Xu Zhiyong & Thupten Lodoe by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Xu Zhiyong & Thupten Lodoe


Given the recent clamour for Boris Johnson to step down as Britain’s prime minister, it’s worth considering the fate of those who are silenced for daring to voice a similar sentiment in authoritarian countries. ‘Dear Chairman Xi, It’s time for you to go,’ wrote Chinese writer and academic Xu Zhiyong in an open letter published on 4 February 2020. Xu issued his call for Xi Jinping’s resignation at a time when the Chinese government was struggling to control the coronavirus outbreak. Xu referred to its handling of the crisis as a ‘national disaster’.

Xu wrote his open letter in the wake of a crackdown on civil society activists who had attended a private gathering in Xiamen in December 2019. Eleven days after its publication, he was detained in Guangzhou province. He was initially subjected to a form of pretrial detention known as ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’. Using this process, the authorities are able to detain individuals in solitary confinement for up to six months at a secret location. This form of enforced disappearance increases the risk to the prisoner of torture. It is frequently used against dissidents and human rights activists. According to a written notification sent to his family, it was not until 19 June 2020 that Xu was formally arrested on subversion charges.

At one time a lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, Xu has been involved in human rights advocacy since 2003, when he was elected as an independent deputy to the Haidian District People’s Congress in Beijing. He is also an essayist and has regularly published work on a range of social and political issues in China.

Xu co-founded the New Citizens’ Movement, a group that promotes civil rights and China’s peaceful transition to constitutional rule. He has often used his legal expertise to advocate social justice. In 2013, he was detained as part of a crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers and sentenced to four years in prison for ‘gathering crowds to disrupt public order’. Following his release in 2017, he continued to encourage his supporters through his online writing. A selection of his essays has been published in English under the title To Build a Free China – A Citizen’s Journey.

On 6 February last year, Xu’s fiancée, Li Qiaochu, an award-winning human rights defender, was also detained on subversion charges after publicly disclosing details of Xu’s torture and ill-treatment while in detention. This included his being denied food and water and being forced to sit in a torture device known as the ‘tiger chair’ for prolonged periods of time. It is believed that Li may have been detained partly in retaliation for her engagement with United Nations human rights experts. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has expressed grave concerns at Xu’s detention, stating that his deprivation of liberty is in violation of his right to freedom of opinion and expression.

On 22 June, Xu’s trial began behind closed doors. He stands charged with ‘subversion of state power’ under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law. If convicted, he faces a life sentence. Subversion charges are routinely used by the authorities to target dissident writers, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (LR, May 2013), who died in custody on 13 July 2017. It is unknown when the outcome of Xu’s trial will be publicly announced. His family are prevented from attending and his legal representatives have been warned against speaking to the media.

In another attack on free expression, on 13 June the Tibetan writer and school teacher Thupten Lodoe (whose pseudonym is Sabuchey) was sentenced to four years and five months in prison on charges of ‘inciting separatism’ and ‘picking quarrels and provoking troubles’. Sabuchey, who is in his thirties, is one of the most influential and respected Tibetan writers of his generation. His short stories and essays are loved by many readers inside Tibet and have been posted on various Tibetan-language websites. He had previously resigned from his teaching position at Sershul County Middle School because of government repression.

Sabuchey was reportedly arrested in October 2021 by Sichuan provincial police and removed to Chengdu city. The charges stemmed from social media posts that the authorities deemed to be political. Sabuchey writes in Tibetan and Chinese, and much of his work is focused on socioeconomic issues and the situation in Tibet. His family remain under surveillance, while his two children have been ordered to stay at home and have been barred from attending school. It is not known where Sabuchey has been held since his arrest or if the court has informed his family about his conviction. Charges of ‘inciting separatism’ are routinely used against Tibetan writers and scholars.

Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern at the ongoing persecution of Xu Zhiyong and Thupten Lodoe and calling for their immediate and unconditional release.

Appeals to be addressed to:

His Excellency Liu Xiaoming
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
49–51 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 020 7636 2981
Email: political_uk@mfa.gov.cn

Update: On 23 June 2022, Belarusian philosopher Uladzimir Mackievič (LR, June 2022) was sentenced to five years in prison. PEN condemns his conviction and continues to call for his release.

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