Messages of support appear online for dissidents tried for seeking greater official accountability

Messages of support appear online for New Citizen members in legal fight as key financial backer admits he made a mistake in backing group

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 January, 2014, 10:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 8:08pm

Activists and internet users yesterday expressed sympathy and support for venture capitalist Wang Gongquan and prominent rights advocate Xu Zhiyong after authorities announced that Wang, detained for months for organising protests, confessed he had erred in aiding Xu's social campaigns.

According to a microblog post from the Beijing No 1 Intermediate Court late on Wednesday, the day when Xu went on trial there, Wang admitted that he and Xu had "organised and incited criminal activities to assemble a crowd to disrupt order in a public place" and was released on bail.

Xu and six other activists from his New Citizen movement are being tried this week and next on charges of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place". Supporters say this is the government's way to show its determination to crush the social initiative that last year called on officials to disclose their assets. Wang has been detained since September.

Yesterday, the trial of one of the dissidents, Zhao Changqing, was adjourned after he complained of flawed legal procedures that gave him little chance of a fair trial, his lawyer Zhang Xuezhong said. He "sacked" Zhang in a tactical move that would prevent a hasty trial before Lunar New Year.

Another activist, Hou Xin, one of four who unfurled a banner in Beijing last March demanding that officials declare their assets, also stood trial yesterday and told the court she was innocent because she was merely exercising her civil rights, her lawyer Ding Xikui said.

Xu, 40, refused to offer a defence in court on Wednesday in protest against the court barring witnesses and co-defendants from testifying. But his lawyer said he gave a speech in which he accused the government of "obstructing China's path to democracy and constitutional rule" by cracking down on his movement.

The Beijing Times quoted a Beijing TV report as saying Wang confessed to breaking the law in funding and supporting Xu's activities and pledged to sever his ties with him.

Video: Supporters protest against China's Xu Zhiyong's trial

Xu and Wang, who has participated in and funded Xu's civil rights campaign for years, received a deluge of sympathy and support from fellow activists and internet users. "Facing this illegal prosecution and unjust court, silence is the only choice and [Xu's] last defence," one Twitter user posted.

Many say Wang's confession was understandable given the pressure he was under. "Confession equals surrender … but it is a political tool used by the communists against dissidents," another Twitter user wrote.

Teng Biao, a legal scholar who worked with Xu and Wang on social campaigns, believed that Wang must have been under extreme mental stress.

"We don't know whether he has been physically tortured, but for someone so firm in his democratic and liberal beliefs to behave like this, there was bound to be a lot of mental pressure on him," Teng said.

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said while the authorities could make Wang confess, most people would assume he had little choice or “did so to save himself from a more severe fate.”

“So feeble is the authorities’ case against him that they don’t seem confident enough to put him before a court,” he said.

US ambassador to China Gary Locke on Thursday issued a statement saying he was “deeply concerned” about the trial of Xu and prosecution of other activists, and called for their release.

“The United States Government calls on Chinese authorities to release Xu and other political prisoners immediately, to cease any restrictions on their freedom of movement, and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments,” Locke said in the statement.

He also expressed concerns about police mistreating foreign journalists who were covering Xu’s trial.