China detains Xu Zhangrun, leading critic of President Xi Jinping

Friends in Beijing, some speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said Xu was taken early Monday. A widely circulated statement on social media from Xu’s friends, which could not be independently confirmed, said his home was surrounded by 20 police officers, who took away Xu and his computer.

Tsinghua University’s Law Department, where Xu taught constitutional law until he was demoted last year for his political writing, said Monday that it was “not clear” about Xu’s situation. The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau declined to comment.

One friend who reportedly met Xu on Saturday said the professor was in high spirits as he gathered with friends after weeks of isolation; Xu had been barred from leaving his home in June, a politically sensitive month when some dissidents commemorate the anniversary of the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, but did not seem to be under an unusual degree of pressure.

But Xu’s arrest was not wholly unexpected, coming at a time when the Communist Party is forcefully reasserting itself not only globally — over territorial disputes and its reach into Hong Kong — but also in domestic politics.

After weathering an early outpouring of public outrage over its handling of the Wuhan outbreak, the party has stabilized its domestic standing, jailed freelance bloggers who worked in Wuhan and sought payback from high-profile critics, including Beijing billionaire Ren Zhiqiang, who was placed under investigation in April.

Ren, a blunt real estate tycoon, and Xu, an elegant jurist, wrote in sharply different styles but delivered the same warning about the tightening restrictions on speech and thought in China, the concentration of power in Xi’s hands and the danger of a fawning bureaucracy that suppressed bad news.

“In response to the coronavirus, for instance, at first the authorities shut down all hints of public disquiet and outspoken commentary via censorship; they then simply shut down entire cities,” Xu wrote. “First people’s hearts die and then Death stalks the living.”

The government must immediately allow for independent media and end secret police surveillance of the Internet so people “can express themselves with a clear conscience,” Xu wrote. He also asked for an investigation into the “systemic origins” of the coronavirus outbreak. Then and only then, he wrote, could China begin a reconstruction effort.

After Ren became an investigation target in April, Xu’s detention “was a matter of time,” said He Weifang, a former law professor at Peking University who has known and worked alongside Xu for 40 years.

Although Xu’s essays were closely read by Chinese scholars and the overseas diaspora, he did not actively cultivate a large social media following in China or challenge government authority by mobilizing demonstrations, He said.

That raises the question of what charges prosecutors will bring against Xu.

Feng Chongyi, a professor at the University of Technology Sydney, said Xu was demoted from his prestigious position at Tsinghua in 2019 and repeatedly warned by the university officials about causing trouble. Although friends suggested that they could seek donations from friends around the world to support Xu financially, he said no, suspecting that he might one day fall under legal trouble.

“He always refused so that the government didn’t have an opening to accuse him of financial impropriety,” Feng said. “If he committed an offense, it would be purely based on his speech.”

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