SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: February 15, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution


Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On February 15, 2020, Chinese authorities reportedly detained scholar and activist Xu Zhiyong.

Xu is an activist, civil rights lawyer, and a former lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. He had previously served four years in prison in connection with his activism with the New Citizens’ Movement, a coalition of civil society organizations established in 2010 to raise awareness of civil rights in China and push government officials to disclose their wealth, among other goals. He was released in 2017 and has since continued his work promoting civil rights in the country.

In December 2019, Xu attended a meeting with other lawyers and dissidents in the city of Xiamen to discuss human rights and political developments in China. In late December, more than ten of the meeting’s participants were arrested or summoned for questioning, prompting Xu to go into hiding.

On February 4, while in hiding, Xu reportedly published an essay calling for Chinese president Xi Jinping to resign and criticizing the government’s handling of the outbreak of a disease known as COVID-19, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and other issues.

Nine days after publishing the essay, Chinese authorities arrested Xu at a friend’s home in the city of Guangzhou after tracking his location with the aid of facial recognition technology. According to source close to Xu, who spoke with Radio Free Asia, authorities temporarily detained the friend hosting Xu along with her husband and son. As of February 28, Xu’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest of a scholar in apparent retaliation for his exercise of rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association — conduct that is protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting or retaliating against such activity, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arbitrary detentions undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On March 7, 2020, the Guardian reported that Xu is being held in “secret detention” and is facing a charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” The same source, along with Radio Free Asia, reported that Xu’s girlfriend is also in detention on the same charge. Friends of Xu told both media outlets that he is being held in “residential surveillance at a designated location,” which allows authorities to detain suspects and restrict their access to family and legal counsel for up to six months.

UPDATE: On June 20, 2020, Chinese state authorities announced to Xu’s family that he had been formally arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” according to the US-based NGO PEN America. If convicted, Xu may be imprisoned for up to fifteen years.