UK Scholar Sounds Alarm Over Chinese Legal Expert Targeted by Beijing

Kerry Brown says Chinese dissidents and critics of the ruling party are now living through 'dark days.'
By Jane Tang
2021.08.25
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UK Scholar Sounds Alarm Over Chinese Legal Expert Targeted by Beijing Professor Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University is shown in undated photos.
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A U.K.-based China scholar has spoken out in support of former Tsinghua University law scholar Xu Zhangrun, who is believed to be under house arrest at his Beijing home, under the constant gaze of surveillance cameras.

Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, wrote that while Xu is technically "at liberty," he has paid a heavy price for his criticism of China's political and judicial system under the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and general secretary Xi Jinping.

Authorities in Beijing detained Xu on the morning of July 6, 2020 on allegations of "seeking out prostitutes" after he called online for political reforms.

He was released a week later, but later told the media that he had been fired from his teaching post and subjected to public sanctions for "moral corruption" by Tsinghua University's law school.

Charges of "seeking out prostitutes" have been used before by the Chinese authorities to target peaceful critics and activists, or anyone who runs afoul of local officials and powerful vested interests. Xu has lodged a legal challenge, and denies the charges.

Xu had penned a 10,000-word essay dated May 21, 2020, in which he hit out at Xi Jinping for "isolating" China from the international community with his foreign policy.

The essay called for China's leaders to be held politically accountable, for the release of prisoners of conscience including journalists and human rights lawyers, and for an end to the political targeting of academics.

Xu has also called for constitutional amendments passed in 2018 that allow indefinite rule by Xi to be revoked, and for legislation requiring officials to publish details of their assets and financial interests.

"These are dark days for anyone who takes a dissenting position in China," Brown wrote in a recent commentary on an edition of Xu's letters for Australia's Inside Story website.

"We see from these letters, which were written last July and August to supporters and the Fairbank Center at Harvard University ... this is a marginal existence."

Xu's "Ten Letters from a Plague Year" was published in Chinese earlier this year, and is currently being translated by Geremie Barmé for China Heritage.

'A spectral existence'

"With no job or livelihood, he seems to occupy a kind of spectral existence," Brown wrote, quoting one of Xu's letters in the commentary.

"China’s present totalitarian order has imposed a regime of censorship the likes of which has never been seen before," Xu writes.

"Under it, editing has become a particularly fraught occupation and shepherding anything through to publication a hazardous process."

"Everyone involved in the industry is hesitant. Authors feel that they are treading on thin ice," writes Xu, who also described living under surveillance cameras at his Beijing home in a December 2020 essay.

Brown added: "[Xu] is able to observe the public world even though he is denied a voice in it. He watches debates online but isn’t allowed to participate ... This seems to be the kind of purgatory the party wants to consign problematic figures to."

"With Xi Jinping and his colleagues having defined a form of nationalism and patriotic fervor so potent it intoxicates a swathe of the public, someone like Xu resembles the sole sober person at a drunken party," Brown wrote.

Brown also highlighted the plight of veteran literary figure Geng Xiaonan, who was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for "illegal business operations" by a Beijing court in February 2021 after she expressed public support for Xu.

Geng and Qin were detained on Sept. 9, 2020 on suspicion of "illegal business operations," and formally arrested a month later.

Xu Zhangrun also called for the couple's release, saying in an open letter that "illegal business operations" is a blanket charge used to target people for political reasons, and has been arbitrarily applied to Geng and her husband.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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