Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 6 July 2020

China detains outspoken critic of Xi Jinping 
Police hold Xu Zhangrun in latest sign of crackdown on dissent 

A Chinese academic and critic of President Xi Jinping has been detained by police, in the latest sign of the ruling Communist party’s intolerance to dissent. Xu Zhangrun, a constitutional law professor at Tsinghua university, was taken away from his Beijing home on Monday by dozens of police officers, according to two friends with direct knowledge of the matter. It was not clear what crime Mr Xu is accused of having committed. China’s ministry of public security did not respond to a request for comment. Mr Xu’s detention comes after he published an essay in February, excoriating the Chinese president for his handling of the coronavirus epidemic. He said the authorities “stood by blithely as the crucial window of opportunity that was available to deal with the outbreak snapped shut in their faces”. “This may well even be the last thing I write,” he added. Xu Zhangrun was barred from teaching and stripped of his salary by Tsinghua last year after he penned a series of essays attacking the president’s deepening authoritarianism

In recent months, Chinese authorities have cracked down on critics of their handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken property tycoon, went missing in March after he said Mr Xi’s virus response had revealed him to be “a bare naked clown insisting on acting as emperor”. Mr Xu’s writing was considered erudite and academic, as he remonstrated with China’s leaders. His writings drew on everything from ancient Chinese philosophy to the works of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, a style that set him apart from many other critics of the regime. Mr Xu’s attacks increased after March 2018, when China’s rubber-stamp parliament abolished presidential term limits. The move allowed Mr Xi to rule for life and secured his position as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.

 In a lengthy essay published after the constitutional amendment, Mr Xu argued that the decision should be reversed immediately or “in one fell swoop China will be cast back to the terrifying days of Mao”. In March last year, Mr Xu was barred from teaching and stripped of his salary by Tsinghua after he penned a series of essays attacking Mr Xi’s deepening authoritarianism. According to Geremie Barmé, a translator of Mr Xu’s work, his targeting by the authorities reflects a “crisis in China’s ability to think about, debate and formulate ideas free of Communist party manipulation”. Since Mr Xi took office in 2012, authorities have jailed dozens of human rights lawyers and activists. The Communist party has demanded displays of political loyalty across society, including in academia. 

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