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.


Andrew J. Nathan

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 Morningside Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Columbia. Nathan served as chair of the Department of Political Science, chair of the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Before coming to Columbia in 1971, he taught at the University of Michigan. His teaching and research interests include Chinese politics and foreign policy, the comparative study of political participation and political culture, and human rights. Nathan is co-chair of the board of Human Rights in China, a member of the board of Freedom House, and a member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch, Asia, which he chaired from 1995 to 2000.  He is the regular Asia book reviewer for Foreign Affairs magazine and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Democracy, The China Quarterly, The Journal of Contemporary China, China Information, and others.Professor Nathan is the author and co-author of numerous books, including, Peking Politics, 1918-1923 (University of California Press, 1976); Chinese Democracy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985); China’s Crisis (Columbia University Press, 1990); and The Tiananmen Papers, co-edited with Perry Link (Public Affairs, 2001); among others.Nathan’s articles have appeared in World Politics, Daedalus, The China Quarterly, Journal of Democracy, Asian Survey, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Asian Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. His research has been supported by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and others.Professor Nathan received a B.A. in History, summa cum laude (1963), an M.A. in East Asian Regional Studies (1965), and a Ph.D. in Political Science (1971) from Harvard University.

We don’t know who makes decisions like this, but my best guess is that it is usually not the political generalists in the government but the security professionals. They are tasked with keeping social order and protecting the regime. For them, the most frustrating antagonists are not rioters and demonstrators, terrorists and saboteurs, thieves and murderers, but those who operate within the letter of the law and attract widespread social support—people such as Liu Xiaobo and Chen Guangcheng.  Liu penned an eloquent appeal for the regime to obey its own constitution, got hundreds of intellectuals to sign it, and received the Nobel Peace Prize.  What could be more offensive?  Chen wrote appeals for women illegally coerced by family planning authorities and became a darling of Beijing intellectuals and the international community.  Such arrogant nonsense!  These are the most maddening antagonists for the security men.

Xu Zhiyong is such a person—fighting for good causes without violating a single law, and gaining widespread respect and affection for doing so. In the eyes of the security men, what could be more devious, more perverse?  The absurdity of the charge against him sends an intentional message. Just as Liu was charged with mobilizing others to subvert state power because he defended the Chinese constitution and Chen was charged with obstructing traffic even though he is blind and under house arrest, so Xu Zhiyong, who also has been under house arrest, is accused of  "assembling a crowd to disrupt public order."  The message is, "The law is for us; it is not for you."


Jeremy Goldkorn

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 moving to China in 1995, Goldkorn lived in a workers dormitory, started and managed several magazines and a design firm, and rode a bicycle across Xinjiang and Tibet. He has written for publications as diverse as China Economic Quarterly, Cosmopolitan’s China edition (时尚杂志), and The Guardian. He is an Affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World and a Co-Editor of the China Story Yearbook.He is co-host of the Sinica podcast. Goldkorn’s writing, public speaking, and podcasting activities cover a range of subjects from media regulation, Internet business, censorship, and the habits of Chinese Internet users, to Sino-African affairs, the Great Wall, and Chinese consumer culture. Goldkorn was born and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. He currently lives in Nashville, Tenn.

Xu Zhiyong’s detention is hardly a surprise. What I do find surprising is that some observers still believe that there are reformist elements in the Party that are powerful enough to bring about meaningful change. This belief reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s cosmic teapot, originally an argument for atheism, but it makes complete sense when thinking about meaningful political reform in China in 2013. To paraphrase Russell: Nobody can prove there is not a miniature teapot between the Earth and Mars revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks the existence of this teapot is likely enough to to be taken into account in practice. So with political reform in China in 2013, under Xi Jinping.

I think a better guide to the way the Party thinks about reform is to read the works of and : The system is excellent and meritocratic and probably better than Western political systems. Why would anyone want significant change?

Carl Minzner

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 op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor.He has served as Senior Counsel for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. He was a 2006-2007 International Affairs Fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Yale-China Legal Education Fellow at the Xibei Institute of Politics and Law in Xi’an, China. He has also worked as an Associate at McCutchen & Doyle (Palo Alto, CA) and as a Law Clerk for Hon. Raymond Clevenger of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.Minzner holds a B.A. from Stanford University, a M.I.A. from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School.

So Xu Zhiyong has now been arrested for disturbing public order. These are the same charges as those brought against back in 2006.

