Chinese Activists Face Subversion Charges for Weekend Gathering

Twenty or so lawyers and activists quietly arrived at a cheerful “Nice Home Party” rental villa near the Chinese seashore. They ate fast food, sang at the karaoke machine and played ping pong. But they also had a serious goal: to discuss the beleaguered human rights movement in China.

Two years after the December 2019 weekend meeting, the two most notorious attendees — Xu Qiong and Ding Jiashi — await trial on charges of vandalism related to the gathering, according to the indictments. Police and prosecutors used the weekend meeting to deal a heavy blow to China’s beleaguered “defend rights” movement against lawyers and activists seeking democratic change.

Such encounters, once common among Chinese rights advocates, have become increasingly precarious under Xi Jinping’s hard-line rule. Under his leadership, many journals, research organizations and groups that had previously supported independent-minded activists in China were dissolved.

As he prepares to extend his reign in power, those still outspoken are wondering how China’s human rights movement can survive a severe cycle of surveillance, house arrest, arrests and trials.

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

“They don’t want to let these buds survive, so our little meeting has been treated as a major political accident,” said Mr. Liu.

At lunch in a restaurant on the second day of their two-day meeting, some noticed people who seemed to be watching and taking pictures. Even if they were spotted, Mr. Liu said, most believed it would probably lead to brief detention and difficult questioning by police officers tasked with monitoring them.

They were wrong.

Many of the people who attended the weekend hearing in eastern China’s Xiamen were soon detained, spending weeks or months in confinement before being released. One of those present, attorney Zhang Weiping, was detained for the second time and arrested on charges of subversion after he stated in a video that interrogators tortured him during his first detention.

Mr. Xu, 48, and Mr. Ding, 54, told lawyers they had done nothing illegal, but face prison sentences of 10 years or even more if convicted by a party-controlled court, which is almost inevitable. Some experts and proponents expected that they would go to trial in late 2021. However, this time passed without a trial being announced. They are still waiting to hear news, perhaps in preparation for the Winter Olympics, which begin next month in Beijing.

While Western governments have focused on the mass internment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, the trial of Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding highlights the Chinese Communist Party’s intensified campaign against dissent across China. Security officials vowed to stamp out any political opposition before a party congress later in 2022, when Mr. Xi prepares to win another five-year term as supreme leader.

“He and Xu Qiong were very confident,” said Mr. Ding’s wife, Sophie Lu, who lives in the United States and campaigned for their release. I say “This is their faith and their weakness as well. They think that history is moving towards democracy and freedom.”

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

Mr. Xu sometimes noted with a smile that his hometown in the countryside of central China was called Minquan, which means “people’s rights”. In 2003, he and two other classmates at Peking University Law School emerged with a successful campaign to abolish the widely hated detention system used against migrant workers in Chinese cities.

In the following decade, he and other activist lawyers sought to awaken citizen initiative and expand rights by taking up cases that exposed the failings of China’s legal system: farmers whose land had been confiscated, prisoners who allege torture and falsified testimony by police, and aggrieved citizens held in unauthorized prisons. official for trying to raise their complaints to officials in Beijing.

“We must find a way to develop the political forces that exist outside the system,” he wrote in his book “Beautiful China,” a statement of his beliefs. The way forward, he said, is to find ways for independent social groups to “grow into the chasms of the authoritarian regime”.

By 2012, Mr. Deng, an engineer turned successful commercial attorney, joined the case.

He and Mr. Xu turned to promoting the “New Citizens’ Movement,” which encouraged the Chinese people to exercise the rights given in China’s constitution: association, freedom of expression, and expression of opinion in government. Mr. Xu was the theorist of the case, while Mr. Ding tended to focus on meeting supporters.

Mr. Ding and Mr. Xu seemed optimistic at first that Mr. Xi’s government would not be tougher than that of his predecessor. But they were arrested in 2013 after promoting an open letter urging China’s most powerful officials to reveal their wealth. We were convicted in 2014, when Mr. Xu received a four-year sentence and Mr. Ding received three and a half.

In the years that followed, an increasing number of rights activists and outspoken lawyers were arrested, and some were sentenced to prison terms. However, after their release in 2017, Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding quietly renewed contacts with his sympathizers. Even as Mr. Xi tightened political controls, Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding seemed to harbor hopes that party rule was more fragile than many outsiders believed.

“They just wanted to keep the movement alive,” Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer and old friend of Mr. Xu, said in a phone 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 to lead to a massive crackdown.”

In 2018, Mr. Xu, Mr. Ding and like-minded friends and acquaintances met in East China’s Shandong Province to relax and discuss their case.

When they met a year later in Xiamen Villa, no one noticed anything alarming, said Mr. Liu, the songwriter who had attended.

Participants believed that they temporarily got rid of the police officers assigned to monitor them. But they are still finding out.

Eighteen days later, the arrests began.

Among those arrested was Mr. Deng, who later told his lawyer that investigators had forced him to stay awake by constantly showing him A representative documentary about the leader of China, Mr. Xi, with a voice interrupting the call to prayer for 10 days and nights.

Mr. Xu slipped into hiding, and a former prosecutor in southern China protected him for some time.

By then, the Covid outbreak was spreading across China, sparking anger that the government did not act sooner to stifle the infection. From hiding, Mr. Xu issued a letter urging Mr. Xi to step down, arguing that he was trying to “challenge the tide of history”.

He was arrested in mid-February 2020. His girlfriend, Li Qiaocho, who spoke about Mr. Xi’s treatment and secret detention, was re-arrested and officially arrested last year.

Mr. 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 lowered their standing in the eyes of many Chinese. His authority appears to be well established, and he has been officially welcomed by the party as one of its top leaders.

Liang Xiaojun, who was one of Mr. Xu’s lawyers until Chinese authorities recently dismissed him from his post, citing his comments on politics and human rights issues, said Mr. Xu remained unproven while he awaited trial in Shandong Province.

“He has a revolutionary demeanor – that he can think of nothing but building a beautiful China,” Mr. Liang said of his last meeting with Mr. Xu in late November. However, Mr. Liang added, “If they thought the consequences would be that serious, I don’t think they would have had that meeting.”

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