China Sentences Citizens’ Movement Icon Xu Zhiyong to Four Years in Prison

A number of petitioners expressed their support of Xu Zhiyong outside the Beijing court early this morning. Photo from Zhu Chengzhi's Twitter.

A number of people expressed their support for Xu Zhiyong outside a Beijing court early 26 January 2014. Photo from Zhu Chengzhi's Twitter.

Xu Zhiyong, a prominent Chinese citizens’ rights activist and an icon for the New Citizens’ Movement, was sentenced to four years in prison by a Beijing court on 26 January 2014 for disrupting public order related to two small demonstrations for equal education rights in 2012 and 2013.

His arrest and imprisonment is part of a crackdown by new Chinese Communist Party leadership under President Xi Jinping against political liberals who have been trying to advocate for constitutional reform to protect individual citizens’ rights. More political liberals will be put on trial in coming weeks. 

To defend himself against the political prosecution, Xu wrote a long court statement on 22 January to explain his political beliefs and practices, in particular related to the New Citizens’ Movement which has been a main target of suppression since early 2013.

Xu explained the spirit of New Citizens’ Movement in the opening of his statement:


The New Citizens’ Movement urges every Chinese to become an upright citizen, to believe in and enact their citizen identity. We are citizens and the masters of the country, we are not the empire's subjects, nor their obedient servants, nor the rights-deprived grassroots, nor rioters. We have to enact our citizen rights. Those sacred rights including election rights, freedom of speech and religion written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution cannot remain an IOU. We have to enact our citizen responsibility. China belongs to every Chinese person. The baseline of conscience and justice is where we stand and we have to stand firm to protect [our values]. The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the citizen spirit of freedom, justice and love.

Peaceful gatherings or disruption of public order?

The two incidents that were referred to by authorities as disruptions of public order took place on 5 July 2012 and 28 February 2013, when Xu and other activists gathered to pressure education authorities for equal schooling opportunities for migrant workers’ children.

In China, because migrant workers do not have household registration in cities, their children couldn't enter local schools and many of them were deprived of education opportunities. The New Citizens’ Movement's campaign for equal education began in 2009 with demonstration aimed at education authorities in Beijing, and the following year, authorities granted permission to Beijing schools to admit migrant students.

The second stage of the campaign was to press the Ministry of Education to change its policy and allow migrant students to take university entrance examination according to their schools’ locations. The ministry agreed to introduce a set of new policies by mid-2012, and a small protest was organized on 5 July 2012 to follow up on the promise, which was fulfilled by the end of 2012.

But Beijing was not covered in the new policy guidelines. To press Beijing authorities to adopt the new policy, another small protest was staged outside the office of the Beijing Education Committee on 28 February 2013.

Xu explained why the two demonstrations did not disturb public order:

7.5 和 2.28請願,我們去的是教育部門,是公民到國家機關表達訴求,我們去的不是法律意義上的公共場所。刑法對公共場所界定得很清楚,是除國家機關、社會單位、公共道路之外的公共空間…

We were petitioning outside the education authority on 5 July 2012 and 28 February 2013 as citizens. The organizations are government-related authorities, not public spaces in a legal sense. According to the penal code, the buildings of government authority, collective units, highways and roads are not considered public space…

Many Chinese human rights observers believe that the two occasions are pretext for China to suppress the New Citizens’ movement, which has been vocal in putting forward citizen agendas for social and political reforms, such as pushing for officials to disclose their properties and advocating constitutionalism, a political stand that brought Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo an 11-years prison sentence in 2008. Similar to Liu Xiaobo, Xu's New Citizens’ Movement also stressed the peaceful transformation of the political system in China:


Don't be afraid of the New Citizens’ Movement. We are citizens of the new era. We say farewell to enemies and authoritative ideas such as the “emperor's landscape”, “overthrow”, “take over”. We believe in freedom, justice and love. We give up brutal actions such as “conspiracy”, “violence” and uphold peaceful and transformative acts to push for social progress under the Sun. The mission of citizens’ groups are unlike opposition parties. We believe constitutional democracy is the ultimate means to the future of a civilized polity and our mission is to promote the political transformation of China with other progressive sectors.

The four-year sentence has caught many by surprise. Liu Xiaoyuan, a Chinese human rights lawyer, expressed his frustration about the harsh reality for political moderates in China on popular microblogging website Sina Weibo:

Sources say Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in prison. This is much more than I predicted. I know that imprisonment was inevitable, but this is a heavy sentence. On second thought, in a country where there is no rule of law, such a heavy sentence is not that surprising.

Liu Xiaobo, who does not have any enemies, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for political charges. Xu Zhiyong, who advocates for non-violent acts of civil disobedience was sentenced to four years in prison for disrupting public order. What does this tell us?

Teng Biao, another prominent human rights lawyer, believed the people's struggle will never cease:

The four-year sentence of Dr. Xu Zhiyong treads on law and citizens. The public security organs, the procuratorial organs, the court and the authorities behind the scene had to be responsible for this. Prison will not destroy the people's will to resist, but will light up the people's passion to fight.

[One political prisoner is too many] The important role of Dr. Xu Zhiyong will manifest itself slowly. In the near future, authorities’ suppression of civil society will be more heavy-handed, but there will be more grassroots resistance. There will be more and more conflicts and more political activists, citizen rights activists and people with a conscience put in jail. We can lose our battles many times, but it takes only one battle to beat them.


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