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(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately release four activists detained after calling for requiring government officials to disclose their assets publicly, Human Rights Watch said today. The detentions are the harshest action yet against activists involved in a grass-roots campaign to press the government to honor its promise to fight corruption.

“The detention of four anti-corruption activists calls into question President Xi Jinping’s commitment to get tough on graft,” said Sophie Richardson, China director, “The government’s treatment of these activists is a litmus test about whether Xi’s campaign to end  China’s corruption epidemic is more than mere rhetoric and a few show cases.”

Police in Beijing arrested the activists – Hou Xin, Yuan Dong, Zhang Baocheng and Ma Xinli – on March 31, 2013. The four were displaying large banners with slogans such as “require officials to publicly disclose assets” and “unless we put an end to corrupt officials, the China Dream can only be daydreams.” The activists also gave a speech about the need to address corruption in Xidan Cultural Plaza in Beijing’s Xicheng District.

Police arrested them for “illegal assembly,” which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Yuan, Zhang, and Ma are being held in Beijing’s No. 3 Detention Center, while Hou is in No. 1 Detention Center. Under Chinese law, anyone accused of a crime is entitled to a lawyer within 48 hours of being taken into police custody. The police may detain a person for 37 days before they are required to obtain permission from the prosecutor’s office for a formal arrest.

Xi opened a high-profile campaign against graft and promised to “resolutely fight against corruption and other misconduct in all manifestations.” He warned that corruption, if left unchecked, will lead to the “the collapse of the party and the downfall of the state.” Most importantly, he said he would target both “tigers and flies” – powerful leaders as well as those lower down in the hierarchy – in the anti-corruption drive. In the past four months, a series of officials have been investigated and dismissed for lavish spending and corruption. Most notably, a high-level Sichuan official, Li Chuncheng, who was part of the powerful Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, was detained for “breaching party discipline.”

Government officials are currently required to report their assets, but they are not required to make such information public. In recent years, even top Chinese leaders have called for greater transparency about official income, including former Premier Wen Jiabao, who said in February 2011 that such a measure would be necessary “in the long run,” and Yu Zhengsheng, current chairman of the top advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, who said in November 2012 that the government needs to “gradually implement a system of asset disclosure.”

Activists are campaigning for the Chinese government to pass a law requiring public disclosure of assets by officials. In December, a group of public intellectuals issued a letter calling on members of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee to set an example by disclosing their assets. The letter, signed by over 7,000 people, was handed to the National People’s Congress ahead of its session in March. Some activists involved in this campaign had travelled across the country to seek signatures, put out fliers, and display banners. In 2012, a number of university students submitted requests under China’s Open Government Information Regulations to seek information regarding officials’ assets.

The Chinese government has responded to the campaign by harassing and summoning the organizers, as well as censoring the letter and deleting the microblogs of the organizers. Several activists involved in the campaign have been briefly taken into custody or their movement has been restricted. Ruan Yunhua, another activist, was briefly detained twice, once in January by unidentified men who told him to “reflect” on his anti-corruption campaign, and the second time together with a fellow activist, Zhang Kun, in early March by the police. Both were taken by the police back to their hometowns. In mid-March, Beijing police held two activists, Li Maolin and Luo Lijun, in a secret “black jail” for over a week before they were released.

“Silencing legitimate demands for greater transparency to limit corruption will neither stop campaigners, nor will it make the cancer of corruption disappear,” Richardson said. “This is a chance for Xi to show he is different from his predecessors and will side with the public against the powerful.”

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