Xu Zhiyong, a Chinese lawyer and activist who has led a fledgling but fast-growing anti-corruption movement, was on Wednesday put on trial amid high security in the Chinese capital.
Mr. Xu has been charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”, and could face a five-year jail-term.
His supporters say Mr. Xu is being punished in an attempt to silence his movement, which has campaigned for the Communist Party of China (CPC) to force its officials to disclose their assets.
Despite the heavy police presence, a few dozen supporters of Mr. Xu gathered outside the west Beijing courtroom, chanting slogans against corruption and unfurling a banner calling on officials to declare their assets. Some of the protesters were later taken away by the police.
Mr. Xu and his lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, have protested the conduct of the trial. Both chose not to speak during Wednesday’s closed-door proceedings. Mr. Zhang later told reporters he believed there was no possibility of a fair trial.
Mr. Xu is the most prominent face of an anti-corruption rights movement that has spread its presence among progressive Chinese in the past year. Established in 2012, the “New Citizens Movement” began through informal dinner meetings aimed at spreading rights awareness.
The campaign later took to the streets, with members unfurling banners at street corners in several cities across China, calling on officials to declare their assets. As photographs began to be shared widely through social media websites and the movement gained traction, the Party stepped in and began detaining its members.
The New Citizens Movement had attracted followers from a cross-section of society, from executives to lawyers and students. In October, a billionaire entrepreneur, Wang Gongquan, was detained over his involvement with the movement.
Mr. Xu, who had established a reputation as a muckraking lawyer who took on sensitive cases, was in many ways the face of the movement.
Before he started the movement in 2012, he ran a legal firm in Beijing called Gongmeng, or the Open Constitution Initiative. His team of lawyers took on sensitive cases, representing the victims of milk poisoning and the families of migrant workers who were prevented from enrolling their children in city schools.
The organisation won acclaim after it took up the case of a 27-year-old graduate student, Sun Zhigang, who was beaten to death in a Guangzhou police station in 2003 after he was found without identification papers. Outcry over the case brought far-reaching reforms of custody laws. Gongmeng was closed down in 2009 when it was raided by the government for alleged tax violations.
Mr. Xu is not the first member of the New Citizens Movement to face trial. Since last March, when the new leader Xi Jinping took over as President, more than 50 activists have been detained, according to Human Rights Watch, which has monitored their cases. Many of them were linked with the movement, and had been campaigning for assets disclosure and for greater political rights.
Mr. Xi, the President, has pledged to tackle rampant corruption by going after both “tigers” and “flies” in the CPC, referring to high-level officials and lower cadres. The Party has, however, cracked down on anti-corruption activists, wary of the widely prevalent public anger on the issue.
Six other activists will stand trial later this week in Beijing, while one activist is set to face trial in Guangzhou.
The first trials of those detained began in December, when three activists in southern Jiangxi were put on trial. One of them was Liu Ping, a retired factory worker who unsuccessfully sought to enter politics by contesting local-level elections. China only allows elections at the lowest administrative level.
Following her failed campaign, Ms. Liu and her family faced threats and harassment from the police. In an interview before her detention, she told The Hindu she was not campaigning for a political revolution
or drastic changes, but only for the government to enforce what the Constitution of China already guarantees its citizens in terms of their political rights.
“Our Constitution says we have a universal right to participate in government,” she said then. “I want us to achieve that right”.
Keywords: China anti-corruption movement