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Trial looms after seaside gathering of Chinese activists

Two years after that weekend gathering in December
2019, the two best-known attendees — Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi — are awaiting
trial on subversion charges related to the gathering, according to indictments.
Police and prosecutors have seized on the weekend meeting to deliver a hammer
blow to China’s beleaguered “rights defence” movement of lawyers and activists
seeking democratic change.

Get-togethers like this, once common among Chinese
rights campaigners, have become increasingly risky under Xi Jinping’s hard-line
rule. Under him, many journals, research organisations and groups that once
sustained independent-minded activists in China have been dissolved.

As he prepares to extend his era in power, those who
still speak out are wondering how China’s human rights movement can survive a
tightening ring of monitoring, house arrest, detentions and trials.

“This shows how they’re terrified of even small buds
of Chinese citizen consciousness and civic society,” Liu Sifang, a teacher and
amateur musician who took part in the gathering, said in an interview from Los
Angeles, where he now lives. He fled abroad in late 2019 after the police began
detaining those who attended the villa get-together. Border police in China
have blocked his wife from joining him, he said.

“They don’t want to allow these sprouts to survive,”
Liu said, “so our little gathering has been treated as a big political
incident.”

At a restaurant lunch on the second day of their
two-day meetup, some noticed people who seemed to be watching them and taking
pictures. Even if they had been monitored, Liu said, most thought it would
perhaps lead to brief detention and tough questioning from the police officers
assigned to monitor them.

They were wrong.

Several people who attended the weekend session in
Xiamen, in eastern China, were soon detained, spending weeks or months locked
up before release. One attendee, lawyer Chang Weiping, was detained for a
second time and arrested on the charge of subversion after stating on video
that interrogators had tortured him during his first stint of detention.

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Xu, 48, and Ding, 54, both have told lawyers that they
did nothing illegal, but they face prison terms of 10 years or even longer if a
party-controlled court convicts them, as seems almost inevitable. Some experts
and supporters had expected they would stand trial in late 2021. That time
passed without a trial announcement, however. They still are waiting for news
of a hearing, possibly in the buildup to the Winter Olympics, which start next
month in Beijing.

Although Western governments have focused on mass
detentions of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, the prosecution of Xu and Ding
highlights the Chinese Communist Party’s intense campaign against dissent all
across China. Security officials have vowed to root out any political
opposition before a party congress later this year, when Xi is poised to gain
another five-year term as top leader.

“He and Xu Zhiyong were so confident,” said Ding’s
wife, Sophie Luo, who lives in the United States and has campaigned for their
release. “That’s their faith and also their weakness, I would say. They think
that history is headed toward democracy and freedom.”

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

Xu sometimes noted with a smile that his home county
in rural central China is called Minquan, which means “people’s rights.” In 2003,
he and two other Peking University law school classmates shot to prominence
through a successful campaign to abolish a widely despised 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 claimed torture and concocted testimony by the
police, and aggrieved citizens detained in informal jails for trying to take
their complaints to officials in Beijing.

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“We must find a way to grow political forces that
exist outside the system,” he wrote in “A Beautiful China,” a manifesto of his
beliefs. The way forward, he said, was to find ways for independent social
groups to “grow in the gaps of the autocratic system.”

By 2012, Ding, an engineer turned successful
commercial lawyer, had joined the cause.

He and Xu turned to promoting a “New Citizens’
Movement,” which encouraged Chinese people to exercise the rights given lip
service in China’s constitution: to association, free speech and a say in
government. Xu was the theorist of the cause, while Ding tended to focus on
meeting supporters.

Ding and Xu seemed hopeful at first that Xi’s
government would be no harsher than his predecessor. But they were detained in
2013 after promoting an open letter urging China’s most powerful officials to
disclose their wealth. They were convicted in 2014, when Xu received a prison
sentence of four years and Ding received 3 1/2 years.

In the years that followed, growing numbers of rights
activists and outspoken lawyers were detained, and some were sentenced to
prison. Still, after their release in 2017, Xu and Ding quietly renewed
contacts with sympathisers. Even as Xi tightened political controls, Xu and
Ding appeared carried along by hopes that party rule was more brittle than many
outsiders believed.

“They just wanted to keep alive the movement,” Teng
Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer and a longtime friend of Xu’s, said in a
telephone interview.

“They knew the risk was higher than before,” said
Teng, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. “But they didn’t
expect that it would lead to a huge crackdown.”

In 2018, Xu, Ding and like-minded friends and
acquaintances met in Shandong province, in eastern China, to relax and discuss
their cause.

When they gathered a year later in the Xiamen villa,
nobody there noticed anything alarming, said Liu, the songwriter who attended.

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Participants had thought they had temporarily shaken
off the police officers assigned to watch them. But they were still found out.

Eighteen days later, the detentions began.

Those rounded up included Ding, who later told his
lawyer that investigators forced him to stay awake by constantly showing him an
adulatory documentary about China’s leader, Xi, at an earsplitting volume for
10 days and nights.

Xu slipped into hiding, sheltered for a time by a
former prosecutor in southern China.

By then, the COVID outbreak was spreading across
China, stirring anger that the government had not acted sooner to stifle
infections. From hiding, Xu issued a letter urging Xi to step down, arguing
that he was trying to “defy the tide of history.”

He was arrested in mid-February 2020. His girlfriend,
Li Qiaochu, who spoke out about Xi’s treatment and her own secretive detention,
was redetained and formally arrested last year.

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 diminished their
standing in the eyes of many Chinese people. His power seems entrenched, and
the party has officially eulogized him as a one of its great leaders.

But Xu remains unbowed while he awaits trial in
Shandong province, said Liang Xiaojun, who was one of Xu’s lawyers until the
Chinese authorities recently disbarred him, citing his comments on politics and
human rights issues.

“He has the demeanour of a revolutionary — that he
cannot consider anything except building a beautiful China,” Liang said of his
last meeting with Xu in late November. Still, Liang added: “If they had thought
that the consequences would be this serious, I don’t think they would have held
that meeting.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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