Into the Wilderness

An interview with Xu Zhiyong, a mild-mannered Chinese legal activist detained and then, surprisingly, released.
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Xu Zhiyong after his release, Aug. 24, 2009.
Xu Zhiyong after his release, Aug. 24, 2009.
Photo provided by Peng Jian

HONG KONG—Xu Zhiyong appears reserved, pensive, almost reclusive. Asked a question, he pauses to think before giving a brief, one-sentence answer. These are not qualities likely to endear him to the media.

Yet the 36-year-old, Beijing-based law professor is among the best known and most respected rights advocates in China. His passionate pursuit of social justice and his public works have earned him plaudits from across the Chinese media.

He was named one of 10 “most outstanding young leaders” by a state-run news magazine in 2005, and his photo recently adorned the front cover of Esquire magazine’s Chinese edition.

So it came as a shock when the legal aid center he founded, Open Constitution Initiative, was raided and closed down by the authorities over “tax evasion” charges in mid-July.

But a bigger shock was still to come.

Xu was awakened by police on the early hours of July 29, the eve of a public hearing over his center’s alleged tax evasion. He was taken to a police detention center and denied access to friends and relatives.

A new taboo

Open Constitution Initiative, locally known as Gongmeng, was one of China's most respected nongovernment organizations (NGO), so its closure sent a chill down the spines of other NGOs across the country.

People whom Xu’s center has been helping—from parents of babies poisoned by melamine-contaminated milk, to petitioners who traveled from afar to seek legal redress in Beijing—were devastated.

Then Xu’s name suddenly became a taboo.

Soon after his arrest, authorities closed down his blog and Gongmeng’s Web site.

Mainland China’s search engines show no results against his name. The state media, which once enthusiastically reported his works, went silent.

Xu’s arrest set off a wave of activism. In solidarity, some supporters started a postcard campaign while others signed online petitions.

An online shop gave discounts to shoppers who have donated to Gongmeng to help pay its hefty fines. Six prominent lawyers and writers wrote an open letter urging Xu's release.

Their efforts unexpectedly paid off.

Three weeks after Xu was arrested, he was released on bail.

Chinese authorities rarely release suspects on bail, so Xu believed his release was partly due to his supporters’ campaigns and international media attention.

Xu first became known in 2003 when he and two young academics successfully convinced the National People’s Congress—the country’s highest law-making body—to scrap an administrative detention system after a university graduate called Sun Zhigang was beaten to death in custody.

Encouraged by this development, Xu and friends in the legal profession launched Gongmeng’s predecessor, offering free legal aid assistance to people with grievances.

Still passionate

In an interview with Radio Free Asia after his release, Xu said he remained as passionate about his mission as ever.

“I dream of a country that has democracy, rule of law, equality, and justice,” Xu said.

“Just that—a simple and happy society.”

In his ideal society, honesty, integrity, and love would be part of ordinary life, instead of suspicion, deceit, and anger.

“Chinese people’s facial expressions are too complex, but actually we don’t need so much deceit [on our faces].”

“I think everyone is worth loving, and there is a spiritual side to everyone, no matter how bad a person is.”

After a period of reflection in police custody, Xu has come to the conclusion that one should not only love the weak and underprivileged, but also those who create injustice.

“People who have fear deserve more of our love,” he said.

Christian outlook

This time of reflection in solitude has also changed his outlook.

“In the past, I felt anger when I saw injustice. I think I would try to avoid that from now on,” he said.

The word “love” came up often during the interview, with a palpable sense of Christian spirituality seeping through. He acknowledged attending Christian churches for more than 10 years.

Even though he already has a reputation for being cautious and rational, Xu said he will now become more low-profile and will learn to compromise even more.

Political, legal systems

Talking of the plight of many ordinary Chinese, Xu said he believes the root of China’s myriad social problems is its problematic political system.

The ruling Communist Party enjoys the highest political power in the country and controls all state apparatus and the legislative process. China also lacks an independent judiciary. Government officials can often interfere with the outcome of court rulings.

“[Officials] are accountable to people above but not below. The legal system is unhealthy. Problems accumulate, and that’s why so many petitioners have to come to Beijing,” he said.

“So political reform is what we’re pushing for.”

To some people, the arrest of Xu—a moderate young academic who tries to channel people’s grievances through the legal system rather than challenging it—serves as a wake-up call: You don’t have to be a radical dissident to get on the wrong side of the regime.

But Xu’s detention might have also achieved an unexpected result.

It is perhaps a turning point for China’s nascent citizen activism.

More people now realize that even as a powerless ordinary citizen, one can still make a difference with a small gesture—whether it’s sending a postcard or just signing an online petition.

Reported and written in English by Katherine Lee. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han





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