Xu Zhiyong trial prompts debate

By Chang Meng and Jiang Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-28 21:43:01

Photo: IC

The Sunday verdict handed down to Chinese lawyer and activist Xu Zhiyong on charges of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order at public places" has prompted a wide range of responses regarding its legal and political significance.

Xu, 40, the founder of the New Citizens' Movement, was sentenced to four years in prison by the Beijing No.1 Intermediate People's Court, after being placed in detention in July 2013.

Xu has decided to appeal against the sentence, his lawyer Yang Jinzhu told the Global Times on Tuesday.

The court indictment said Xu organized and incited around 100 parents to rally outside the Ministry of Education (MOE) in July 2012, and rally in front of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education in February 2013, to seek education equality.

Xu's charges also include another three occasions between December 2012 and March 2013, when he allegedly incited people to hand out fliers and hold banners in public places, including universities, parks and city squares, to advocate for the disclosure of officials' assets, said the court.

Some foreign media claimed the verdict represented "suppression" of China's liberal activists, while the US State Department labeled it "retribution" and expressed deep disappointment in a Sunday statement.

But other observers say that discussions on Xu's conviction should not politicize legal issues, and that the legal process focused on his actions rather than the values he was advocating, which were actually in accordance with the country's political reform process. 

Debate continues

"Despite knowing that organizing people to gather in public places for certain appeals and holding banners would draw onlookers, which could easily disrupt social order and cause participants to resist law enforcement, Xu kept doing so and did not take effective measures to prevent such consequences," the court stated when giving grounds for the conviction in the indictment.

However, in a document posted online late Sunday evening, five law professors called for a review into the legal basis for Xu's charges.

The scholars argued that the front areas of the MOE building and the Beijing education commission don't provide particular service functions and full access to the general public like transport terminals, malls, parks or stadiums, which are considered as "public areas" when defining Xu's crime.

Meanwhile, space for the peaceful and legal expressions of opinion is considered one of the functions of universities, parks and city squares, the scholars claimed, adding that holding banners and advocating for officials' assets disclosure don't fall outside this scope.

Peng Bing, a professor with Peking University and one of the five scholars, confirmed to the Global Times his views on the opinion piece. "It was a mere academic discussion on the legality of the verdict. We did not call for anything," Peng said.

The indictment stated that the participants had conflicts with police every time and made the scene chaotic. Transportation near the Beijing education commission was also disrupted in the February 2013 rally.

The indictment did not cover the causes that Xu has been advocating for, which the scholars said they also support.

"Improper means"

A series of other cases connected with Xu's campaigns went on trial last week under the same charges, among them was the trial of Wang Gongquan, a venture capitalist, who posted bail pending trial on January 23 after admitting that he had planned some of the activities with Xu.

Some supported the ruling. Dong Shaomou, a law professor at the Northwest University of Politics and Law, explained that the ruling does not exceed the five years' imprisonment cap and the judge applied his discretionary power.

Xu is entitled to appeal against the verdict under procedural justice, but if the final judgment sustains the original ruling, one must respect it, which is also a basic judicial principle, said Fu Siming, a professor with the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

Equal access to education and the disclosure of officials' assets have been popular causes in recent years, and Xu's verdict was a useful guide in clarifying the legal boundaries for advocating such cause, observers said.

The five scholars wrote that Xu's verdict should be distinguished from the similar crime of assembling a crowd to "disturb traffic order," and the crime of "attacking State organs." The three crimes were carefully designed in the Criminal Law to properly handle possible conflicts between the public's right to free expression and social stability.

While the court ruled that Xu had used improper means to convey his requests and caused "serious consequences," the definition of "serious" remains ambiguous and needs to be clarified, Tong Zongjin, a law professor with the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times.

Rising social conflicts have resulted in similar activism in recent years, which could be overzealous but understandable given current policy flaws, Wang Zhanyang, director of the Political Science Department at the Central Institute of Socialism, told the Global Times.

Some experts echoed Wang, saying that social dynamics have been changing through the interactions between the public and the government, with public requests forcing political reform, and proper reform will in return make people more rational.

"The tension has been easing in the past year. It will eventually fade away when the public sees more hope, as authorities continue to work on the anti-graft campaign and carry out reforms," said Wang.

Authorities have been advancing projects concerning the disclosure of the assets of officials and equal access to education, which Xu advocated.

Altay Prefecture, of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, began to take the lead in declaring assets in 2009 and officials in Guangdong Province will begin to make public their personal assets after the Spring Festival of 2014, media reported.

Beijing has allowed children of migrant workers who have paid social insurance for more than six years but have their household registration elsewhere to attend the national college entrance examination, or gaokao, in the capital.

Students in Shanghai whose parents have a residence permit and a high enough score under the points-based residency permit system will be able to sit the city's gaokao.

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