China detains civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong

Reuters, BEIJING

Thu, Jul 18, 2013 - Page 6

China has detained a key campaigner for officials to reveal their wealth, a close friend of the activist said yesterday, as the new government escalates a crackdown that underscores the limits of its fight on corruption.

The detention of Xu Zhiyong (許志永), who has pushed for greater civil rights, could lead to a trial and trigger a global outcry over Beijing’s tightening grip of a fledgling movement for officials to disclose assets.

China has detained 16 activists in the disclosure campaign, in what rights groups say is the new leadership’s first crackdown targeting graft campaigners.

“It’s possible more people will gradually be caught,” a close friend of Xu, the best known of the activists and the founder of the “New Citizens’ Movement” Teng Biao (滕彪) said.

Xu has been held under house arrest for three months, with no reason given by the authorities, Teng, a former human rights lawyer, said by telephone, adding that there was a high possibility Xu could face trial.

Beijing police detained Xu late on Tuesday night on a charge of “suspicion of gathering a mob to disturb order in a public place,” a copy of Xu’s detention notice says.

The police declined to confirm the detention. Xu’s mobile phone was turned off yesterday. His wife declined to be interviewed.

Xu’s detention is likely to draw the attention of Western governments, which have sparred with China over human rights. The news came as China prepares to put on trial three activists agitating for officials to disclose assets.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) appointment as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary in a once-in-a-decade leadership change last November had inspired many Chinese with hope for political reform, spurring citizens nationwide to push for the asset disclosures.

The detentions signal the CCP will not tolerate any open challenge to its rule, despite the claims of greater transparency.

“This crackdown not only flies in the face of Xi’s rhetoric, it also undermines Xi’s legitimacy,” Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang said. “The right thing to do would be for the government to release the activists.”

Xu has been a thorn in the government’s side. In 2009, he was briefly arrested on tax evasion charges his defenders said were trumped up in a bid to stifle his work. The charges were dropped after a public furore.

In May, Xu said he was under house arrest.

“It could be due to my campaign to push for asset disclosure,” he wrote in an e-mail message.