Since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang took power in March, activists in China have come under increasing pressure from authorities. As more and more detentions and arrests took place over the summer, human rights defenders have come to expect further violations of civil and political rights. The pattern of recent violations and its correspondence with a slowdown in economic growth seems to suggest that any further economic trouble is likely to have a negative impact on human rights in the near term.
Among those most recently detained have been human rights defenders, the most renowned of whom is Dr. Xu Zhiyong, founder of the now-banned NGO Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng and, later, Gongmin), which provided legal assistance to disempowered groups seeking redress for official abuse. Xu is also co-founder of the New Citizens' Movement, a loosely connected network of human rights defenders, dissidents and ordinary citizens, who since 2012 have been demanding that government officials disclose their wealth. Their appeal is actually in line with President Xi's efforts to crack down on corruption and impose austerity measures on government officials, but Xu's arrest now raises questions about this commitment, and suggests that China is becoming even less tolerant of dissent than before.
Formerly a lecturer in law at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and a visiting scholar at Yale Law School, Xu's detention on 16 July attracted immediate international attention. He was previously detained for three weeks in late July 2009 after Gongmeng was shut down and fined 1.4 million yuan for failing to pay taxes. Prior to his recent detention, Xu, deemed a threat to stability, had already been placed under house arrest for three months while the NPC and CPPCC held meetings. International interest in his case is due in part to the fact that Xu’s arrest on suspicion of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place" seems incomprehensible. Xu’s role in the New Citizens' Movement is better likened to spiritual leadership in calling for citizens' participation in pro-establishment actions. In a blog post explaining his vision for a "New Citizens' Movement" on May 29, Xu wrote that the political movement was not meant to encourage the overthrow of the current regime, but to build a civil society that “will do away with tyranny.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
According to information compiled by Chinese media expert and online activist Wen Yunchao, and Xu's friend and legal scholar-activist Teng Biao, more than 100 dissidents have been detained or arrested in the first six months of this year. About a fifth of them took part in the New Citizens' Movement, while 38 others were taken into custody for organizing and participating in other public collective actions not directly related to the New Citizens Movement. The number of detained activists is increasing, with the latest being well-known Guangdong rights activist Guo Feixiong, aka Yang Maodong, who was detained on August 8 on suspicion of "disrupting public order." Guo had helped organize a signature campaign to urge the National People’s Congress to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in March.
This wave of arrests and detentions of activists that emphasize citizens’ rights and call for greater government accountability is telling. China has been experiencing a slowdown in economic growth for the last five quarters. Projected fears of what the future holds for China’s economy might explain heightened sensitivities to grassroots demands to deal seriously with seemingly intractable governance issues that are likely to drag seriously on growth when investment-led strategies are no longer feasible. On the one hand, any serious fight against corruption will require the support of party elders in the CPC; on the other, the failure to grapple with the problem over the years has already begun to spook international investors. It may therefore seem necessary to muzzle voices that call for too much too quickly, when heightened expectations generated by Xi’s own rhetoric cannot realistically be met. As many more start to feel the squeeze of a slowing economy, these demands might also find resonance with a growing social base.