(New York) – The Chinese government should drop all charges and release five New Citizens Movement activists on trial this week for publicly protesting official corruption. The New Citizens Movement is an informal group that has advocated the promotion of civic rights and participation, including the public disclosure of officials’ assets to curb corruption and protecting the rights of children of migrant workers.
Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baocheng, and Zhao Changqing were all tried starting on April 8, 2014, in Beijing on charges of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” Zhang was tried on April 8, Ding and Li were tried together on April 8 and 9, and Zhao on April 10. The verdicts for all four activists will be announced at a later date. On April 11, a court will rule on an appeal by Xu Zhiyong, who was convicted and given a four-year sentence in January 2014. All have been charged with “gathering crowds to disturb public order” for organizing nonviolent protests against corruption and discrimination in education in Beijing between December 2012 and March 2013.
“If Chinese authorities insist that these people’s peaceful civic activism constitutes a threat to public order, it’s hard to tell what doesn’t,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The selective persecution of those who are doing nothing more than trying to improve governance through legal means has to stop now.”
These proceedings were the second time Haidian District courts heard the case of Ding, Li, Zhang, and Zhao. They were initially tried in January 2014 but, because the defendants dismissed their lawyers in protest of procedural violations, the trials were rescheduled for April.
All three trials were effectively closed to the public. Only one to three seats were made available for each of the defendants’ families in courtrooms otherwise packed with officials. Foreign embassy representatives who had requested to observe the trials were not allowed to enter the courtrooms. Dozens of police officers and vehicles surrounded the court, and they kept foreign journalists as well as supporters away from the vicinity. A number of the supporters were detained and taken into police custody around each of the trials.
Xu Zhiyong, one of China’s most prominent activists, will learn the results of his appeal on April 11. The court rejected his lawyer’s request for an appeals hearing. In Xu’s January 2014 trial, only two family members were allowed to attend, while journalists and foreign diplomats were denied access to the proceedings. In protest at the unfair proceedings, Xu and his lawyer stayed silent throughout the trial. Xu made a closing statement, but he was interrupted ten minutes into reading it. Outside the court, Xu’s supporters were taken away and briefly detained while foreign journalists were manhandled by the police.
Other New Citizens Movement activists detained in March and April 2013 in connection with the same demonstrations in Beijing have already been tried and convicted. Hou Xin and Yuan Dong were convicted of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” In January 2014, Yuan was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and while Hou was found guilty, she was exempted from punishment due to her medical conditions.
The cases against New Citizens Movement members and other peaceful critics in China are part of one of the largest crackdowns against dissent and free expression in recent years. Since the beginning of Xi Jinping’s presidency in March 2013, the Chinese government has tightened control over the internet and mass media, as well as detained and imprisoned activists involved in various peaceful initiatives.
The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement has also taken place during the new leadership’s avowed fight against corruption among officials and Communist Party members. President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric of targeting both “tigers and flies,” who are corrupt, had energized many of the detained individuals, according to interrogation records recently made public by one of Xu’s lawyers.
“Ironically, it was in part Xi Jinping’s ideas – as well as Xu Zhiyong’s and others’ – that inspired these activists to take to the streets to peacefully support the official campaign,” Richardson said. “For the authorities to preach anti-corruption but practice repression is hypocritical and counterproductive.”