"I have to tell you the times have changed, that a new era of politics is afoot in which the greatest strength in society is not violence but love."
So reads the passionate statement by one of China's best known civil rights defenders. Xu Zhiyong, a soft-spoken legal scholar, has been sentenced to four years in prison for the crime of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order." Xu in turn has symbolically put China's leaders on the stand, for denying citizens their constitutional rights. His lawyer told reporters that upon sentencing, Xu had addressed the court saying that "the last shred of dignity of China's rule of law" had been destroyed.
In his statement that he read to Beijing No. 1 Court on Wednesday, Xu portrays his arrest as far more than the authority's objection to one man. Referring to the court ruling declaring the area an "interview-free zone", with police harassing journalists and forcibly removing observers, he says: "This is actually an issue of fears you all carry within: fear of a public trial, fear of a citizen's freedom to observe a trial, fear of my name appearing online, and fear of the free society nearly upon us."
Choosing to remain silent during the bulk of his trial, Xu was only able to read 10 minutes of his pre-prepared statement out loud before the judge intervened. A group of volunteers translated the entire statement into English, in which he takes on everything from freedom of speech and movement to voting rights. Xu is a founding member of the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of civil society activists that has lately become a target of China's security agencies. At least six of his colleagues in the movement are facing similar charges.
Xu's career has been spent working within the system rather than against it. But perhaps one reason he has gained the ire of the authorities is because he firmly positions politics as being in the rightful domain of the individual, challenging the idea that politics is solely government business. He deftly turns the accusations leveled from his detractors into points of pride. "You say we harbored political purposes," he says, referring to the New Citizen's Movement. "Well we do, and our political purpose is very clear, and it is a China with democracy, rule of law, freedom, justice and love."
In an emailed statement, U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, said he was "deeply concerned" that Xu's trial was "retribution" for his public campaigns to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views and those of his colleagues. In bolder than usual language, Locke wrote:
The United States government calls on Chinese authorities to release Xu and other political prisoners immediately, to cease any restrictions on their freedom of movement, and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China's international human rights commitments.
While the New Citizens Movement has been taking on corruption and asset disclosure, China's President, Xi Jinping, has made anti-corruption initiatives a central campaign of his government. But far from treating the movement as an ally, the government seems intent on trying to stamp it out. "Instead of President Xi Jinping's promised clampdown on corruption, we are seeing a crackdown against those that want to expose it," said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.
Xu leaves behind his wife and first child, a girl, who was born only two weeks ago. Her father is now labeled a criminal, though Xu has consistently urged for change within existing state laws and has often been accused of being too moderate by other activists. In 2003, at the age of 30, with the help of an all-volunteer campaign staff, he remarkably won an election as an independent candidate for a seat in Haidian District People's Congress. By that time, he was already getting a name for himself for his support of the rights of migrant workers and private entrepreneurs. He founded the Open Constitution Initiative, an NGO that worked for greater rule of law and constitutional protections, seeking rights for petitioners, death row inmates and migrants."
One of the most well-known cases during Xu's legal career is that of Sun Zhigang, a young graduate and fashion designer, who was arrested for not carrying his household registration ID and was beaten to death in detention. In addition to offering legal counsel to the family, Xu and his colleagues wrote a petition to the National People's Congress, challenging the constitutionality of the Custody and Repatriation law that had led to Sun's detention. China's State Council ended the practice a few weeks later.
In 2008, Xu was part of a Pro Bono Legal Aid Team representing victims of the chemically-tainted milk scandal. He was arrested in 2009, shortly after the organization published a report criticizing the government's policy towards Tibet. OCI was declared illegal and heavily fined for tax evasion. Xu was released on bail one month later, but was banned from teaching and spent much of his time under house arrest. His re-arrest in August last year, came as a surprise to many, since the Open Constitution Initiative was regarded as one of the more conservative groups of its kind. In reaction to his sentencing, Alison Reynolds of the International Tibet Network says: "Xu Zhiyong is a compassionate, courageous human rights defender, who has the respect and appreciation of Tibetans and supporters for voicing a rare and well-researched alternative Chinese perspective to government propaganda on the 2008 Tibetan uprising."
