BEIJING — China put a leading activist on trial Wednesday for demanding government transparency, but barred diplomats from attending and roughed up foreign journalists trying to report from nearby streets.
In court, Xu Zhiyong — founder of a grass-roots movement promoting citizens’ rights and rule of law — and his attorneys refused to speak at what they believe is a mock trial, said Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang. The prosecutor asked for a more severe sentence because of the defendant’s silence, Zhang said. Charged with organizing a crowd to disrupt public order, Xu could face up to five years in prison.
Outside the court, members of his New Citizens’ Movement milled about nervously trying to blend into a crowd of journalists and government petitioners.
They had sneaked into the area early in the morning, evading scores of police officers deployed in a two-block radius, and hoping to show support for Xu and to prove that his movement is still alive. But they struggled with how to communicate that message without getting arrested and prosecuted like Xu.
“We want him to know that we stand with him, and that we will continue his work,” said Ma Yongtao, 40, in a furtive interview in the abandoned basement of a nearby building.
Their dilemma was, in many ways, the same one Xu’s organization now faces: how to remain active as its founder awaits sentencing and an ongoing government crackdown scatters its members.
That said, a main cause championed by the movement — public disclosure of officials’ assets — remains a hot topic.
On Wednesday, hours before the trial began, the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published a report detailing how families of elite Chinese leaders, including the president, had squirreled away their wealth in secret offshore tax havens. ICIJ’s Web site and foreign news about the report were immediately blocked in China.
Also Wednesday, former premier Wen Jiabao, whose family has been criticized for accumulating vast wealth, wrote an unusual letter to a Hong Kong newspaper columnist, denying that he had ever used his position for personal gain.
Western diplomats from at least 15 countries tried to attend Xu’s trial in a show of support, according to two of them. But they were instead sequestered in a separate room. Police pushed foreign journalists away from the courthouse, at times using violence, and forced many to delete video and pictures they had taken.
A handful of New Citizens’ Movement members looked on but did not dare approach the foreign media, they said later in interviews, for fear police would identify them.
They had smuggled a large red banner into Beijing from one member’s home that repeated Xu’s demand for public disclosure of assets. With police on every corner, though, the activists were afraid to unfurl the flag themselves. So they handed it to a large group of petitioners who had also shown up to support Xu.
Such petitioners, with personal grievances against the government, are common in Beijing. Unlike members of the New Citizens’ Movement, many of them believed they would be detained only briefly for protesting, not prosecuted criminally. It took police just minutes to swoop down and detain several petitioners after the flag was unfurled.
Regrouping shortly afterward in the dank basement, four movement members wondered aloud whether the brief showing of the flag had been enough. At least six other members’ trials are scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the men said they planned to attend each one and similarly make their voices heard.
On Wednesday night, a Beijing court announced that Wang Gongquan, a fellow movement member arrested in September, had been released on bail after expressing “deep” remorse.
Joining Xu’s movement has cost the four members dearly, they said. Many have lost their jobs and spent time under house arrest. Police have harassed the families of all four.
Zhai Yanmin, 52, said his wife, who bitterly opposes his involvement, was fired and recently forced to take a job as a local police station’s janitor.
“It’s their way of keeping tabs on me. So she can tell them where I am.” He said his son and sister have also been threatened.
Although they hoped to avoid being arrested Wednesday, Ma, Zhai and others with them insisted on speaking by name, saying they were following the example of Xu and others.
They said they were drawn to the movement’s fight for equality in education and its opposition to government corruption.
Since the crackdown, however, their movement has struggled, with fewer attending and police disruptions often forcing them to change locations abruptly. New leaders have not emerged to take the place of Xu and other organizers who have been arrested.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing issued a statement expressing deep concerns over the arrests of Xu and others and asking for their immediate release.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a daily briefing that Xu was being tried according to law.
Speaking by phone, Chen Min, a columnist and fellow activist of Xu, argued that even if the movement wanes with the imprisonment of Xu and others, it should not be considered a failure.
“Look at China’s Jasmine Revolution in 2011, or the Tiananmen movement in 1989. Does the end of those movements mean that they were not meaningful or significant?” Chen said.
“In this era of Internet, you cannot control a movement simply by arresting a few people like Xu. There will be other people and other movements.”