Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 10 April 2023


China Sentences Leading Rights Activists to 14 and 12 Years in Prison

Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were detained after organizing a small seaside gathering of activists to discuss human rights. Their lengthy sentences point to Beijing’s intolerance of dissent.

An undated handout photo showing Xu Zhiyong, left, and Ding Jiaxi, together in Guangzhou, China. They were arrested after organizing a gathering of activists and lawyers in Xiamen in 2019.
An undated handout photo showing Xu Zhiyong, left, and Ding Jiaxi, together in Guangzhou, China. They were arrested after organizing a gathering of activists and lawyers in Xiamen in 2019.

Reporting from Beijing

BEIJING — Two of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers were sentenced on Monday to 14 years and 12 years in prison, some of the lengthiest such sentences in recent years and an indication of how the space for expression has evaporated under China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

The lawyers, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, had been charged with subversion for promoting what they called a “New Citizens Movement,” which encouraged ordinary Chinese to exercise the rights such as free speech guaranteed by the country’s Constitution, at least in theory. They had been detained after organizing a gathering of about 20 lawyers and activists in the seaside city of Xiamen in 2019, where they discussed their plans to work toward those goals, and about the future of the human rights movement in China broadly.

In his decade as China’s top leader, Mr. Xi has worked, largely successfully, to crush any vestiges of dissent. He has targeted not only human rights activists but also business tycoonsintellectuals and members of the party elite, some of whom have been sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison. He has expanded online censorship and demanded loyalty from media outlets.

Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group, denounced the latest sentences as “cruelly farcical” and called for the men’s immediate release. Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding were tried in secret, and the sentences handed down by a court in eastern Shandong Province were not publicly announced, but were confirmed by Mr. Ding’s wife, Luo Shengchun, who also goes by Sophie.

The length of the sentences surpassed even the dire predictions of the men’s family members and supporters. Mr. Xu had previously served four years in prison, and Mr. Ding three-and-a-half, also related to their work with the New Citizens Movement.

“Since it was a secret trial, we knew it wouldn’t be light, but we didn’t think it would be this heavy. Because everything they did was within the scope of free speech and what criminal law permits,” said Ms. Luo, who lives in the United States. “More than 10 years shows that this government has absolutely no ability for self-reflection or self-restraint anymore.”

In statements shared by Ms. Luo, which she said the men had dictated before their trials last year, Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding expressed conviction in the rightness of their actions.

Luo Shengchun, the wife of Mr. Ding, with a photo of him at her home in Alfred, N.Y., in 2022.
Credit...Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Luo Shengchun, the wife of Mr. Ding, with a photo of him at her home in Alfred, N.Y., in 2022.

“To love China is to work to make her better,” Mr. Xu wrote. “I’m proud to suffer for the sake of freedom, justice and love.”

Mr. Ding said he believed in China’s nonviolent political transformation. “No matter how many doubts, difficulties or setbacks I’ve encountered, or torture I’ve personally suffered, I will not change my steadfast convictions,” he wrote.

The story of the men’s careers is the story, in miniature, of the rise and fall of civil society in China.

Mr. Xu, 50, has spent decades as one of the country’s best-known advocates for civil liberties. A former law lecturer in Beijing, he shot to prominence in the early 2000s for helping encourage the authorities to abolish a detention system used against migrant workers without proper documentation. In the more politically open environment of the time, he became a hero, even appearing on the cover of the Chinese edition of Esquire magazine.

In the years that followed, he called for government officials to disclose their wealth, represented death row inmates and pushed for rural migrant workers’ children to have the same educational opportunities as those from cities.

Mr. Ding, 55, was an engineer before he became a commercial lawyer. He joined Mr. Xu in promoting the New Citizens Movement in 2012 and was key to the groundwork of the cause, helping organize small street demonstrations in Beijing.

Mr. Xi’s rise to power in 2012 as China’s top leader heralded a dramatic shrinking in the space for criticism. He moved quickly to eliminate perceived threats to the regime’s authority, or his own, targeting political rivals and grass roots critics alike.

Mr. Xu was the first high-profile activist to be prosecuted after Mr. Xi’s ascent and was sentenced to four years in prison. Mr. Ding was sentenced shortly afterward.

After the men were released from prison, they continued to speak out, and to organize gatherings like the one in Xiamen in 2019, though public protests had become increasingly risky. Then, weeks after the Xiamen meeting, Mr. Ding was arrested. Mr. Xu evaded detection at first — even writing an open letter from hiding that urged Mr. Xi to step down — but was arrested in 2020.

The authorities, in laying out the charges against the two men, described a litany of offenses over the past several years, including “developing so-called ‘citizen community groups,’” and calling for “equal access to education." Mr. Ding was also sentenced to three years of deprivation of political rights after his release, Ms. Luo said, which can entail further detention and surveillance.

Teng Biao, a lawyer and friend of Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding, said Monday’s sentences showed how rapidly human rights had deteriorated under Mr. Xi. Mr. Teng, who left China in 2012 after being detained himself several times, said that under Mr. Xi’s predecessors, it was “not possible to imagine” that a small-scale private gathering like the one in Xiamen could lead to such lengthy sentences.

But Mr. Teng noted the repression of Uyghurs in the far western region of Xinjiang, and the life sentence handed down to Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur activist and academic, under Mr. Xi. “They don’t care about human rights or the Constitution or international human rights standards,” he said of the government.

Several other lawyers and activists from the Xiamen gathering were also detained. Mr. Xu’s girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, who had spoken on Mr. Xu’s behalf after his detention, is also awaiting trial.

Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said she was personally pained by the sentences, noting that she had looked up to Mr. Xu as a college student in China in the late 2000s. The admiration he elicited was apparent when he was first tried and sentenced in 2014, when foreign diplomats and ordinary citizens gathered outside the Beijing courthouse, despite police intimidation, in protest.

Nine years later, heightened surveillance make such organization nearly impossible, and many of the lawyers’ supporters have themselves been jailed or forced into exile, Ms. Wang said. And censorship had dimmed Mr. Xu’s public profile.

“Now, it’s an entirely different era,” she said. “Young people, college students now have no idea who Xu Zhiyong is.”

Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan.

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