By Lucy Hornby in Beijing
The trial of three activists who had called for Chinese officials to report their wealth was adjourned after the first day in a court in Jiangxi Province on Monday, as lawyers said they could not properly represent the defendants.
It was the first of several such trials for citizens who have urged greater transparency, showing the limitations of the ruling Communist Party’s tolerance of criticism despite amid an official campaign against corruption.
China has rounded up a number of citizens who advocated greater transparency of officials’ assets, in what appears to be a broader crackdown on anyone who supports more political openness. Other targets have included liberal academics and online commentators with millions of followers known as “Big Vs”.
Party officials have often called corruption the greatest threat to continued Communist rule. But censors move quickly to cut off public discussion of the issue, particularly any suggestion that the problem is systemic and not just a matter of individual wrongdoing.
The trial of Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Shihua began at the Yushui district court with lawyers and family members allowed to attend, although traffic barriers kept diplomats and the general public several hundred metres away. The three were charged with illegal assembly after they took photos of themselves holding banners that said: “Strongly urge officials to disclose their assets” and “Xi Jinping, immediately end dictatorship”.
All three are members of the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of campaigners who have lobbied for officials to declare their assets to help curb widespread corruption.
Mr Liu and Mr Wei also faced other charges for earlier distributing fliers in an attempt to run for public office and for supporting a person accused of membership of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong.
Lawyer Zheng Jianwei, who represented Ms Liu, said the defendants had up to 15 days to decide whether they would be more effectively represented by other lawyers. The morning session was spent debating procedural matters.
The founder of the movement for greater transparency in assets, lawyer Xu Zhiyong, had been under house arrest since April and was formally arrested in July for “gathering a crowd to disturb order in a public place”. Following his arrest, state media made strident attacks against the principles of constitutionalism, which Mr Xu had advocated. One of his principle financial backers, venture capitalist Wang Gongquan, was detained in September.
“From the perspective of human rights and rule of law, China has experienced a major setback recently in many aspects. For example, the criticism of universal values and constitutional politics, and the crackdown on internet big Vs. In my judgment, this is a major setback,” said Mo Shaoping, a lawyer who advocates for civic rights and due process.
President Xi Jinping declared earlier this year that he would target not only“flies” but also “tigers” in going after corrupt officials. So far, this year’s anti-corruption drive has primarily targeted officials and oil industry executives with ties to Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security tsar. Mr Zhou was an influential ally of purged politician Bo Xilai.
Sales of famous Chinese liquors and trade at smart shopping malls and restaurants are all down as officials heed Mr Xi’s calls for austerity by public servants. Mr Xi has also revived a Mao-era practice of self-confessions by officials of lapses in the course of duty, although the confessions have not gone so far as to reveal the officials’ assets.