In fact, the state's behavior with regard to China’s rights activists is becoming a part of a disturbingly repetitive pattern: Activist attempts to use existing legal channels to protect citizen rights, gaining a certain degree of notoriety in the process; State becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and begins closing down said channels; Activist moves on to more mobilized, less institutionalized forms of activism; State then ends up arresting said activist on criminal charges. (See Don’s discussion of Xu Zhiyong’s success in the Sun Zhigang case ).

For Chinese authorities, this is just a necessary part of maintaining social stability in an increasingly tumultuous society.

Really? They might want to take a look at their own history.

Take, for example, the case of (1823-1876). A young intellectual from the southwestern province of Yunnan, he also attempted to petition authorities in Beijing, seeking to call the Qing emperor’s attention to the failure of Yunnan officials to protect local residents in the face of mounting abuse and widespread violence. Jailed for bringing false charges, he returned home, dejected and having lost faith in the imperial system.

Oh, yes. One more thing. Then Du ended up organizing a coalition of the disaffected across Yunnan and launching a 17-year long rebellion against Qing imperial rule. The death toll? Hundreds of thousands.

Now explain to me again, very slowly, how Chinese state policies of a) curtailing the growth of authorized legal and political channels for resolving popular grievances and b) suppressing the very individuals who are attempting to encourage citizens to use them, produces real social stability for China, instead of fueling an extremely dangerous spiral of social and political radicalization.

Ira Belkin

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 rights issues. His grant-making supports Chinese institutions working to build the Chinese legal system, to strengthen the rule of law, and to enhance the protection of citizens' rights, especially the rights of vulnerable groups. Prior to joining the foundation in 2007, Belkin combined a career as an American lawyer and federal prosecutor with a deep interest in China, and spent seven years working to promote the rule of law in China. His appointments included two tours at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and a year as a fellow at the Yale Law School China Law Center. After graduating from NYU Law, Belkin spent sixteen years as a Federal Prosecutor, including time in Providence, R.I. where he was Chief of the criminal division, and in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was Deputy Chief of the general crimes unit.Before attending law school, Belkin taught Chinese language at Middlebury College. He has lectured extensively in Chinese to Chinese audiences on the U.S. criminal justice system and to American audiences on the Chinese legal reform movement. In addition to his J.D. from New York University School of Law, Belkin has a Master's Degree in Chinese studies from Seton Hall University and a Bachelor's Degree from SUNY Albany.

It is with no small amount of sadness that I write about Xu Zhiyong’s detention.  Back in 2003, he was one of three young PhD’s who, following legally prescribed procedures, petitioned the National People’s Congress to abolish the system of “custody and repatriation” (which permitted the police to detain migrants and forcibly send them back to the countryside) on the ground that the system violated the Chinese constitution.  A few months later, without explicitly ruling on the petition, Premier Wen Jiabao announced the abolition of “custody and repatriation.”  Many observers of the Chinese legal scene thought that this augured a new, more robust period for the Rule of Law in China. Perhaps the rights enshrined in the Chinese constitution could even be made meaningful in daily life.  The abolition of “custody and repatriation” became a signature achievement of the early years of the Hu-Wen administration.

However, hope for a new dawn in Chinese Rule of Law was short lived.  After a summer of hope, the word went out to stop discussing the constitution and voices for significant reform were quieted.
Nevertheless Xu Zhiyong became a popular lawyer and was even elected as a delegate to his local party congress. It is unclear exactly when the authorities began to view Xu differently. Perhaps it was his investigation and exposure of “black jails,” another form of unlawful official detention used by provincial governments to prevent petitioners from presenting their complains to central government offices. The NGO he founded, Gongmeng, was more or less disbanded but he continued to use the law to advocate for reforms.

To an outside observer, Xu Zhiyong’s “offense” appears to be taking the government and the party at its word. As in the past, Xu Zhiyong always seems to be taking the law seriously even when the message from the powers that be is to ignore the law and follow political instructions.
When the new leadership announced that combating corruption was one of its top priorities, Xu Zhiyong and others decided to advocate publicly for a requirement that high level officials disclose their financial assets.  This is not a novel idea and has been discussed in Chinese academic circles for years. Moreover, public participation in rule making and law making has been a policy of the Chinese government for many years now.

Experienced China watchers will say that of course, everyone knows that in China reading the political winds is more important than reading the constitution or the law, and perhaps that is true. But what does it say about China in 2013 that it still uses the power of the State to silence even its most responsible public advocates? The seemingly spiteful detention of even one lawyer or citizen for merely advocating legal reform undermines the positive image China is trying so hard to create for itself around the world.

China’s leaders could stop the damage now by releasing Xu Zhiyong and his fellow advocates and either taking up their reform proposal or explaining why they are not ready to do so.  

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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