he has links to the terrorist group ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement).

Tohti has been detained since January 15 when he was escorted out of his apartment on the campus of Minzu University of China by police. They took some 15 bags of documents, computers and cell phones while his wife and two children watched.

The Urumqi State Bureau of Security accuses the academic of inciting violence against the Chinese authorities and recruiting people to join the movement for an independent East Turkestan nation.

"Ilham Tohti exploited his status as a teacher to recruit, entice and coerce people to form gangs, and to collude with 'East Turkestan' leaders in planning, organizing and assigning people to go abroad to join in separatist activities," the statement said.

However, interviews with Tohti and his writings couldn't be further from these claims.

Ever since the Urumqi riots in 2009 that claimed almost 200 lives, he has been trying to explain that Uighurs feel repressed thanks to pro-Han Chinese policies in Xinjiang. Much of Tohti's academic work is about the high unemployment of young Uighurs who cannot compete for jobs with Han Chinese migrants.

He was advocating that the Chinese government revisit its economic policies in Xinjiang as well as its heavy-handed presence there.

But there continue to be eruptions of violence -- though we are not quite sure to what extent because foreign journalists are not allowed in the area. We are dependent on Xinhua reports that are not always accurate or spin a news story into opinion...

Officials say last Friday 12 people were killed in a town near Xinjiang's border with Kyrgyzstan in a clash involving explosive devices. State-run media said police shot six people in Aksu prefecture and six others died from three explosions with no further details.

Exile Uighur groups claim the clashes are caused by aggressive police tactics, while the police describe them as "terrorists" armed with knives and farming tools.

Tohti, who is fluent in both Mandarin and Uighur, has been trying to be the voice of reason, the middleman who is trying to diffuse the tensions between the two ethnic groups.

But the government deems him as unacceptable and in fact wants to brand him a terrorist.

What has he done wrong? What has Xu Zhiyong done wrong?

Both are trying to gently push the government in a direction towards greater harmony and less tensions, but yet the authorities see these two as a threat.

At this rate the hope for a flourishing civil society has been set back for the next few years. Meanwhile Xi's main goals are to further consolidate his power and the power of the Party.

Rule of law has become a metaphor for what the Party wants, not the People.

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