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A Tribute to Xu Zhiyong: Rights Advocate and Public Intellectual

June 5, 2020

HRIC welcomes the 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award bestowed on Xu Zhiyong, announced on June 4. The honoring and recognition of one of the most influential rights advocates in China today come as Xu is detained under “residential surveillance” in an undisclosed location and facing charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”

A legal scholar and public intellectual, Xu has tirelessly used his legal knowledge to fight for social justice for the disadvantaged and promote constitutionalism and rule of law in China. He has used his writing to speak out against corrupt power and advocate for the growth of a civil society with citizens conscious of their rights as well as responsibilities. For his activism and refusal to be silenced, Xu has paid and is paying a heavy price at the hands of the current regime under the Communist Party of China. (For details, see “Xu Zhiyong: Background and a Chronology of Activism” below.)

With a doctorate in law from Peking University and two stints as a delegate to the Beijing Haidian District’s People’s Congresses, Xu was one of the founders, in 2005, of Gongmeng (also known as Open Constitution Initiative, OCI), a public interest law organization that provided legal aid to citizens, with a research arm that studied constitutionalism and rule of law. The organization was shut down by the government in 2009.

In 2012, Xu became a leading proponent for a New Citizens Movement in China. He wrote in his seminal essay in 2012: “China Needs a New Citizens Movement”:

China needs a new citizens movement. This movement is a political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance; it is a social movement to completely destroy the privileges of corruption, the abuse of power, the gap between rich and poor, and to construct a new order of fairness and justice; it is a cultural movement to bid farewell to the culture of autocrats and subjects and instead create a new nationalist spirit; it is the peaceful progressive movement to herald humanity’s process of civilizing.

In the essay, he also stressed the responsibilities that come with being citizens and the centrality of community:

Participate in civic life: Hold regular mealtime talks, discuss current political situation, pay close attention to people’s livelihood, care for public service as well as public policy, help the weak, serve society, promulgate fairness and justice. Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance.

In 2013, participants in the New Citizens Movement, including well-known rights lawyers Zhao Changqing and Ding Jiaxi and activists Liu Yuandong and Liu Ping, began publicly calling for official asset transparency through a series of street actions; and Xu himself also advocated for education equality for the disadvantaged segments of society. In late 2013 and early 2014, New Citizens Movement activists were rounded up one by one, and then charged with, tried for, and convicted of such crimes as “illegal assembly” (非法集会) and “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” (聚众扰乱公共场所秩序). In January 2014, Xu was convicted of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” and sentenced to four years in prison. He lost his appeal in April. Others received sentences of varying lengths. That year, the authorities effectively crushed the New Citizens Movement.

After release from prison in July 2017, Xu resumed his writings, covering topics ranging from nonviolence to independent local elections and the core values of a civil society.

In late December 2019, Xu went into hiding as the authorities detained, summoned, or disappeared more than 20 individuals for their involvement in a private gathering in Xiamen in early December, where lawyers and other right advocates shared ideas about advancing China’s civil society in China through peaceful means. (As of early June 2020, six remain in custody in what has come to be known as the 12.26 Citizen Case; four of them are charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”)

On February 4, 2020, Xu published “Admonition to Resign,” an essay urging President Xi Jinping to step down, citing Xi’s incompetence in governing and attempts at covering the truth of the coronavirus outbreak. Xu was taken away by police in Guangzhou on February 15 and returned to Beijing. On March 7, his family was told that he is being held on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and has been put under “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL). He has been denied access to lawyers.

HRIC urges the international community to build upon this important recognition by PEN America to press Chinese authorities for Xu Zhiyong’s unconditional release and to ensure his safety and access to lawyers.

Xu Zhiyong
Background and a Chronology of Activism


Xu Zhiyong was born in Minquan County, Henan Province, in 1973. He earned his Bachelor of Law and Master of Law degrees at Lanzhou University, and a doctorate from Peking University Law School.

Xu is a former lecturer at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and a deputy of Beijing’s Haidian District’s Thirteenth and Fourteenth People’s Congresses. In the late 2000s and 2010s, he called for equal access to education and asset transparency, and initiated a campaign, the New Citizens Movement, to appeal to the public to assume the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

A Chronology of Activism


On April 25, the Southern Metropolis Daily published a report on the case of college student Sun Zhigang, who was beaten to death at a Guangzhou reception center, stirring strong public reaction against the custody and repatriation system. On May 14, Xu Zhiyong, along with Yu Jiang and Teng Biao, submitted a citizen's proposal to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress for constitutional review of the "Measures for Custody and Repatriation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars." On June 18, the State Council approved the “Administrative Measures for Assisting Vagrants and Beggars with No Means of Support in Cities,” officially abolishing the custody and repatriation system.

In October, Xu Zhiyong, Yu Jiang, Teng Biao, and Zhang Xingshui jointly established the Sunshine Constitutional Social Science Research Center (Sunshine Constitutionalism). Sunshine Constitutionalism" promoted the election of grassroots people's congress representatives and organized legal scholars to draft two sets of recommendations for improving constitutional protection for human rights and for amending the human rights clauses in the Constitution. It also participated in many cases of social concern.


In March, "Sunshine Constitutionalism" was stripped of its operating license.

In June, Xu Zhiyong, along with  Teng Biao, Yu Jiang, and Zhang Xingshui, registered the Beijing Gongmeng Consulting Co., Ltd. (Gongmeng) and established the Gongmeng Legal Research Center as part of the company, aimed at "promoting democracy, the rule of law and social justice rationally and constructively." That year, Gongmeng was awarded the "Southern Window" magazine’s annual award for a public interest organization.

