Authorities in China are stepping up charges against two prominent activists with the New Citizens’ Movement detained after an informal gathering of dissidents in the southeastern port city of Xiamen in December 2019.
Police are now investigating movement founder Xu Zhiyong and human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi for “subversion of state power,” rather than under the lesser charge of “incitement to subvert state power.”
“Subversion of state power” carries a minimum jail term of 10 years, with no upper limits on the severity of the sentence, where a defendant is judged to have played a leading role in the events used as evidence.
Those seen as “participants” can be jailed for three to 10 years.
Both Xu and Ding are being held in the Linshu Detention Center in the eastern province of Shandong, whose state security police are leading a nationwide operation targeting those who attended the Xiamen gathering.
Their lawyers Liang Xiaojun, Zhang Lei, and Peng Jian have yet to be allowed to meet with their clients, and are currently awaiting a response to their most recent application for a meeting, they told RFA.
Xu and Ding’s cases have been transferred to the state procuratorate for review and prosecution, paving the way for a trial, but the lawyers have yet to gain access to the case files.
“When we went to the procuratorate and enquired, they said the charges were subversion of state power, which is a very aggravated charge,” Liang told RFA. “We were very surprised by this, as the [lesser] charge was the one brought by police, after all.”
“We haven’t read the files yet, and all we can do is wait now,” he said.
Torture and sleep deprivation
Ding’s wife Luo Shengchun said Ding has been subjected to torture including sleep deprivation during an earlier period of detention in Shandong’s Yantai city in January 2020.
“Five people took turns to interrogate him over seven days and nights, and prevented him from sleeping,” she said. “They deprived him of sleep for a long time, two weeks or so, during which time he was interrogated intensively.”
“He got just one steamed bun per meal: another trick they used was cut his water ration to 600 ml a day,” she said.
Luo said Ding and Xu’s records had mysteriously reappeared on the detention center’s computer system this month, after staff there had claimed not to be able to find them.
“At least the lawyers have been able to request to meet with them, and they didn’t claim that these people didn’t exist,” she said.
Meanwhile, fellow human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng has been shortlisted for this year’s Martin Ennals human rights award after calling in an article for amendments to China’s constitution in 2018.
Yu was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for “incitement to subvert state power.”
Prizes support embattled lawyers
His wife Xu Yan said his nomination would show support for China’s embattled human rights lawyers.
“Yu Wensheng proposed amendments to the constitution,” Xu Yan said. “He also represented and defended many lawyers involved in the July 2015 crackdown [on rights lawyers].”
“For that he lost his freedom,” Xu Yan said, adding that it could encourage other human rights lawyers in difficult circumstances.
Xu was a recipient of PEN America’s 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award in December 2020, and the organzation called for his immediate release.
“Chinese officials are choosing this moment to double down on repression, using Xu to signify their imperviousness to global pressure to comply with international norms of free expression,” the group’s CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
“Chinese leaders fear Xu and other writers and advocates who dare defy the state’s official narrative on its handling of COVID-19 and call out Beijing’s deteriorating human rights record,” she said.
“Xu should be released immediately, and we call on the newly-inaugurated Biden administration to send a strong signal prioritizing his freedom and that of other imperiled dissidents as they engage with China.”
On Dec. 26, 2019, rights lawyers Ding Jiaxi and Huang Zhiqiang and activists Dai Zhenya, Li Yingjun, and Zhang Zhongshun were detained by police in their hometowns, while rights lawyer and university professor Liu Shuqing, 43, was detained by police in Shandong’s provincial capital Jinan on Dec. 31 on suspicion of “subversion of state power.”
Xu Zhiyong, who attended the Xiamen meeting and later penned an online essay calling on Xi to step down, went on the run, hiding out in a friend’s apartment in the southern province of Guangdong. He was eventually tracked down using facial recognition and surveillance footage.
Reported by Gao Feng and Chingman for RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.