China Beat Archive



Susan Jakes

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August 6, 2009 in the China Beat


Copyright August 6, 2009 Susan Jakes. Used by permission.


Earlier this year, a graduate of his country’s most prestigious law school with an impressive record of public service, a comfortable academic post at a major university, and a political office he’d won in a trailblazing election summarized his life’s mission for a local newspaper. “I strive to be a worthy citizen, a member of a group of people who promote the progress of the nation,” he told the reporter. “I want to make people believe in ideals and in justice and help them see that there is hope for change.”

Like a more well-known community organizer, Xu Zhiyong has made a career of breaching barriers and raising hopes. But, as we were reminded, painfully, last week, this kind of project looks different in the cavernous plazas and narrow lanes of Beijing than it does on the streets of Chicago. The victories are harder to see, the defeats loom larger.

In the week since Xu was detained at his apartment on July 29, much has been written about the reasons for his disappearance, what they may augur, how much worse things may get. Most stories have mentioned at least a few of Xu’s long list of achievements. But none has quite captured the remarkable breadth of his activities and the distinctive approach he brings to his work.

I’ve known Xu for five years. I met him in my capacity as a journalist and got to know him better through his work with my husband who works at Yale’s China Law Center. As was the case for many people in China, I first heard Xu’s name in June of 2003. A young graphic designer in Shenzhen named Sun Zhigang had been beaten to death in detention after being picked up by police for not carrying his household registration ID. In part because of Xu’s involvement, the case had become a national news event and I was covering the story for TIME. Others protested the brutality of the beating and the way the police had mishandled Sun’s arrest or complained about the notorious corruption of Custody and Repatriation, the system of extra-judicial jails for “vagrants” to which Sun had fallen prey.