What is the difference between Xi Jinping and Xu Zhiyong?
Both talk about fighting corruption, yet Xi is president of China, while Xu is now a prison inmate—put there by Xi's security services and politically-controlled courts. Over the next four years Xi will be feted at glittering summits with people like US President Barack Obama, while Xu will be in a cell in one of China's prisons, notorious for abuse and poor conditions.
Xu was convicted on January 26, 2014 in a show trial setting, a closed hearing that barred journalists and diplomats. His offense: that he "gathered crowds to disturb public order." Xu made an eloquent closing statement defending his belief in the rule of law. He was ordered to stop speaking by the court after ten minutes.
Xu's conviction has significance well beyond his own case. Xu is a leader of the "weiquan," or "rights defense," movement. He is a veteran campaigner who first came to public attention in 2003 as a 30-year-old scholar petitioning the Chinese government to abolish the abusive custody and repatriation administrative detention system. The petition generated widespread attention in China and was credited with the eventual fall of the system.
At the beginning, the outlook for the rights defense movement was hopeful. The Internet was taking off in China, while the Chinese government was talking positively about creating the "rule of law." While the Communist Party maintained its grip on political power, more space for activists began to open up. A new breed of activists appeared on the scene. Xu himself set up the nonprofit legal aid organization, Gongmeng, which advocated change in a variety of areas, including the many forced evictions that accompanied China's frenzied construction sector.
However, the government started to reverse course as it saw promotion of law had unleashed a flood of demands on the government. In 2010 alone, there were 180,000 protests and demonstrations recorded in China, chief among them are protests against officially-backed forced evictions, land seizures and corruption.
The pressure on the rights defense movement has been steadily increasing since, with regular crackdowns. The government put more than one hundred activists under house arrest around the release of rights manifesto Charter 08 and slammed a thirteen year prison sentence on its main drafter, Liu Xiaobo (who later won the Nobel Peace Prize). The police also rounded up hundreds of activists and netizens following an anonymous online call for a "Jasmine Revolution" in 2011, although many detainees had little to do with the call. Many were kidnapped, tortured and held in secret locations for days and even months.
The current crackdown is arguably one of the biggest and most concerted in the past twenty years. Ten activists who organize under the banner of Xu's New Citizens Movement have gone on trial within months—and that is not counting the detentions and imprisonment of many others not even related to the New Citizens effort. At the same time, the government has systematically tightened other contentious spaces for public activism, putting new controls on the Internet, mass media and even universities. Pressure in Tibet and Xinjiang has also intensified, culminating with the arrest of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti in mid-January for the crime of "splittism."
What makes this latest round of repression distressing is that the message of the rights defense movement and the New Citizens Movement in particular was modest, inclusive and constructive. Xu borrowed the language of the government on the rule of law and justice, and that should have made him less of a threat. The New Citizens Movement never organized opposition parties or explicitly pushed for multi-party democracy, which is the Communist Party's greatest fear, but Xi Jinping and his new government seem unable to tolerate even moderate critics.
In the short run, Beijing might feel more secure in the knowledge that it has crushed a movement that it perceives as a threat to the stability of its rule, and it might be relieved that its version of the "rule of law"—that is, the law as a weapon for the state, not as a source of protection for Chinese people—has once again triumphed.
However, Xi Jinping and his government should think hard about the road they are taking. It is easy to espouse a commitment to reform and attack corruption, but the gap between Xi's rhetoric and reality will only create more activists from a population that increasingly is demanding basic freedoms.
Instead of sending them to prison, Xi could make allies of people like Xu. It is a historic choice: subordinate all reforms to maintain Communist Party rule and risk escalating social unrest, or engage with reformers who have the vision of a modern Chinese state.
Maya Wang, based in Hong Kong, is a researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. She is an expert on a wide range of human rights issues in China including arbitrary detention, torture and disability and women's rights.