Xu Zhiyong wasn’t able to join his wife for the birth of their daughter last week. Instead, the Chinese human rights activist was stuck in a detention center in south Beijing, facing a trial that supporters say makes a mockery of China’s recent lip service to legal reform.
That trial, expected to start Wednesday and be closed to the public, almost certainly will end with a conviction that could send Xu, a 40-year-old legal scholar and leader of China’s New Citizens Movement, to prison for up to five years, his lawyer said.
Xu is ready to pay that price, said his lawyer, Zhang Qingfang.
“Since a long time ago, he anticipated that this day would come,” Zhang said in an interview. “For society to advance, there is always someone who must sacrifice, and Xu is proud to contribute to that.”
For human rights advocates, Xu’s trial is further evidence that they were wrong in 2012 to hope that incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping would reform China’s party-controlled judicial system. If anything, the Chinese leadership is intensifying crackdowns on activists, even cautious ones such as Xu who have attempted to work within the legal system.
Although not as well known in the West as other Chinese dissidents such as the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Xu has a huge following in China. Up until his detention in July, he was a savvy user of Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and was once in the good graces of Communist Party leaders.
In 2003, he won a seat on a local district assembly in Beijing. As a lawyer, he litigated on behalf of death row inmates, victims of tainted baby formula and migrant workers whose families were denied basic rights to education and health care.
The honeymoon ended in 2009 after Xu helped start a legal aid center called the Open Constitution Initiative. That year, authorities arrested and detained him and a co-leader on what supporters say were trumped-up tax evasion charges. The Chinese government released him a month later, a decision that some reports attributed to pressure by U.S. President Barack Obama and other foreign leaders.
In 2012, Xu helped found the New Citizens Movement, aimed at combating corruption and reforming the legal system. The group starting organizing small demonstrations to urge public officials to disclose their assets, a sensitive topic for many of China’s leaders.
Police detained Xu in July and officially arrested him in August on a charge of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” Since then, authorities have detained about 50 other activists in the New Citizens Movement, including wealthy investor Wang Gongquan.
The official indictment accuses Xu of being the “ringleader” of a July 2012 protest on behalf of migrant workers outside of Beijing’s Education Ministry. While there, “protesters unfurled banners, made a racket and defied and obstructed public security police officers from enforcing the law, creating serious chaos at that location,” the indictment says.
Xu’s lawyer argues that his client was not even at the rally and now faces charges that, in China, usually apply to cases involving protests that turn violent.
It’s unlikely that Xu and his lawyer will mount a full-blown defense when the trial starts. Both lawyers object to rules set down in a pretrial hearing last week that, according to Zhang, prevent Xu from seeking testimony from co-defendants, who will be tried in a lower court.
Xu may make a closing statement at his trial, but he won’t seek to rebut the prosecutor’s claims or witness testimony because he considers the rules that have been imposed a violation of Chinese law, said Zhang.
“In my more than 10 years as a lawyer, I have never seen a case like this, where the defendants are being tried separately,” said Zhang. “This situation is against the highest court’s regulation.”
Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group, said the rules Xu is dealing with underscores how little change there’s been during Xi’s presidency.
“When the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law was revised last year, one of the purported ‘bright spots’ was improved procedures to encourage witnesses to testify in criminal cases,” she said. “But here we have a lawyer’s request to do just that turned down in a closely watched trial. This shows just how far reality departs from law on paper, and from Xi Jinping’s elusive promise of the rule of law.”