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 16, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment

Institution(s):Tsinghua University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On February 16, 2020, it was reported that Chinese authorities placed under house arrest law professor Xu Zhangrun after he published an essay critical of the government’s response to an outbreak of a novel coronavirus disease known as Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

First detected in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, COVID-19 and the virus that causes the disease (known as SARS-CoV-2) has spread beyond Hubei province and mainland China to a growing number of countries around the world. As of February 25, roughly 80,000 cases have been confirmed and more than 2,700 people have died from the disease, according to monitoring by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, in the US.

As the epidemic intensified in January 2020, Chinese authorities have taken a range of efforts to silence a growing number of doctors, journalists, and scholars that have commented on the disease and the government’s response. Xu, a professor of constitutional law at Tsinghua University (THU) and a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was put under house arrest for publishing an essay titled “愤怒的人民已不再恐惧” (When Fury Overcomes Fear) in which he stated that the “systemic impotence” of President Xi Jinping’s government is to blame for the “national calamity” of the coronavirus outbreak. The essay was reportedly taken down shortly after its publication.

At the time Xu was put under house arrest, he had reportedly just returned to Beijing from visiting his hometown in Anhui province for the Chinese lunar new year. A friend of Xu told the Guardian that two individuals were stationed in front of the scholar’s house for several days and that security officers entered his home and issued warnings to Xu. Starting on February 14, the IP address to Xu’s house was blocked, cutting off his access to the internet. Xu’s friends also told the Guardian that he has been barred from social media and that they suspect he remains under strict surveillance. As of this report, it is unclear whether Xu remains under house arrest.

Xu has previously faced retaliation for expression critical of the Chinese government. In March 2019, THU suspended Xu and banned him from teaching, writing, and publishing in apparent retaliation for a July 2018 essay he published that warned of deepening repression in China (see report).

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the house arrest of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression — 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 academic and expressive 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.