Chinese President Xi Jinping has revealed the hypocrisy of his anti-corruption probe by continuing to jail anti-corruption activists, human rights groups say.
Jinping pledged to target graft among both high- and low-level officials—whom he called "tigers" and "flies"—after he assumed power in 2013. However, Chinese authorities and courts have now imprisoned 14 activists who peacefully advocated for similar anti-corruption measures, such as disclosing the wealth of government officials.
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Zhang Lin, an activist from the eastern Anhui province, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison last week on charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt order of a public place," according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). Zhang was initially detained in July 2013 after protesting the treatment of his daughter, who was barred from enrolling in an elementary school because of his activism.
Zhang suffers from joint degeneration in his vertebrae, a dental disease, and an eye infection after years of previous detention, and he has been denied medical release multiple times.
More activists could soon join Zhang in jail. Yang Maodong, more commonly known by his pen name Guo Feixiong, faces trial on Friday along with demonstrator Sun Desheng. Both could be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison on the same charge leveled at Zhang.
Police seized Guo in August 2013 after accusing him of organizing disruptive protests. Demonstrators at the events held signs calling on government officials to be more transparent about their personal finances.
Guo is also in poor health after going on a hunger strike at one point and enduring torture from previous years of imprisonment. Authorities reportedly beat his face, arms, and genitals with an electric baton. He has repeatedly been denied release on medical bail.
Chen Min, a Beijing researcher whose pen name is Xiao Shu, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that the Communist Party is clamping down on all forms of protests—even ones promoting views with which it purportedly agrees.
"As more of my friends have gone to jail in recent years for conduct like Mr. Guo's, the Chinese government has sent a clear signal to society: For citizens to demand their rights is a form of provocation, an attack, and the state will repress such behavior without restraint," Shu wrote. "There is a zero-sum relationship between the government's repressive system and the people's basic rights; there is no longer flexibility."
Many of the officials dismissed for corruption from China’s Communist Party in recent months are linked to Zhou Yongkang, the retired domestic security chief who stepped down in 2012. Jinping likely viewed Zhou as a powerful rival that he needed to displace, analysts say.
The "New Citizens Movement" formed in 2012 with the goal of joining Jinping in condemning the lavish wealth of Chinese officials. Those hopes were soon quashed after one of the movement’s leaders, Xu Zhiyong, was jailed earlier this year along with other participants.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Shu wrote that Chinese authorities would only have themselves to blame if their broad crackdown on dissent sparks more unrest.
"If the government gives no space to the people, it cannot expect the people to give it space in return," he said. "If the government gives no retreat route to civil society, it cannot expect civil society to offer a retreat route in return. The government's imagined ‘hostile forces’ and ‘color revolution’ will turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. If the authorities don't change direction, they will eventually reap what they sow."