Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 12 April 2023


‘A free China’: Why the words of a jailed dissident should be read far and wide

A placard with a photo of Xu Zhiyong is raised by a demonstrator outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong on Jan. 27, 2014. (Vincent Yu/AP)
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It’s an old saying that the night is darkest before the dawn. For Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer and dissident in China who has campaigned for basic rights for decades, the night is very dark, but his vision of the dawn is undimmed. On Monday, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Beforehand, he dictated a declaration about the China of his dreams, a country “free, fair and happy,” a country “of the people, its government chosen by ballots, not violence.”

“A democratic China must be realized in our time, we cannot saddle the next generation with this duty,” he declares.

We expressed concern for Mr. Xu’s fate a decade ago when he was arrested as a founder of the New Citizens’ Movement, accused of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” and jailed for four years. A legal scholar, he believed the best approach to promoting freedom in his country was to demand that China’s party-state system follow its own rules and China’s constitution, and he was outspoken against corruption and the widespread practice of party officials enriching themselves.

In his latest trial, Mr. Xu and a colleague, Ding Jiaxi, were charged with “subversion of state power.” Mr. Ding received 12 years in prison. They had convened activists and human rights lawyers in the coastal city of Xiamen in December 2019, and published articles that called for citizens to take part in elections. They were tried behind closed doors in June 2022 in Shandong province. Several others at the meeting were also detained.

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Knowing that a sentencing was coming, Mr. Xu gave his extraordinary statement to Luo Shengchun, Ding’s wife, who lives in the United States. It was translated and published by China Change, a website that reports on democracy, human rights and rule of law in China.

Looking to the future, he predicted China will be a state governed by rule of law. “We shall have legislative democracy: people elect their representatives to make laws through democratic procedure that represent the interest of the majority.” He added, “Law will no longer be a tool of class dictatorship, but the standard for fairness and justice … In a China with the rule of law, all powers move in its order, people believe in and trust it, and justice flows downward, like an ever-flowing river. That’s a free China.”

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“I yearn for a free China where power can not run amok,” he said, “where our freedom to believe in a religion or an -ism is a personal choice and cannot be interfered with by those in power, and where we have the freedom of speech without large-scale censorship and political restriction, and no one is imprisoned for expressing their political beliefs.”

“In a free China, we are free to live our lives without Big Brother watching over everything we do, and privacy and dignity are not to be trampled by those in power.”

Mr. Xu’s and his colleague’s prison sentences reflect the intolerable injustices that Chinese leaders have and continue to perpetrate, with no apparent shame. These activists should be released. Mr. Xu’s declaration deserves to be heard far and wide in China. “I do not believe the future will forever be a dark night without daybreak,” he said. Let’s hope not.

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