As the news of the official arrest of well-known rights defender Xu Zhiyong (许志永) emerges, Human Rights in China (HRIC) has learned that the authorities have officially shut down Gongmeng (also known as Open Constitution Initiative, OCI), the public interest group Xu Zhiyong helped found. In July, Gongmeng’s Law Research Center was shut down by authorities, and state and local tax authorities slapped Gongmeng itself with a 1.42 million yuan ($208,000) fine for, the authorities asserted, taxes it owed. Since then, people affiliated with Gongmeng have been subjected to threats by the authorities.
Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), legal representative for Gongmeng’s tax case, told HRIC that on August 17, a staff member from the Beijing Haidian District Industry and Commerce Bureau went to No. 1 Detention Center, where Xu is currently detained, to inform Xu that Gongmeng was shut down for providing “false data” when it registered as a company, and that the public interest activities of Gongmeng were inconsistent with its commercial enterprise designation. Under the current law, civil society organizations such as Gongmeng that do not want to be under the supervision of government entities must go underground or register as commercial companies.
Li Xiongbing said that recently the police had continued to warn him against being involved with the Gongmeng case, and set August 18 as the deadline for him to “sever” himself from Gongmeng. On August 14, he was forced by the police to leave Beijing and go to his hometown in Hubei Province, about 700 miles away. He returned to Beijing on August 17. Li said to HRIC, “Don’t be surprised if I lose my freedom tomorrow.”
Since the tax authorities’ action against Gongmeng in July and Xu Zhiyong’s detention in early August, Li Xiongbing had applied to the local tax bureau to establish a process for paying the fines on behalf of Gongmeng. Several days later, the application was turned down on the ground that Xu had not signed papers to officially appoint Li as a legal representative. In the end, Li sent more than 700,000 yuan by money orders through the post office to the State Administration of Taxation and the local tax bureau between August 11 and August 17.
Article 201 of China’s Criminal Law, revised on February 28, 2009, stipulates that if a tax offender pays in full the taxes owed and has received administrative punishment, then no criminal action shall be brought against the tax offender.
Since Xu Zhiyong was first detained on July 29, only one of his two lawyers, Zhou Ze (周泽), was allowed to meet with him. The meeting took place on August 14. According to press reports on August 18, Xu’s official arrest notice has been issued. However, the specific contents of the arrest notice are still unknown.
In response to the news of Xu Zhiyong’s formal arrest, members of Beijing’s legal community said that Gongmeng was annihilated by the combined forces of the highest authorities in Beijing, including state and local tax authorities (which fined Gongmeng for tax violations), the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs (which shut down Gongmeng’s Law Research Center), the Haidian District People’s Congress (which approved Xu’s initial detention), the public security apparatus (which detained Xu), the procuratorate (which approved Xu’s formal arrest), and the Haidian District Industry and Commerce Bureau (which officially shutdown Gongmeng itself). Gongmeng affiliates said that despite the shutdown, Gongmeng’s ideals – “rule of law, reason, construction, and non-violence” – have reached many people in China and that Gongmeng’s work will continue.
“The legal prosecution of Xu Zhiyong and the shutdown of Gongmeng are not isolated incidents,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. “Rather, these official actions reflect a policy of suppression of independent civil society organizations. The misuse of law and legal process to intimidate and control these organizations present a grave challenge to China’s legal reform and the growth of its civil society.”
Human Rights in China urges that the international community closely monitor the increasingly difficult situation for China’s rights defenders and speak out against these attacks on independent civil society organizations like Gongmeng.
For more information on Gongmeng and civil society organizations, see:
- “Xu Zhiyong in Custody Seven Days; Still No Official Explanation,” August 4, 2009
- “Law Research Center Is Shut Down as Authorities Tighten Control on Civil Society Groups,” July 17, 2009
- “Raid of Public Interest Group Reveals Degree of Information Control,” July 29, 2009
For more information on crackdowns on civil society, see:
- “Chinese Rights Defense Lawyers under All-out Attack by the Authorities,” June 4, 2009
- “Beijing Lawyers Beaten for Representing Falun Gong Case,” May 13, 2009
- “Shanghai Rights Defender Harassed on Heels of National Human Rights Action Plan Release,” April 15, 2009
- “More than 500 Chinese Lawyers Sign Petition against Colleague’s Jail Sentence,” February 2, 2009
- “Violent Assaults on Rights Defense Lawyers Must Stop,” March 7, 2008