China Steps Up Crackdown on Dissidents With Jailing of Xu

China’s ruling Communist Party intensified its crackdown on dissent with the jailing of legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and another prominent dissident saying on Twitter that he was taken away by police.

Xu, the most prominent activist jailed since Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in 2009, was sentenced by a Beijing court yesterday to four years in prison on charges of gathering a crowd to disturb public order. While he was not given a formal opportunity to respond, Xu, 40, told the court that “the last dignity of Chinese law has been destroyed,” his lawyer Zhang Qingfang said by telephone.

Hu Jia, who was jailed for more than three years in 2008 for inciting subversion, said on his Twitter account late yesterday that he was being taken away by police, adding that it was probably because of his online support for Xu and other members of the New Citizens’ Movement. Hu returned home today and remains under house arrest after being interrogated by six policemen involved in Internet security, his wife Zeng Jinyan, said on Twitter. Hu’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping, confirmed by telephone that Hu had returned home.

The actions are part of a campaign by Chinese authorities to rein in dissent that has seen at least 50 activists arrested since March, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. While President Xi Jinping has led a campaign against corruption that has taken on targets in government and the military, the ruling Communist Party has also sought to check the activities of online commentators and arrested microbloggers on charges of spreading false rumors.

Citizens’ Movement

Xu helped start the New Citizens’ Movement, an alliance of activists that sought to promote rule of law, democracy and official disclosure of assets. More than a dozen associates of Xu have been detained and the trials of four other activists started today. Three of their cases were adjourned after the defendants dismissed their lawyers, Chen Jiangang, who represents one of the protesters, said by telephone today.

“Any kind of challenge to the authorities in the form of organized movement is still a big red line,” Maya Wang, a researcher with the Asia division of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said by phone. “Four years is on the heavier end and is a message to the group of activists involved in the New Citizens’ Movement and in the wider circle of activists.”

U.S. ‘Disappointment’

The U.S. government is “deeply disappointed” by reports of Xu’s conviction, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement yesterday. “We call on Chinese authorities to release Xu and other political prisoners immediately, cease restrictions on their freedom of movement, and guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments,” Psaki said in the statement.

Xu was sentenced by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court yesterday, the court said on its official Weibo account. Police manned the roads leading to the court in western Beijing before the verdict was announced and said journalists were not allowed to enter.

“His sentence was expected,” Xu’s lawyer Zhang said. “But his conviction of a crime is not fair and is illegal.”

Xu, who helped Chinese families whose children were sickened by tainted milk in 2009 to file lawsuits, had called for China to move toward democracy and abide by the constitution. He was detained July 16 in Beijing after a group of other activists unfurled banners demanding China’s leaders disclose their assets.

Workers’ Rights

The New Citizens’ Movement displayed banners, collected signatures and distributed promotional materials, Xu said in a prepared statement after his trial ended Jan. 22. It also campaigned to promote the rights of children of migrant workers to sit for university entrance exams locally.

“What the New Citizens’ Movement advocates is for each and every Chinese national to act and behave as a citizen,” Xu said, according to a translation by “To accept our roles as citizens and masters of our country and not to act as feudal subjects, remain complacent, accept mob rule or a position as an underclass.”

The verdict accused Xu of using people’s concern over certain social topics to organize and incite others to disturb public order in front of the Ministry of Education as well as other public places in Beijing, according to a copy of the verdict posted online by his lawyer Zhang.

Xu, along with venture capitalist Wang Gongquan and Ding Jiaxi, organized almost 100 people in February 2013 to gather in front of the gates of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education office that created “serious chaos” in the nearby area, according to the verdict.

Internet Crackdown

Wang was arrested on charges of assembling a crowd to disturb public order in October. He pleaded guilty to the charges, a posting on the official Weibo account of the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court said Jan. 23.

Efforts by Xu and other activists have clashed with a tightening of the space for dissent under Xi. In September, the government strengthened punishments for online defamation saying users could face imprisonment if posts are read by more than 5,000 people.

China this month detained Ilham Tohti, an academic and member of the nation’s Uighur ethnic minority, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. Tohti used a website he runs to call for the independence of China’s western region of Xinjiang, the Urumqi Public Security Bureau said in a statement posted online Jan. 25. He incited his students to overthrow the government, it said.

Xinjiang Unrest

The detention comes amid renewed unrest in the region, where more than 40 percent of the people are Uighurs. Police shot and killed six rioters who were planting explosives, a website run by the local government’s press office reported yesterday. Six other protesters died after setting off a blast while police were responding to a terrorist attack Jan. 24 in the Xinhe county of Aksu prefecture, the report on Tianshan net said.

Xu’s calls for officials to disclose their assets was part of an effort to push China to establish an anti-corruption mechanism, he said in a statement after the trial. While China punished more than 180,000 officials last year, officials are not required to publicly give details of their financial holdings.

China’s elite, including the brother-in-law of President Xi, have used offshore companies that helped hide wealth in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands and Samoa, a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists said Jan. 22.

In June 2012, Bloomberg News reported that the wealth of Xi’s extended family included investments in companies with total assets of $376 million; Hong Kong real estate worth $55.6 million; and an 18 percent indirect stake in a rare-earths company with $1.73 billion in assets.

— With assistance by Henry Sanderson

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.