China Tries Anti-Graft Activist in Secret on 'Fraud' Charge

Diplomatic observers are denied access amid a heavy police presence around the court.

An undated file photo of members of the New Citizens' Movement in Beijing holding a banner calling on officials to disclose their assets.

Authorities in the Chinese capital have tried a member of the New Citizens' Movement in secret on fraud charges, his lawyer said, in the latest action against the group campaigning for government transparency.

Zhang Xiangzhong stood trial at Beijing's Haidian District People's Court on Wednesday for "credit card fraud," an accusation his attorney Xie Yanyi said was a trumped-up charge in retaliation for his involvement in public protests calling on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to reveal details of officials' personal wealth.

"There was a heavy police presence around the Haidian court on Wednesday morning, and even we, as his defense lawyers, had trouble getting into the court buildings," Xie told RFA after the trial had ended.

"There were also large numbers of police guarding the door, and a lot of people who had gone to sit in the public gallery were stuck outside," he said.

"This trial had been turned into a secret trial."

Dozens of people linked in some way to the loosely organized movement have been detained over the past year, according to Amnesty International, while the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said that a total of seven activists linked to the movement have been handed formal jail terms to date.

Xie said the judge had hampered Zhang's defense team as they tried to make their argument in court.

"The judge set extremely strict limitations on the defense," he said. "He wouldn't let me put the full facts of the case to the court; I had to stick to the so-called facts as set out by the court."

He said defense attorneys were forbidden to bring up Zhang's activities with the New Citizens' Movement, and had to limit themselves instead to arguing the charges of "credit card fraud."

"For example, Zhang Xiangzhong ... held up a placard calling on officials to make public the details of their assets, thereby exercising his rights as a citizen," Xie said.

"But they stopped us from referring to this at all, even though around 80 percent of the case file was connected to it. Even the indictment touched on it," he added.

A European diplomat told Agence France-Presse that around 10 countries had tried to send representatives to observe the trial, but were denied access by police outside.

Fellow activists

Zhang's trial comes after the same court in April handed down jail terms of up to three-and-a-half years to four of Zhang's fellow activists after finding them guilty of public order offenses.

Beijing's Haidian District People's Court sentenced Ding Jiaxi, who called publicly on Chinese officials to reveal details of their wealth, for three and a half years, while veteran democracy activist Zhao Changqing received a two-and-a-half year sentence, both for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."

Two other activists from the New Citizens Movement, Li Wei and Zhang Baocheng, were jailed by the same court for two years apiece after being found guilty of the same charges, it said.

The four activists' trials had been adjourned amid procedural disputes on their opening in January.

The sentences came after the Beijing High People's Court rejected the appeal of movement co-founder Xu Zhiyong against a four-year jail term handed down in January on the same public order charges.

Xu, a legal scholar, has dismissed his sentence as a "ridiculous" punishment for staging a street protest calling for greater transparency from the country's richest and most powerful people. The cases against Ding, Li, and Zhang rested on similar accusations.

Dozens of people linked in some way to the New Citizens Movement have been detained over the past year, according to Amnesty International, while the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said that a total of seven activists linked to the movement have now been handed formal jail terms.

Anti-graft crackdown

Chinese president Xi Jinping has launched a nationwide anti-graft crackdown, targeting high-ranking "tigers" and low-ranking "flies," since coming to power in November 2012.

But the party regards any popular involvement in the anti-corruption campaign as highly sensitive and potentially threatening, analysts said.

In a recent commentary on RFA's Cantonese Service, political commentator Liang Jing said Xi's administration is busy trying to turn citizens into "slave-participants" in a struggle for survival that benefits the current political and financial elite.

"They have seen that under this power structure, their position of privilege is more secure and they will get more money," Liang wrote.

"In an urbanized society under a centralized power structure, people will have nowhere to hide," Liang wrote. "They will be forced to play flunkeys in [the regime's] game of existence."

"This game of existence will be the only game in town, unless you choose to emigrate."

Xu is China's highest-profile dissident to be sentenced to jail since 2009, when Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was ordered imprisoned for 11 years for subversion after helping organize the "Charter 08" petition calling for sweeping political change and a constitutional government.

In May 2012, Xu penned an article titled "China Needs a New Citizens' Movement," which is believed to have spurred the loose nationwide network of activists to action.

The article called on responsible citizens to oppose corruption and work to support disadvantaged groups, as well as holding political meetings and collaborating to achieve these goals.

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.