Beijing: The formal arrest this week of one of China`s most well-known civil rights advocates underscores how unnerved the country`s new leaders are by any independent, vaguely organised political action, even if it is as mundane as gathering for a dinner party.
Beijing activist Xu Zhiyong, arrested yesterday, is one of the founders of a loose network of campaigners known as the New Citizens Movement, who, among other things, have called for people to get together on the last Saturday of each month for dinner to discuss China`s constitution and other legal issues.
Xu had been detained last month by Beijing police in the latest blow by Chinese authorities against a beleaguered activist community that has seen a widespread crackdown against peaceful assembly.
Zhang Qingfang, a lawyer for Xu, said his partner learned of Xu`s formal arrest from Beijing`s prosecuting office yesterday and that the arrest document should be delivered to Xu`s family soon. The Beijing prosecuting office could not immediately provide information on Xu.
Police have accused Xu of "gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place," a vaguely defined charge that rights groups say has increasingly been used against activists.
The New Citizens participants have lobbied for the rights of rural migrant children to attend city schools and for officials to declare their assets, down-to-earth issues that resonate with the Chinese public and make China`s leaders worry about protests that could gain momentum and challenge Communist Party rule.
The campaigners have also held small demonstrations in several cities, usually involving a handful of people holding banners, making speeches or collecting signatures.
"Even though our principles and requests are moderate and lawful, the authorities see it as a challenge to the entire social order," Xu`s friend and fellow legal activist Teng Biao said in a recent interview in Beijing. "In their view, they cannot tolerate this kind of activity that takes to the streets."
Teng said that dinner gatherings have been held in as many as 31 cities, though attendance varies from a couple of dozen people to around 100.
Teng said peaceful demonstrations were the inevitable next step in the evolution of China`s activist community over the past decade. "It is not going to stop at writing essays or joint letters or petitions posted online," Teng said. "We need to take specific actions to fight for our rights."