New York Times – HONG KONG — The police in Beijing have detained one of China’s most prominent rights advocates, the latest in a series of arrests that critics said showed the Communist Party’s determination to silence campaigners who have challenged the party to act on its vows to expose official corruption and respect rule of law.
The rights advocate, Xu Zhiyong, was held by the public transportation police on Tuesday on charges of “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” although he has been under informal house arrest for more than three months, his wife, Cui Zheng, confirmed by telephone on Wednesday. Liu Weiguo, a lawyer whom Mr. Xu had earlier asked to represent him, said he was baffled that Mr. Xu, a legal scholar accustomed to police pressure, could be accused of thwarting his guards and starting a public ruckus.
“As I understand it, he’s been under house arrest for 70 or 80 days or longer, so how could it be possible for him to engage in so-called disruption of public order? It’s mystifying,” Mr. Liu said. He said he hoped to meet Mr. Xu on Thursday to clarify the accusations, which, if taken to trial, can bring a maximum penalty of five years in prison. “Many of his friends feel shocked that someone as mild, restrained and softly spoken as him can’t be tolerated,” Mr. Liu said.
If Mr. Xu is held for long, supporters said that his case was likely to attract wider attention as a test of China’s beleaguered “rights defense” movement, which he helped build. That loose network of lawyers, scholars and advocates has sought to use litigation, publicity and petitions to secure political and social rights. Recently, Mr. Xu has promoted a “New Citizens’ Movement” demanding that officials disclose their wealth; other participants in that campaign have been arrested and some may soon stand trial.
“To arrest someone like him will have a big social impact and impose a heavy price on the authorities, especially if he’s tried and convicted, and that seems possible,” said Guo Yushan, a longtime friend of Mr. Xu, and an early collaborator in his rights efforts.
“He’s been a moderate, arguing for opportunities to work for change within the system,” said Mr. Guo, the head of the Transition Institute, a research group in Beijing that advocates political and economic liberalization. “But it looks like the authorities are determined to act, despite the price. We can all feel the pressure. I’ve also been under house arrest for the past two weeks.”
Mr. Xu’s supporters said his detention was reprisal for his role in the campaign demanding that officials disclose their wealth, an idea that some officials have also endorsed, albeit in more cautious terms. The Chinese authorities have now detained 16 people involved in the campaign, including Mr. Xu, said Maya Wang, a researcher on Asia for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group with headquarters in New York. Three of them could soon stand trial in Jiangxi Province in southern China, she said, citing earlier court notices.
“Civic groups are enduring another round of repression, but still more and more obedient vassals are awakening as citizens,” Mr. Xu wrote in an assessment of his career of activism, which he published on his blog in May.
Since his appointment as Communist Party leader in November, Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that the party must eradicate brazen corruption, which has stirred deepening public anger. But Ms. Wang, the rights researcher, said the detentions have demonstrated the limits of changes under Mr. Xi.
“When the activists are saying the same thing as Xi Jinping says, they are punished,” she said. “The fact that they have been going onto the streets and across the country to spread that message, that probably makes the authorities very nervous.”
Officials at the detention center in Beijing where Mr. Xu was held would not answer questions. Questions sent to the propaganda office of the Beijing Public Security Bureau also were not answered.
Mr. Xu, 40, came to national prominence in 2003 as an advocate for Sun Zhigang, a young man whose death caused an uproar after he was fatally beaten in a detention center for vagrants and rural migrants without the right official documents. The government abolished those centers, giving a boost to Mr. Xu’s ideas of combining litigation and publicity to press for wider rights.
Mr. Xu, who has worked as a law lecturer in Beijing, in 2003 won a term as an independent delegate on a district People’s Congress in Beijing, a rare victory in a body dominated by party-appointed officials. In 2009 he was arrested on tax-evasion allegations that he rejected as an effort to stifle his advocacy. He was released on bail and never brought to trial on that charge.
More recently, he has helped organize citizens’ raids on “black jails” used to detain petitioners coming to Beijing to present grievances, and has helped parents campaigning against discriminatory barriers that prevent children from the countryside from enjoying the same schools and chances for advancement as established urban residents.
Mr. Liu, the lawyer, said that the authorities had refused to give Mr. Xu a license to practice as a lawyer, cramping his efforts to use litigation to force reforms.
“Many lawyers will come forward to defend him for the public good and for rule of law,” Mr. Liu said. “In China, we say that the best lawyers are the ones who can’t obtain a license.”
Patrick Zuo contributed research from Beijing.