Seven days after Xu Zhiyong (许志永), the director of Gongmeng, a public interest organization in Beijing, was taken away by State Security of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, there is still no official explanation for his detention. According to unofficial reports, Xu Zhiyong is being detained on tax evasion charges and is currently being held at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center.
Gongmeng, also known as Open Constitution Initiative (OCI), is an organization set up to provide legal consultation and assistance to the public. Despite the public-interest nature of its work, Gongmeng has registered as a for-profit company in order to operate independent of government control. Under Chinese regulations, all civil society organizations must be supervised by a high-level government unit, an arrangement that effectively puts them under direct government control. On July 17, the Chinese authorities shut down Gongmeng’s Law Research Center, citing its failure to register with the government. Three days earlier, tax authorities had notified Gongmeng that they would be fined 1.42 million yuan ($208,000) for tax violations. Gongmeng’s website has also been shut down by the authorities.
Xu Zhiyong, 36, is a professor at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and was a representative of Beijing’s Haidian District at the Thirteenth and Fourteenth People’s Congress. In October 2003, he, Yu Jiang, Zhang Xing Shui, and Teng Biao founded Gongmeng with the goal of advancing the rule of law and social justice, and promoting civil rights defense activities. Its high effectiveness has gained it the moniker the “cradle” of China’s rights defense lawyers. It recently provided continuous legal assistance to the victims of the Sanlu tainted milk scandal in their damages compensation lawsuit.
Xu Zhiyong was born in Minquan County, Henan Province. Having resolved in middle school to devote himself to public service, he earned his Bachelor of Law and Master of Law degrees at Lanzhou University. He later entered Peking University Law School, where he gained a doctorate. His pursuit of rights defense issues has included many famous cases: in 2003, Xu Zhiyong, Yu Jiang, and Teng Biao petitioned the People’s Congress in the Sun Zhigang incident,1 and one month later, the custody and forced repatriation procedure was abolished. Xu Zhiyong also defended the legal rights and interests of privately-run enterprises in the Sun Dawu2 case and represented Chen Guoqing3 from Chengde in a nine-year-long case of deferred death sentence. Unafraid of violence, he has persisted in investigating “black jails” used to lock up government petitioners.
Human Rights in China urges the international community to scrutinize the progress of Xu Zhiyong’s case. “It is clear the authorities are using the legal process to harass and prosecute right defense lawyers,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. “By suppressing Xu Zhiyong, who is a moderate voice for social change and has dedicated his career to helping forge a society with genuine rule of law, the authorities are running the risk of radicalizing the forces for reform and change in China.”
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1. The Sun Zhigang incident refers to a case in which a 27-year-old university student died in police custody on March 20, 2003, after being detained for not carrying a residence permit (hukou) or temporary living permit (zanzhuzheng). After an autopsy revealed that he had been severely beaten prior to his death, a public uproar in the press and on the Internet caused the Chinese government on June 20, 2003, to end the custody and repatriation procedure whereby migrants could be detained and sent home for not carrying proper identification. Xu Zhiyong wrote a public letter to the National People’s Congress regarding the case. ^
2. Xu Zhiyong represented Sun Dawu, a popular founder of one of China’s largest private companies, who was tried for illegally taking public funds, after he accepted deposits from farmers and provided them a higher interest rate than State banks. Sun Dawu had often criticized State banks for extracting huge kickbacks for loans and had called for an alternative private credit option. After spending 158 days in prison he was released with a suspended sentence of three years. ^
3. On January 9, 1996, Chen Guoqing was arrested along with three others in Chengde, Hebei Province, for robbery and murder. Despite having a strong defense and alibi, Chen confessed to the crime following torture by the police. He was sentenced to death on August 12, 1997, and in three subsequent retrials (October 13, 1997, October 20, 2000, and March 26, 2004) was given the same verdict; however, in the final retrial (March 26, 2004), his sentence was commuted to a suspended death sentence. ^