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Lawsuit looms after Chinese activists rally by seaside

About twenty lawyers and activists quietly arrived at a cry ”Nice house party“Villa for rent near the Chinese seaside. They ate take out, sang along with karaoke, and played foosball. But they also had a serious goal: to discuss the besieged human rights movement in China.

Two years after this weekend of gathering in December 2019, the two most famous participants – Xu Zhiyong and Ding jiaxi – awaiting trial on charges of subversion linked to the rally, according to the indictments. Police and prosecutors used the weekend’s meeting to strike a hammer at China’s embattled “rights” movement of lawyers and activists seeking democratic change.

Meetings like this, once common among Chinese rights activists, have become more and more risky under the uncompromising reign of Xi Jinping. Under him, many newspapers, research organizations and groups that once supported independent activists in China were dissolved.

As it prepares to extend its era in power, those still speaking wonder how the Chinese human rights movement can survive a tightening ring surveillance, house arrest, detention and trial.

“It shows how terrified they are of even small buds of Chinese citizen consciousness and civil society,” Liu sifang, a teacher and amateur musician who attended the rally, said in an interview in Los Angeles, where he now lives. He fled abroad in late 2019 after police began arresting those who attended the villa meeting. Border police in China prevented his wife from joining him, he said.

“They don’t want to allow these shoots to survive,” Mr. Liu said, “so our little rally was treated as a big political incident.”

During a restaurant lunch on the second day of their two-day meeting, some noticed people appearing to be looking at them and taking pictures. Even if they had been monitored, Mr. Liu said, most believed that it might lead to brief detention and severe interrogation by the policemen in charge of monitoring them.

They were wrong.

Several people who attended the weekend session in Xiamen, east China, were quickly arrested, spending weeks or months locked up before being released. One participant, attorney Chang Weiping, was detained a second time and arrested on charges of subversion after declaring in video that interrogators tortured him during his first stint in detention.

Mr. Xu, 48, and Mr. Ding, 54, both told the lawyers that they had done nothing illegal, but they face prison terms of up to. 10 years or even more if a party-controlled tribunal convicts them, which seems almost inevitable. Some experts and supporters expected them to stand trial at the end of 2021. However, that period has passed without a trial announcement. They are still awaiting news of a hearing, possibly in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, which kick off next month in Beijing.

While Western governments have focused on the massive detentions of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, the lawsuits against Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding highlight the Chinese Communist Party’s intense campaign against dissent across China. Security agents having sworn root out all political opposition before a party convention later in 2022, when Xi is set to secure another five-year term as supreme leader.

“He and Xu Zhiyong were so confident,” said Mr. Ding’s wife Sophie Luo, who lives in the United States and has campaigned for their release. “It’s their faith and also their weakness, I would say. They think history is heading for democracy and freedom.

By the time Mr. Xi came to power in late 2012, Mr. Xu had already spent a decade as one of China’s best-known human rights defenders.

Mr. Xu sometimes noted with a smile that his home county in central rural China was called Minquan, which means “people’s rights.” In 2003, he and two other classmates from Peking University Law School turned to prominence through a successful campaign to abolish a widely despised detention system used against migrant workers in Chinese cities.

Over the next decade, he and other activist lawyers sought to awaken citizens’ initiative and expand rights by dealing with cases highlighting flaws in China’s legal system: of farmers whose lands had been destroyed. were confiscated, prisoners who claimed to have been tortured and concocted police testimonies, and aggrieved citizens held in informal prisons for trying to file a complaint with officials in Beijing.

“We have to find a way to develop the political forces that exist outside the system,” he wrote in “A beautiful China», A manifesto of his convictions. The way forward, he said, was to find ways for independent social groups to “dig themselves into the loopholes of the autocratic system.”

In 2012, Mr. Ding, an engineer turned successful business lawyer, joined the cause.

He and Mr. Xu turned to promoting a “New Citizens’ Movement”, which encouraged the Chinese people to exercise the rights given lip service in the Chinese Constitution: to association, to freedom of movement. expression and the word to the government. Mr. Xu was the theorist of the cause, while Mr. Ding tended to focus on meeting supporters.

Mr. Ding and Mr. Xu seemed to hope at first that Mr. Xi’s government would not be tougher than its predecessor. But they were detained in 2013 after promoting an open letter urging China’s most powerful officials to disclose their wealth. They were sentenced in 2014, when Mr. Xu was sentenced to four years in prison and Mr. Ding received three and a half.

In the years that followed, an increasing number of outspoken rights activists and lawyers were arrested, and some were sentenced to prison terms. Yet after their release in 2017, Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding quietly reconnected with supporters. Even as Mr. Xi tightened political controls, Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding appeared hopeful that the party regime was more fragile than many foreigners realized.

“They just wanted to keep the movement alive,” Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer and longtime friend of Mr. Xu’s, said in a telephone interview.

“They knew the risk was higher than before,” said Mr. Teng, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. “But they didn’t expect it would lead to a huge crackdown.”

In 2018, Mr. Xu, Mr. Ding, and like-minded friends and acquaintances met in Shandong Province, east China, to relax and discuss their cause.

When they met a year later in the Xiamen villa, no one noticed anything alarming there, said Mr. Liu, the songwriter present.

The participants thought they had temporarily shaken the police officers responsible for monitoring them. But they were discovered anyway.

Eighteen days later, the detentions began.

The people gathered included Mr. Ding, who later told his lawyer that the investigators force him to stay awake by constantly showing him a glowing documentary on the Chinese leader, Mr. Xi, at a breathtaking volume for 10 days and 10 nights.

Mr. Xu hid, sheltered for a time by a former prosecutor in southern China.

By that time, the Covid epidemic was spreading across China, sparking anger the government failed to act sooner to quell the infections. From hiding, Mr. Xu published a letter urging Xi to resign, arguing that he was trying to “defy the tide of history”.

It was stopped mid-February of 2020. His girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, who spoke about Mr. Xi’s treatment and his own secret detention, was detained again and officially arrested last year.

Xi now appears confident that China has largely contained Covid, while the United States, Britain and other Western countries have suffered waves of infections and deaths that have diminished their reputation in the eyes of many Chinese. Its power seems to be well established and the party has officially praised him as one of its great leaders.

But Mr. Xu remains adamant as he awaits his trial in Shandong Province, said Liang Xiaojun, who was one of Mr. Xu’s attorneys until Chinese authorities removed him from the bar, citing his comments on the law. politics and human rights.

“He has the demeanor of a revolutionary – that he cannot envisage anything other than building a beautiful China,” Liang said of his last meeting with Mr. Xu at the end of November. Still, Mr. Liang added, “If they had thought the consequences would be so severe, I don’t think they would have held this meeting.




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