BEIJING (USATODAY.com) — In a land rife with graft, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has promised to punish corrupt "tigers" and "flies" — high- and low-ranking officials in the ruling Communist Party, government and army. Last week, Beijing's top anti-graft agency called on the people to help expose corruption, such as officials feasting in private clubs.
But a trial that started Tuesday in the Chinese capital offered another blunt reminder that authorities here will not tolerate civil society activists, or grant citizens their Constitution-mandated right to free speech, even when they act in support of Xi's popular campaign against corruption.
Amid heavy security around the Haidian District courthouse, prosecutors within accused Ding Jiaxi, a Beijing lawyer, and Li Wei, an unemployed activist, of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order." The charges, first aired in a January trial that was then delayed, appear politically motivated, designed to silence the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of activists, founded in 2012, who tried to reduce corruption by urging government officials to disclose their assets.
Both Ding, 46, and Li, 42, were participants in the movement, whose founder Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal activist, was jailed for four years in January on a similar charge. A verdict in his appeal should come Friday, the day after Zhao Changqing, another activist involved in the movement, is tried in Beijing.
In all three cases, defense lawyers and human rights groups expect the state will prevail as the ruling Communist Party controls China's legal system. Detained since last April, Ding and Li are among at least twenty members of the movement detained during the past year.
The New Citizens Movement maintained a deliberately loose structure, mindful of the fact that the party considers any organized, independent group a potential threat to its monopoly on power. Even so, authorities were unnerved by the participants' monthly dinner discussions, in several Chinese cities, and small-scale protests calling for greater transparency through official declaration of assets. A copy of the indictment against Ding and Li notes almost 30 instances of "street political activities", such as displaying banners and making speeches.
"In my heart, Mr Ding is innocent, he should even be praised," his lawyer Sui Muqing said Tuesday. "He is calm, and told me he is ready to be jailed. He is strong because he is a rational man who pursued social justice," Sui said. "The government targeted him because the group of corrupt officials took revenge against him, they suppress people's freedom of speech. They desperately hide the truth, they are afraid people will know more truth," he said.
Dozens of police vehicles ringed the courthouse Tuesday, as many uniformed and plain-clothed security officers checked identity cards and kept foreign journalists and diplomats away from the building. Inside the courtroom, more than 20 people sat in the public gallery, but "none of them are related to Ding Jiaxi or Li Wei," Sui said. "I guess they are paid by the court to fill the seats, as usual," he said.
The security prevented any significant repetition of the public shows of support by movement sympathizers that have occurred during earlier trials. But at least one supporter, Qi Yueying, defied the police and wore a T-shirt bearing the words 'Citizen, Freedom, Justice, Love" close to the courthouse.
"It's my right to wear it. Ding Jiaxi is a person who fights for all people's rights," said Qi, 51, a former businesswoman who was also detained last April, and released this January. "I am here to support Ding Jiaxi, I will starve for one whole day, without food and drink," she said.
"My son understands me, but my daughter worries about my safety. 'You've been arrested many times, what will happen if they arrest you again?' she said. I insisted, because President Xi asked us to fight corruption, and the corrupt officials violated ordinary people's rights. What we did is good for our country and for President Xi too," Qi said.
The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement forms part of Beijing's broader campaign to suppress dissent in civil society and tighten control of the Internet, said Maya Wang, a China researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based non-profit. "The government is not responding to civil society's call for a mechanism that would systematically tackle corruption," she said. The trial Tuesday "undermines the official rhetoric against corruption," she said.
A Communist Party-controlled committee "decides most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges is to craft a legal justification for the committee's decision," said the U.S. State Department in a human rights report on China last month. "Judicial independence" was reportedly one of the "off-limit subjects" that the party ordered university professors not to discuss, the report said.
Ding's wife and teenage daughter are currently in America. "They don't have plans to go back to China in the near future. It's a wise choice," Sui said, because family members of Chinese activists are regularly targeted by authorities. Despite his client's bleak short-term prospects, Sui voiced confidence in a more liberal future. "It's time for China to change. I believe the day will come soon," he said.
From his detention center, awaiting trial, where he has been pictured smiling, showing off his handcuffs, Ding Jiaxi also expressed optimism. "China has come to a point where every citizen should become a person with a voice and an attitude," wrote Ding in an open letter translated and published Sunday on the U.S.-based human rights website ChinaChange.org.
There remains "a long road to go to truly realize the goals of democracy and rule of law," but "society is progressing, conditions are improving, at least they are compelled to try to do things according to the law," he wrote. "Many of our forebears paid the price of their lives. If all we lose is our freedom for a period of time, this is a price that can be borne. I am very optimistic."