Xu Zhiyong Arrested: How Serious Can Beijing Be About Political Reform?

Xu Zhiyong Arrested: How Serious Can Beijing Be About Political Reform?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Donald Clarke:

When I heard that Xu Zhiyong had just been detained, my first thought was, “Again?” This seems to be something the authorities do every time they get nervous, a kind of political Alka Seltzer to settle an upset constitution. I searched the web site of The New York Times to confirm my intuition. Although my hopes were briefly raised by a pop-up ad that optimistically proclaimed, “We know where Xu Zhiyong is” and offered me his address, telephone number, and credit history, the stories in the results list were depressingly as expected: “” (July 13, 2013); Xu Zhiyong “” (Feb. 20, 2011); “” (July 31, 2009). Two other detentions, , didn’t show up. There may be more I’ve missed. In any case, this is clearly a man who knows his way around the back seat of a .

Today’s topic is what, if anything, this detention means for the broader question of political reform in China. Let’s be clear: Xu Zhiyong is an extremist in his moderation. , “He is someone of rare idealism, judgment, commitment to law, selfless dedication, and fundamental decency. So that makes his detention very hard to understand.” Unfortunately, it is hard to understand only if we think that those responsible for detaining him share his values. Xu Zhiyong does not throw bombs. Unlike, say, Wei Jingsheng, he does not say insulting things that hurt the tender feelings of the leaders. He is the soul of reason and respectful discourse with all, . Yet even this man is apparently intolerable.

Xu’s offense this time seems to have been his advocacy of asset disclosure by officials. (The charge, “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” is the same – both were under informal house arrest and constantly guarded at the time of their alleged offense.) The move against him is of a piece with recent detentions and harassment of citizen anti-corruption campaigners.

For some reason new leaders in socialist dictatorships are always thought to be reformers—even KGB boss Yuri Andropov upon his ascension to the Soviet leadership was hoped to be a closet liberal because he liked jazz and spoke English. The same expectations, with about the same justification, have greeted Xi Jinping. So far, he has not had time to do much. What he has done—for example, the anti-corruption campaign—he may well be quite sincere about; I see no reason to write it off as a show designed just to keep the masses distracted while the looting continues. But what he has not done is to show any sign of plans to make the Party accountable to the people. This does not mean that he and other leaders don’t want real reform in certain areas, or that they can’t accomplish it. But it does mean that reform will not involve outside accountability. We’ll handle it ourselves, thank you very much. Sorry, citizens: it’s really none of your business.

Donald Clarke is a professor at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in modern Chinese law, focusing particularly on corporate governance, Chinese ...
Andrew J. Nathan is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He is also chair of the steering committee of the Center for the Study of Human Rights and chair of the...
Jeremy Goldkorn is the Founder and Director of Danwei, a research firm that tracks Chinese media and Internet. Danwei has been publishing a popular website about Chinese media since 2003. After...
Carl Minzner is Professor of Law at Fordham University. An expert in Chinese law and governance, Minzner has written extensively on these topics in both academic journals and the popular press. His...
Ira Belkin is Executive Director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University. Before joining NYU, he was a program officer at the Ford Foundation in Beijing, where he worked on law and...





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