(New York) – More than a dozen anti-corruption activists in Beijing and Jiangxi Province were detained between late March and late May after participating in or organizing demonstrations calling for government officials to publicly disclose their assets, China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, and Independent Chinese PEN said today. The Chinese government should release the anticorruption activists and drop all charges against them, the organizations said.
Since May 7, 10 of the 15 have been formally arrested, indicating that they are likely to be prosecuted and convicted. The charges against the 15 include “illegal assembly,” “inciting subversion of state power,” “disturbing social order,” and “extortion.” The crime of inciting subversion carries up to 15 years in prison, while the other crimes have an upward penalty of five years in prison.
“When President Xi Jinping calls for a tough response to corruption it’s hailed as innovative policy, but when ordinary people say the same in public, his government regards it as subversion,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The fight against graft and for the rule of law rest in part on respect for freedom of expression and assembly, not the suppression of those rights.”
On March 31, police detained four activists in Beijing: journalist Hou Xin, securities trader Yuan Dong, retiree Zhang Baocheng, and bus driver-turned-inventor Ma Xinli.
They were detained for “illegal assembly” after holding 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,” in Xidan Cultural Plaza in Beijing’s Xicheng district. Accountant Wang Yonghong unfurled a similar banner calling for asset disclosure in Beijing on April 14; he was taken into custody the next evening for “disturbing social order.” In the following days, Beijing authorities also took into custody activists who are suspected of having participated in or organized the campaign, including legal scholar Sun Hanhui, writer Zhao Changqing, lawyer Ding Jiaxi, activist Li Wei and activist Qi Yueying. With the exception of Qi Yueying, who was detained for “extortion,” the rest were taken into custody for “illegal assembly.”
Since May 7, except for Hou Xin, who is on bail, nine of these activists – Zhang Baocheng, Ma Xinli, Yuan Dong, Zhao Changqing, Ding Jiaxi, Qi Yueying, Li Wei, Wang Yonghong, and Sun Hanhui – have been formally arrested. Qi Yueying is currently being held in Chaoyang District Detention Center while the others are all held in Beijing No.3 Detention Center. Police have questioned them about their “asset disclosure campaign,” according to some of their lawyers.
On April 22, in Jiangxi Province’s Xinyu City, a group of activists demonstrated in support of the detained Beijing activists and of the nationwide campaign to call for officials to disclose their assets. On April 27, Jiangxi police took some of them into custody. Among those, five – Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, Li Sihua, Li Xuemei, and Zou Guiqin – remain in detention. Liu Ping has been formally arrested for “illegal assembly,” while Li Sihua and Wei Zhongping have been detained for “inciting subversion of state power.” But the precise charges against Li Xuemei and Zou Guiqin remain unclear. They are believed to be held in Xinyu Detention Center.
Although article 35 of the Chinese constitution guarantees citizens’ right to assembly, the 1989 Law on Assembly, Procession, and Demonstration (the Assembly Law), and the 1992 implementing regulations, outline a series of restrictive requirements that in application effectively bar citizens from exercising the right. Under the regulations, all demonstrations must be approved by the police; however, in practice, police in China rarely approve public protests, particularly ones that seem likely to be critical of the government. In some instances, people who apply for approval are not only denied permission, but are also harassed or detained for making the application.
Since formally assuming power in March 2013, President Xi Jinping has described fighting corruption as one of his top priorities. Most recently, his efforts appear to have targeted lavish displays of wealth such as banquets, and led to the removal from office of a number of high-ranking government officials, such as the deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission.
However, Chinese activists and citizens are campaigning for the government to go further, urging that it pass a law requiring government officials to disclose their assets. In December 2012, a group of intellectuals drafted a public letter calling on Chinese Communist Party Central Committee members to disclose their assets; over 7,000 people signed. Activists have also displayed banners and handed out fliers across the country, and encouraged participation in this loosely organized, national “asset disclosure campaign.”
Activists across the country have demonstrated support for those recently detained in Beijing and Jiangxi Province. A number of lawyers have organized teams of lawyers to offer legal advice and representation to these individuals, and in Shanghai and Beijing, petitioners gathered and displayed banners calling for the release of these activists. A group of well-known activists involved in the asset disclosure campaign issued a public letter to the Chinese government to call for the government to release the activists and implement the asset disclosure policies.
“We urge the government to drop all charges and release all human rights defenders currently in custody simply for peacefully exercising their freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Andrew Anderson, deputy director of Frontline Defenders.