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August 3, 2009 in the China Beat


Copyright August 3, 2009. Used by permission.


1. An important story emerged this weekend in the blogosphere: Chinese legal scholar Xu Zhiyong was taken from his home by police last Wednesday and has not been seen since. From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

Xu might not have reached Marshall status yet, but he is as close as China gets to a public-interest icon. He teaches law at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. He has also run the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research organization that worked on many of China’s path-breaking cases. He and his colleagues had investigated the Sanlu milk scandal, in which dangerous baby formula harmed children’s health, and assisted people who had been locked up by local officials in secret undeclared jails. All of those activities are emphatically consistent with the goals of the Chinese government, even if they angered the local bureaucrats who were caught in the act.

Xu has never set out to undermine one-party rule; he is enforcing rights guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution. He has enough faith in the system that he joined it: in 2003, he ran for and won a seat as a legislator in his local district assembly, one of the few independent candidates to be elected in an open, contested election. He even received the recognition, rare among activists, of being profiled last year in a Chinese newspaper. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” he said at the time. “I am determined to prove to the citizens across the country that politics should be desirable.”

His work naturally angered parts of China’s bureaucracy, and pressure on him mounted. On July 14th, the Open Constitution Initiative, also known as Gongmeng, was fined 1.42 million RMB for “tax evasion.” Then it was banned. Xu was to have had his day in court, except he was picked up before he could. Separately, a young colleague named Zhuang Lu has also been detained, and her whereabouts are unknown. It is easy to look at China’s list of high-profile detentions and rationalize them: That guy was a cowboy, or, things in China are improving, and we have to keep it in context. Sorry. Not this time. Xu is no cowboy.