In the second half 2005, Xu was a visiting scholar at Yale University’s China Law Center.


Gongmeng helped community interest-minded small property owners to run for Haidian District People’s Congress in Beijing and advanced proposals to amend Beijing’s Measures on the Administration of Dog Ownership.

2007 – 2008

The group provided legal assistance to vulnerable groups, including victims of black brick kilns. It promoted ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which China signed in 1998) and reform of the household registration (hukou) system, published an investigative report on the economic and social causes of the March 14, 2008 uprising in Lhasa, Tibet (the 314 Incident).


In September, At the outbreak of the Sanlu melamine milk powder scandal which led to the death of least six infants and sickened another 100,000, Gongmeng organized nearly 100 lawyers from across the country to provide legal advice and services to the victims’ parents. Xu represented victims’ parents to in a class-action suit to claim state compensations. In the ensuing three years, Gongmeng represented more than 400 cases and won nearly RMB 2 million in compensation for the victims.

In late 2008, Gongmeng helped lawyers promote the direct election of the Beijing Lawyers Association, mobilizing 16,000 lawyers in Beijing for the campaign.

To conduct research for a report on petitioning in China, Xu lived in the "Petition Village" at Beijing South Railway Station for two months. He also visited Beijing’s black jails multiple times, were petitioners were held, and was beaten by thugs. Drawing on his first-hand reporting, Xu published several exposés of Beijing’s black jails. On the social conflict created by demolition and forced relocation and land requisition, Xu also made recommendations for the Draft Law on the Expropriation of Real Estate.


Xu submitted ten citizen proposals to the March sessions of the Two Congresses to advance reform of the political system, abolish the administrative monopoly on education, stop enforced family planning, prohibit black jails and protect human rights, and establish a punitive compensation system to address food safety issues.

Xu was stripped of his teaching post at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications.

In July, Gongmeng was shut down by government authorities.


On February 27, Xu was summoned by state security in Beijing for advocating the use of nonviolence means for citizens to protect their own rights and interests and for initiating campaigns demanding equal access to education and disclosure of officials’ assets. On April 12, 2013, en route to Hong Kong to participate in a symposium at the University of Hong Kong on the 10th anniversary of the Sun Zhigang case, Xu was detained at the Beijing Airport and then placed under house arrest.

On July 16, Xu was detained by the Beijing Public Security Bureau on suspicion of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” and was officially arrested on August 22.


On January 22, Xu was tried at the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court. His statement in court was interrupted by the judge. on January 26, the court sentenced him to four years’ imprisonment for the crime of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Xu appealed on February 3. On April 11, the Beijing Municipal High People’s Court upheld the lower court’s sentence.


Xu was released from prison on July 15. Following his release, he would write a great number of articles on the rule of law and political transformation.


In April, Xu Zhiyong issued an online appeal for action: "Election 2021: Put down roots in the community, serving society, run for district and county people's congresses in 2021." He urged supporters to participate in grassroots elections as a way to practice democracy.

In early December, Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, and other advocates from the New Citizens Movement met in Xiamen to discuss the current situation and future of China and share their experiences in promoting the construction of civil society. On December 26, authorities began detaining, summoning, or disappearing more than 20 individuals allegedly involved in the private gathering. The authorities widened their crackdown to include arrests in Fujian, Shandong, Beijing, Hebei, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. Many activists and lawyers went into hiding, including Xu Zhiyong.

On December 31, the police searched Xu Zhiyong's and his girlfriend Li Qiaochu's residences, respectively, and took away his niece and Li Qiaochu for detention and interrogation. The police also went to the home of Xu’s sister in Henan to "check” her hukou and to track down Xu’s mother, who is in her 80s. The crackdown is commonly known as the 12.26 Citizen Case.


On January 1, Xu published "Change: 2020 New Year's Message," calling on all circles to pay attention to the individuals believed to be in custody, including Ding Jiaxi, Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, and Li Yingjun. He then published a number of commentary pieces on the COVID-19 epidemic situation, criticizing the Communist Party of China for ignoring human rights and suppressing citizens' freedom of speech. Among them, "Admonition to Resign" was directed at Xi Jinping with the specific request that he "yield his place."

On the evening of February 15, Xu was taken away, from the home of his friend, lawyer Yang Bin, by Guangzhou public security in collaboration with Beijing public security and was taken back to Beijing the next day. Early morning January 16, Xu’s girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, was taken away by the police in Beijing, and her residence was raided again.

Xu’s family members received no official notification that month about Xu’s detention.

In early March, following repeated inquiries, Xu’s family finally obtained confirmation from the Beijing police that Xu was in their custody on suspicion of “inciting subversion of the state power,”  has been put under “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL), and is denied access to lawyers during the investigation period because this is deemed a “major case.”

On April 12, Chen Jiaping, a filmmaker working on a documentary on Xu Zhiyong, was taken away by the police; he is reported to have been put under “residential surveillance in a designated location” on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power." His place of detention is unknown and he has been denied access to lawyers. The police have confiscated all of Chen’s materials relating to Xu.

HRIC Resources

Essays by Xu Zhiyong

Essay about Xu Zhiyong

HRIC Press Releases

HRIC Special Initiative

Xu Zhiyong’s trial documents

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