What Xu and others like him are doing is embracing Chinese nationalism in the context of fighting for civil liberties, rather than as a force to limit them. Chinese nationalism has expressed itself as a pact, however uneasy, between citizenry and government. But people like Xu Zhiyong are re-framing nationalism in a more personal sphere, and within a more enduring relationship -- that between the individual and the very idea of China itself. Those like Xu Zhiyong are laying down the gauntlet, not just to Beijing to administrate its own Constitution, but to the people to demand their own rights. In Xu's vision, activists working towards a new and freer China are re-labeled from disturbers of the peace into the best possible patriots. "To oppose is to construct," says Xu, "for we are citizens of a new era... responsible to our country, and we love China."
A large part of Xu's appeal is that he also addresses an issue more intimate than politics -- that of fundamental human values. He talks of "the goodness inside every human soul" and directly connects state cynicism with society's wavering moral compass. He uses the word 'love' liberally in his public statements. His voice speaks to many who feel that their conscience has been hijacked by the state. "If the country's basic political system is such an open lie, how is it possible to build a society that values trust?...It should surprise no one that people wear frozen masks in their dealings with one another, and that whether to help a fallen elderly person can become a lasting debate."
"The New Citizens Movement," he says, "advocates a citizenship that begins with the individual and the personal, through small acts making concrete changes to public policy and the encompassing system; through remaining reasonable and constructive, pushing the country along the path to democratic rule of law; by uniting the Chinese people through their common civic identity..."
What Xu Zhiyong understands is that millions of people engaging in "small acts" has more potential to bring about serious change than the heroic efforts of a few. The Chinese State is experienced in dealing with pockets of resistance and individual troublemakers. A handful of activists can always be monitored, hunted down and suppressed by state machinery, and their efforts denounced as working against the public good. But Xu Zhiyong is suggesting that it is time for the citizens themselves to define the nature of public good, and in a way that is different to the State.
As historic as his statement sounds, it is difficult for anyone to accurately gauge the extent of Xu's influence, or of the New Citizens Movement he has helped to create. Those wishing to see China democratize will tend to inflate its influence. Those who want business as usual, will tend to underestimate it. And the movement is not without its casualties. Wang Gongquan, a wealthy businessman and one of Xu's associates, confessed to the same crimes and publicly distanced himself from Xu. He is now out on bail.
Perhaps one of the sacred cows that Xu challenges the most is the notion that the Chinese government has the copyright on what being Chinese means to its citizens. It is the duty of the Chinese people to organize for change, he is saying, and doing so is part of their function as citizens. "China belongs to each and everyone one of us, and to accept that it is up to us to defend and define the boundaries of conscience and justice. The promise of people's power should not be a lie."
"What the New Citizens Movement advocates is for each and every Chinese national to act and behave as a citizen, to accept our roles as citizens and masters of our country... To take seriously the rights which come with citizenship, those written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and China's Constitution: to treat these sacred rights -- to vote, to freedom of speech and religion -- as more than an everlasting IOU."
Xu, who was listed as one of 2013's Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine, is far from a radical. But he hints that if the government continues to restrict freedom, history may intervene. "By trying to suppress the New Citizens Movement," he warns, "you are obstructing China on its path to becoming a constitutional democracy through peaceful change."
Few in China will get to read Xu Zhiyong's statement since it has already been blocked by the country's tireless censors. But he has won the love and respect of many for his willingness to put his personal freedom on the line for his beliefs.
Xu insists that he is not interested in forming an opposition party. "Our mission is not to win power," he says, "but to restrain it." Be that as it may, his words at times have the ring of the revolutionary, with a language that Marx himself might have warmed to. "You need not fear the New Citizens' Movement," he says, addressing his government's power mongers. "We are completely free of the earmarks of authoritarian ideology... having neither leader nor hierarchy, orders or obedience...based fully on the voluntarily coming together of free citizens."
But for those invested in a system of radically centralized power, nothing could be more terrifying.