Academics speak out against legal scholar’s trial

Five law professors have condemned the charges against Chinese legal scholar and rights campaigner Xu Zhiyong, sentenced to four years in prison on 26 January for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order” at public parks, universities and shopping malls.

During the high profile trial in Beijing of one of the most prominent rights activists in China, scuffles broke out between police and Xu’s supporters and journalists. Rights groups and foreign diplomats were barred from entering the court as observers.

The court indictment stated that the participants of a group led by Xu “had conflicts with police” every time they gathered and “made the scene chaotic”.

Transportation near the Beijing Education Commission was disrupted during a rally held in February last year to protest against the city authorities’ refusal to allow the children of migrant workers to take university entrance exams in the capital.

Despite the general climate of censorship over Xu’s case, law professors Gan Pei-Zhong and Peng Bing of Peking University, Yaohuan Qing of the law school at Renmin University of China, Wang Yong of China University of Political Science and Law, and He Haibo of Tsinghua University, have stuck their necks out to condemn the charges in a joint legal opinion issued online arguing that Xu is innocent.

They said Xu’s case should be regarded as an example of citizens’ “active participation in national politics” rather than treating the activities as a crime. The indictment did not cover the causes that Xu had been backing, which the professors said they also supported.

These include campaigning for migrant children to be allowed to take university entrance exams in the city where their parents are residing, protests against tainted baby milk formula, campaigns against the custody and repatriation of so-called vagrants, constitutional reform and the highly sensitive topic of public disclosure of leaders’ assets.

Xu, a law lecturer at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications launched the New Citizens' Movement in May 2012, a loose network of activists, and another older movement the Open Constitution Initiative, or OCI, calling for constitutional government, believed to have thousands of followers.

He was also a defence lawyer for blind dissident Chen Guangcheng who fled to New York in 2012 after escaping from house arrest.

Legitimate expression

The move by the law professors comes at a time when the government issued censorship instructions to Chinese media regarding the case, including deleting any commentary in online forums.

In an indication of the fine line between voicing an opinion and overstepping the mark, one of the five law professors, Peng Bing, told the official Global Times newspaper their opinion “was a mere academic discussion on the legality of the verdict. We did not call for anything.”

The professors also argued that pushing for officials’ assets to be made public was a legitimate expression of opinion and banners and flyers were a peaceful means of expressing views. There was no public disorder.

Making space for the peaceful and legal expressions of opinion is considered one of the functions of universities, parks and city squares, the professors said. Holding banners and advocating for the disclosure of officials' assets did not fall outside this scope.

Xu was arrested last July. His trial which opened on 22 January at Beijing’s number 1 Intermediate People’s Court ended the same day. Sentence was handed down four days later. Six other activists have been tried under the same charge.

Gaokao petitioners

Xu said in his final statement at the trial, later released by activists: "By trying to suppress the New Citizens’ Movement you are obstructing China on its path to becoming a constitutional democracy through peaceful change. You have accused me of disrupting public order for my efforts to push for rights to equal access to education, to allow children of migrant workers to sit for university entrance examinations where they reside, and for my calls that officials publicly declare their assets.

“While on the face of it, this appears to be an issue of the boundary between a citizen’s right to free speech and public order, what this is, in fact, is the issue of whether or not you recognize a citizen’s constitutional rights.”

He did not get much further reading in court before the presiding judge stopped him saying it was irrelevant to the case, according to Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang.

Xu had prominently helped parents petition the Beijing Education Commission and the Ministry of Education to change policies to allow non-local children of migrant workers to take university entrance exams, known as the gaokao, locally.

In response to the campaign, the Ministry had issued a new policy in August 2012 ordering local authorities to draft guidelines to implement changes. “We drafted a proposal for migrant workers’ children to take college entrance exams locally and our draft was adopted by most provinces and cities,” Xu said in his statement.

Some 29 provinces and cities across China released plans to implement the policy but not Beijing. “The Ministry of Education failed to live up to its own publicly issued promise, nor did it provide any explanation,” according to Xu’s unread statement to the court.

Protests were stepped up in Beijing, including a large protest last February outside the Education Commission which led to the indictment.

Constitutional initiative

Another professor, Zhang Zanning, professor of law at Southeast University, last month spoke out separately in favour of Xu, particularly over the labelling of the Open Constitution Initiative, also known as Gongmeng, as an anti-Party group – a highly inflammatory accusation dating back to the Mao Zedong era.

“The OCI is only conducting the rights and duties of a citizen. They participate in the National People's Congress election, advocate civil society, and its activities are well within people’s voices,” Zhang said.

The OCI, founded in 2003, provided free legal aid advice but was closed by the authorities in 2009, who accused it of tax evasion. Xu was barred from resuming his post at the university after being detained for almost a month in 2009.

The five law professors’ opinion has been widely circulated. However, other professors who supported Xu’s New Citizens’ Movement have been cautioned and even sacked. One of the reasons for the dismissal of former associate economics professor at Peking University Xia Yeliang from the university last June related to his public support for the movement.

Communist Party secretary Zhang Zheng of the school of economics at Peking University warned Xia Yeliang in an email that the university opposed Xia’s participation in a petition to support Xu and called on Xia to “cancel his signature and make a written confession on the cancellation”.

When Xia declined, he was sacked ostensibly for poor teaching but is currently suing the university for “wrongful termination”. The case has been accepted by a Hiadian district court in Beijing, according to official Chinese media.