A prominent Chinese activist detained for criticising President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak is being held on a state security charge that carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail, his friends said on Sunday.
Xu Zhiyong, a former law lecturer and founder of the social campaign New Citizens Movement, was taken away by police on 15 February during a fresh crackdown on freedom of speech precipitated by the coronavirus crisis.
Xu’s family found out from Beijing police on Saturday that he has been held in secret detention on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power” and has been denied access to a lawyer, according to friends Teng Biao, a legal academic, and fellow activist Hua Ze.
They said Xu had been placed in “residential surveillance at a designated location” – a form of solitary detention that can last up to six months in an unknown location without lawyer or family access. Many human rights lawyers who have been held in this form of secret detention were tortured for months before being formally charged and jailed on state security crimes.
Xu published an essay last month, which called on Xi to resign for what he saw as his lack of ability to govern China, citing the coronavirus crisis and the mishandling of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.
“You didn’t authorise the truth to be released, and the outbreak turned into a national disaster,” Xu wrote. “Whenever you face looming crisis, you’re clueless … Mr Xi Jinping, please step down.”
Teng, now based in the US, fears that Xu’s detention will end in a lengthy jail term, because he has previously been jailed and the authorities tend to punish repeated offenders harshly.
Xu, who started activism in 2003 with Teng as PhD graduates, was jailed in January 2014 for four years on the charge of “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” after writing an open letter critical of Xi and for staging protests for equal rights for migrant children and official transparency over private assets.
“Judging from previous cases, authorities tend to hand down much heavier sentences for people jailed before. And his charge this time is a much more serious than before, we worry he will be heavily sentenced,” Teng said.
A staff member at the Dongxiaokou police station in Beijing, which is responsible for Xu’s case, refused to answer questions by phone on Sunday.