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: May 10, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment


Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 10, 2020, Chinese authorities reportedly detained legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong, in apparent retaliation for an open letter he published that criticized China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and the country’s system of government more broadly.

Zhang is a prominent intellectual and human rights lawyer, who was fired from his position as a law professor at East China University of Political Science and Law in 2013, over comments he made that were critical of China’s constitution (see report).

On May 9, Zhang published to the popular social media platform WeChat an open letter to members of the NPC in which he questioned the legitimacy of the NPC, criticized the country’s constitution, referring to it as a “pseudo-constitution,” offered a number of reforms for the NPC to consider, and proposed a new draft constitution. Commenting on COVID-19, a novel coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China, that has become a global pandemic, Zhang denounced the government for not being transparent, and restricting and punishing medical experts who were sharing information about the virus.

Zhang’s letter reportedly went viral on Chinese social media shortly after its publication. However, by the evening of May 10, police detained Zhang in front of his home in Shanghai, according to friends who had spoken with the South China Morning Post.

The next day, a Twitter user shared a screen shot of a message Zhang purportedly sent over WeChat suggesting that he was no longer in custody. SAR has not obtained additional evidence confirming his release.

As of this report, it is unclear whether Zhang faces charges.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression — conduct that is expressly protected by 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 not to retaliate against or otherwise interfere with expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Detentions aimed at limiting such expressive activity undermine academic freedom, the related higher education value of social responsibility, and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On May 11, additional sources confirmed that Zhang had returned home after being held in custody by state authorities for questioning.