Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer and main founder of the "New Citizens' Movement" in China, was charged with "gathering crowds to disrupt public order" and went on trial on Wednesday. Wang Gongquan, a well-known Chinese entrepreneur who had been detained but was out on bail yesterday, admitted he was also involved.
Being regarded as an icon of human rights activists in China, Xu's case drew wide attention from the West. They blamed the Chinese government for "suppressing" dissidents, and tried to impact the verdict by putting pressure on the Chinese government.
Xu's effort to launch the "New Citizens' Movement" is not widely known to the Chinese public. Its influence can mainly be felt in academia and some groups of activists. Xu's advocacies, including constitutionalism, property disclosure of civil servants and education equality, can be expressed and are also echoed in Chinese society.
These advocacies are not incompatible with China's reforms. Xu, as well as other activists like him, will not likely be tried simply because they have these advocacies.
China is speeding up the construction of the rule of law. As for these political activists, they must have a clear vision of the boundary line between politics and law, ensuring that their political advocacies are shown to the public within the rule of law. As far as we are concerned, Xu probably advocated his political views by "gathering crowds," which "disrupted the public order."
It's a misleading thought to forcefully connect Xu's Movement and his trial as cause and effect. Xu's advocacies are a matter of politics and public opinion, not the business of the court. But the court will function if public order is disrupted.
But in actuality, the line between the rule of law and the activists' advocacy is not clearly defined. A "gray zone" is used and expanded by many dissidents, who want to legitimize their advocacy, even some radical political actions. By painting themselves as "democracy fighters," they want to step out of the jurisdiction of the law. Any charges against their violations will be interpreted as "oppression" of democracy.
Xu's case offers an opportunity for Chinese society to demarcate the rule of law. We support Xu to protect his legitimate rights in the court, and meanwhile, we call for the court to strictly comply with the laws disregarding the disruptions from the West.
Chinese society is growing to be more mature than in the old days. This outdated voice, which might call for a severe penalty for Xu after he was caught, has already lost ground in Chinese society. A flexible Chinese society can accept any verdicts given by the court, as long as they are made on the basis of facts and laws.
Respecting China's rule of law is the basic principle for the West to have dealings with China. Trying to intervene or even threaten China by "tarnishing its international image" is old news. China won't overreact to this special attention from the West, neither will China let them have a dominant say in its own internal issues.