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Chinese Court Upholds Activist Xu Zhiyong's Prison Sentence

As a Beijing court on Friday upheld the conviction of human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, the New Citizens Movement he co-founded took its case to the court of public opinion.

A Hong Kong publisher released the constitutional activist's book “To Be a Citizen: My Free China,” which was described as “a combination autobiography and political manifesto that traces Mr. Xu’s political awakening and elaborates his vision for a China where rules trump politics.”

At the same time, the New Citizens Movement launched a website declaring, “Freedom is our goal, justice is our spirit, and love is our foundation.”

Screenshot of the New Citizens Movement's website.

Screenshot of the New Citizens Movement's website.

“Through the citizens movement, we will galvanise society, rebuild our values, remake our social core. The new society that emerges will lead China’s transition to constitutionalism. This is the prevailing tide of our time, and any attempt to hold it back is destined to fail, like beating back water with a sword,” the site says, according to a translation by the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

“Xu Zhiyong and the others have already sacrificed their freedom in order to open a road for the New Citizens Movement. This is the road to a free China. It is the road to a better China. We have only to take to this road, to join forces with the New Citizens Movement. We are duty bound to forge ahead.”

Those developments coincided with Friday's ruling by the Beijing Supreme People’s High Court, which rejected Xu's appeal of his January conviction on charges of “gathering crowds to disrupt public order”, which is often used by Chinese authorities to clamp down on dissidents and rights activists. 

The high court ruled that the trial court was correct in finding Xu guilty and sentencing him to four years in prison.

After the decision was announced, the South China Morning Post posted a video interview with Xu from his jail cell. In the interview, Xu said, “Someone has to pay the price for social progress. I am willing to pay any price for freedom, justice, love and faith.”

Xu, 41, is a lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications and an attorney who has helped the underprivileged, including inmates on death row and families harmed by tainted baby milk in 2008.

Xu was a founder of China's Open Constitution Initiative and its successor, the New Citizens Movement. In late 2012 and early 2013, the New Citizens Movement held peaceful, small-scale protests against corruption and discrimination in Shenzhen, Beijing, Jiangxi and other cities. Chinese authorities started arresting leaders of the group, including Xu, last spring.

Many human rights and free speech advocates considered Xu's trial in January a sham. Outside the courthouse, security personnel harassed reporters, diplomats and supporters of the New Citizens Movement.

On Jan. 26, the Beijing Number One Intermediate People's Court handed down a four-year sentence to Xu, whom Foreign Policy magazine listed among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013.

As the appeals court affirmed Xu's conviction and prison term, five other activists with the New Citizens Movement activists were put on trial this week, also on charges of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.”

The independent, international organization Human Rights Watch called on China to drop the charges against Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, Zhang Baocheng, and Zhao Changqing.

“If Chinese authorities insist that these people’s peaceful civic activism constitutes a threat to public order, it’s hard to tell what doesn’t,” said China director Sophie Richardson. “The selective persecution of those who are doing nothing more than trying to improve governance through legal means has to stop now.”

Microblogs and other social media buzzed about Friday's news regarding Xu.

On Twitter, the group Human Rights in China posted Xu's statement to the high court:

Another organization, Chinese Human Rights Defenders, tweeted its disgust with the court's ruling:

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, tweeted that Xi was “just asking for the right to ask for rights. Even that was too much for the Party apparently.”

A Twitter user in Beijing called Xu a “brave man.” And Time magazine's Beijing correspondent tweeted a stirring quote from Xu:

There were postings about Xu on Sina Weibo, China's leading microblogging service, too. One man posted a photo of Xu's book and suggested it had been released in anticipation of an unfavorable ruling by the high court. But support for Xu was far less evident on Weibo than on Twitter – and that's not surprising.

The China Media Project posted on Sina Weibo a passage from Xu: “Citizens, let us begin from this moment. No matter where you are, no matter what your profession, rich or poor, let us in the depths of our hearts, in our daily lives, on the internet, and on every inch of this vast land, firmly and loudly declare the identity that rightfully belongs to us: I am a citizen; we are citizens.”

But censors deleted the post, calling it “inappropriate”:

Many of the posts that had been deleted from Weibo have been archived at a site called FreeWeibo.com. They include, for example, a blurb from and link to a story about Xu's book by The Wall Street Journal.

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