BEIJING — China’s nascent legal rights movement, already reeling from a crackdown on crusading lawyers, the kidnapping of defense witnesses and the shuttering of a prominent legal clinic, has been shaken by the detention of a widely respected rights defender who has been incommunicado since the police led him away from his apartment 12 days ago.
The man who was detained, Xu Zhiyong, 36, a soft-spoken and politically shrewd legal scholar who has made a name representing migrant workers, death row inmates and the parents of babies poisoned by tainted milk, is accused of tax evasion. The charge is almost universally seen here as a cover for his true offense: angering the Communist Party leadership through his advocacy of the rule of law.
If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison.
“We’re all shocked by his detention, because Xu Zhiyong has always tried to avoid taking on radical and politically sensitive cases,” said Teng Biao, a colleague. “His only interest is fighting for the rights of the vulnerable and trying to enhance China’s legal system.”
Mr. Teng helped Mr. Xu establish the Open Constitution Initiative, a six-year-old nonprofit legal center that the authorities closed last month, charging that it was improperly registered and that it failed to pay taxes.
Mr. Xu is not the first rights advocate in China to face the wrath of the authorities in recent years. Gao Zhisheng, a vocal lawyer, vanished into police custody six months ago, and Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer, was beaten and then jailed after exposing abuses in China’s birth-control program.
Although rights lawyers and grass-roots social organizations have always been tightly controlled here, the pressure has intensified in recent weeks. More than 20 lawyers known for taking on politically tinged cases were effectively disbarred, and the police raided a group that works to ease discrimination against people with Hepatitis B.
Last week, China’s justice minister gave a speech saying lawyers should above all obey the Communist Party and help foster a harmonious society. To improve discipline, the minister said, all law firms in China would be sent party liaisons to “guide their work.”
But given Mr. Xu’s international stature and reputation for working within the law, legal scholars both in China and abroad say his prosecution suggests a new level of repression.
“What makes his detention particularly disturbing is that he’s a special figure in so many ways,” said Paul Gewirtz, director of the China Law Center at Yale Law School, which helped Mr. Xu establish his legal center, known here by its Chinese name, Gongmeng. “He’s at the forefront of advancing the rule of law, which is something everyone agrees China needs for its ongoing development.”
After 30 years of reform, China’s legal system is at a critical juncture. Law schools continue to pump out thousands of graduates each year, and the courts, even if imperfect, have increasingly become a forum for resolving disputes. Late last month the Supreme People’s Court announced reforms intended to markedly reduce executions.
But as lawyers here discover, there are limits to China’s embrace of judicial reform.
The Constitution, which includes guarantees of free speech and human rights, is unenforceable in court. Judges routinely ignore evidence, making determinations based on political considerations. And when it comes to vaguely defined offenses like “subversion of state power” or the invoking of “state secrets” laws, even the best-trained lawyers are powerless to defend the accused.
He Weifang, a law professor and legal adviser to Gongmeng, said conservative forces in the Communist Party were increasingly wary of lawyers, who they suspect are ultimately seeking to challenge one-party rule. Their greatest fear, Mr. He said, is that advocacy lawyers and civil society organizations could one day lead a pro-democracy movement among the poor and disenfranchised citizens they represent.
“What the authorities don’t appreciate, though, is that lawyers are leading these people to the courts, where their complaints can be resolved by rule of law,” he said. “People like Xu Zhiyong can only help the government solve some of the problems it faces.”
According to Gongmeng, Mr. Xu is being held at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center, although public security officials have not confirmed that he is in their custody. Peng Jian, a lawyer who is advising Gongmeng, said the authorities had imposed a $208,000 penalty for nonpayment of taxes due on funds received from Yale for cooperative research projects.
A day after the raid on Gongmeng’s office, Mr. Xu held a news conference to say that the accusations were baseless. He described the attack on his research center as a battle between corrupt officials and society’s most vulnerable citizens. “We believe conscience will surely triumph over the evil forces,” he said.
A week later, police officers came to his door and led him away. Another employee of the research center, Zhuang Lu, was also taken away the same day.
Soon after graduating from Peking University law school, Mr. Xu became immersed in the case of a graphic artist who was beaten to death in 2003 in police custody in the southern city of Guangzhou. The artist, Sun Zhigang, 27, had been arrested under vagrancy laws that allowed the police to detain people for traveling outside their registered hometowns without a permit.
Mr. Xu led a campaign to end the practice, which gained widespread media attention. A few months later, the State Council abolished the system.
That same year Mr. Xu rose to the defense of a muckraking editor jailed in Guangzhou after his newspaper, Southern Metropolis, ran a series of articles about Mr. Sun’s death. The editor, Cheng Yizhong, said Mr. Xu helped rally lawyers and journalists, leading to his release five months later. “Only Xu had the courage to take on my case,” he said.
More recently, he tried to prepare a challenge to black jails, the illegal holding cells that some officials use to silence persistent critics. Last year, friends say, he was roughed up several times while gathering evidence from petitioners who had come to Beijing to press their grievances to the central government.
Raised in a Christian home in Henan Province, Mr. Xu was fond of noting his birth in a county called Minquan, which translates as “civil rights.” In an interview last year with The Economic Observer, a Chinese weekly, he said this had a profound impact on his social consciousness.
“I strive to be a worthy Chinese citizen, a member of the group of people who promote the progress of the nation,” he said. “I want to make people believe in ideals and justice, and help them see the hope of change.”