(Photo by Zola, taken at Gongmeng's offices. Left-to-right: Teng Biao, Lin Zheng, Li Fangping, Xu Zhiyong, Zhang Lijun.)
The people in this picture are not dissidents. They are civil rights lawyers who have been trying to work within the bounds of China's legal system and constitution to help ordinary Chinese people who are neither rich nor powerful nor politically connected. They have not been trying to organize an overthrow of the regime. Yes they're liberals in the Chinese political context - similar to how the ACLU and the EFF are liberal within the American context. Their rough equivalents in American political culture would be NPR-listening liberal democrats who work in public interest law with a lot of pro-bono cases and class-action lawsuits.
More than a week ago, Xu Zhiyong, the second man from the right in the picture above, was taken by police from his home. Police have not formally charged him with any crime, but his family learned from officials at the university where he teaches that he's being held for tax evasion. Xu is an elected member of the Beijing People's Congress and a civil rights lawyer who co-founded the Gongmeng legal aid organization. Xu has given defended and advised petitioners fighting official land-grabs in the provinces; he worked to expose the illegal "black jails" where some petitioners have been held. Gongmeng lawyers defended parents of children sickened by melamine-tainted milk powder last year, and worked on sensitive death penalty cases. Gongmeng was shut down by authorities in mid-July because they said the organization's Open Constitution Initiative had failed to pay taxes. Xu was detained along with another Gongmeng staffer, Zhuang Lu, the day before he was scheduled to attend a hearing on the matter. Nobody believes this matter is really about taxes: while it's possible that Gongmeng's books weren't in perfect order, pure tax infractions are generally not handled this way. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that tax technicalities were used as a cover to nab people for legal activities that powerful people find threatening.
When I saw Xu in Beijing earlier this year, he told me he said that Gongmeng was operating well within the bounds of Chinese law, dedicated to the improvement and hence longevity of the current regime. Nothing they were doing, he insisted, challenged Communist Party rule in any way. He claimed to be confident that Gongmeng would not have serious political trouble for this reason. Enough mainstream establishment people in Beijing seemed to agree with this view that he was even featured on the cover of the Chinese version of Esquire Magazine this month. (See picture on left.) Magazines like that - always concerned about potential trouble with the publishing authorities - generally won't touch people whose reputations their editors believe might endanger their publishing license. Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China warns: “By suppressing Xu Zhiyong, who is a moderate voice for social change and has dedicated his career to helping forge a society with genuine rule of law, the authorities are running the risk of radicalizing the forces for reform and change in China.”
But the crackdown is broad and deep, and shows no sign of ending. In May, 20 civil rights lawyers who had defended Tibetans, Falun Gong members, and other politically sensitive clients were effectively disbarred. In July the licenses of another 53 lawyers were revoked. On the same day as Xu's detention, security officials raided the office of Yi Ren Ping, a non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting discrimination, and confiscated all copies of its latest newsletter on grounds that they don't have a publishing license. A number of people involved with a citizens' effort to collect information about children who died in the Sichuan earthquake and raise questions about shoddy construction of schools have been arrested. Earthquate survivor He Hongchun was convicted for disturbing social order. Huang Qi, who reported online about the plight of children who died in the quate, went on trial this week for disclosing state secrets; the court's ruling has yet to be announced. According to Human Rights in China a key witness was kidnapped and prevented from appearing in court to testify for Huang's defence. Tan Zuoren, an activist who conducted an investigation into the reasons why so many school buildings collapsed in the quake, is scheduled to go on trial for state subversion next week.
While many news reports about all of these developments point to the upcoming 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic as a possible reason for the crackdown, experts in Chinese law are worried that this is not just a temporary phase - and that something much more serious and long-lasting could be happening. Jerome Cohen, one of the preeminent experts on the PRC's legal system, wrote yesterday in an e-mail (which I quote with his permission): "What we are witnessing now is a systematic campaign unparalleled since the beginning of the Open Policy in 1978. It has nothing to do with the 60th celebration. Are there still people who believe that such policies and practices can be explained because of the approach of one or another of China's many anniversaries?"
Rather, Cohen and some other legal experts are concerned that a much more deep-seated reversal is underway: it may be that the Chinese government intends to discourage the use of courts and China's legal system by the nation's many aggrieved citizens - steering them to other avenues for appeal and dispute-resolution. If this is the case, it represents a reversal of the government's repeatedly stated goal of "strengthening rule of law" that has been an emphasis over the past three decades, and on which China's civil rights lawyers and activists have staked their right to exist.
For every detention, arrest, and suspension, dozens of other people are being subject to questioning, their computer hard drives copied for detailed examination, and their personal notebooks and documents scanned for police records. I've heard informally from a few people who were either "invited for tea" by the police or who know people who were. From time to time somebody describes their "tea drinking" experience on their blog or on Twitter. Internet censorship has been getting increasingly worse all year: not just blocking of websites and social networking services hosted overseas, but the shutting down of people's blogs on domestic blogging platforms and the wholesale outages of some Chinese SNS's like Fanfou. Green Dam may have been defeated for now, but universities and other institutions are under growing pressure to install systems with the same kind of censorship and surveillance functionality. A clear message is also being sent that people will face serious consequences for posting sensitive information: the Fujian-based blogger and twitter user Guo Baofeng (aka @amoiist on Twitter) was detained along with several other bloggers for posting information of an alleged gang-rape and murder committed by an allegedly politically well-connected man.
Bloggers from all over China - and the Chinese speaking world - rallied to free Guo with a postcard-writing campaign, and fundraising drive to cover his family's legal expenses. He was recently released. Now the same kind of nation-wide effort is underway to support Xu Zhiyong. Liberal Chinese intellectuals around the country are also rallying to their defense with eloquent essays. But writing in places that the domestic audience has easy access to isn't easy. Gongmeng's blog on QQ was shut down. Guangzhou-based columnist Xiao Shu has seen his posts related to Xu Zhiyong and Gongmeng removed by administrators of his Netease blog. Here is one such post that I saved in my aggregator and posted into Google docs for safekeeping. Meanwhile, though, people keep trying. A petition campaign is underway. With Gongmeng's blog and website shut down, staff continue to post updates about their situation on their Twitter account. They are conducing a fund-raising drive to help with legal fees. They continue to fight for their rights as guaranteed - in theory - by the Chinese constitution and body of laws.
But if rule-of-law for civil rights really is being reversed as Cohen and others fear, that doesn't bode well for liberals with lingering hopes that their fortunes will improve after the October 1st anniversary has passed. We can expect that China's liberal intellectuals and liberal bloggers will keep pushing for their rights to the maximum extent possible. One of many problems however is that the pool of lawyers they can turn to when they get in trouble is getting smaller and smaller. In which case - will that force China's liberals to get increasingly fed up, and become more radical, as Sharon Hom of HRIC suggests? Or will they get worn down, censored and marginalized, successfully discredited by the propaganda machine, their efforts unknown or misunderstood by the vast majority of the Chinese public?