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: July 06, 2020

Attack Types: Imprisonment

Institution(s):Tsinghua University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On July 6, 2020, Chinese authorities reportedly detained Xu Zhangrun, a legal scholar at Tsinghua University, in apparent connection with his public criticism of the government.

As many as twenty police officers detained Xu at his home in Changping, on the edge of Beijing, according to friends and colleagues who spoke with reporters. Police reportedly confiscated papers and Xu’s computer during the operation. Chinese authorities have not publicly commented on Xu’s detention.

Several sources described claims that an individual identifying as a police officer had called Xu’s wife to inform her that Xu was accused of soliciting sex workers during a trip to Chengdu. Chinese authorities have previously used similar accusations to punish government critics. As of this report, the official basis for his detention remains unclear and his current whereabouts are unknown.

Xu’s July 6 detention fits a years-long pattern of retaliation he has suffered for expression critical of the Chinese government. In March 2019, THU suspended Xu and banned him from teaching, writing, and publishing in retaliation for a July 2018 essay he published that criticized President Xi Jinping and the government’s removal of presidential term limits (see report). In February 2020, authorities put Xu under house arrest after he published an essay critical of the Chinese government and its response to COVID-19, a novel coronavirus first detected in Wuhan (see report).

According to the Guardian, Xu was again put under house arrest on June 30 in the lead-up to two important anniversaries, the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to the mainland Chinese government. Xu was reportedly released from house arrest on July 4.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention of a scholar in apparent retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity — 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 an obligation to refrain from retaliating against such conduct. In addition to the harm to the immediate individual, detentions intended to punish nonviolent expression undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On July 12, 2020, police reportedly released Xu Zhangrun from detention, according to friends who spoke with the press.