Police in Beijing seized an outspoken philosophy professor Monday morning, a fate he foretold months ago.
Xu Zhangrun, a legal scholar at Tsinghua University, is the author of a series of essays questioning China’s direction under President Xi Jinping – some of the most trenchant domestic criticism of his leadership in years.
Now, the disappearance of a critic who bluntly called for an end to political repression has further elevated fears about the future of academic inquiry in the country – not just in mainland China but in Hong Kong, a city grappling with a new national security law that has already resulted in the arrest of people for words they have scrawled on paper.
In late January, Prof. Xu laid blame for the initial outbreak of the coronavirus at the feet of Mr. Xi and “the cabal that surrounds him,” saying the virus had been able to spread in a country that has instituted “big data totalitarianism” under a political system that excessively concentrates power at the top and “turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe.” China’s leaders “represent the worst political team to have run China since 1978,” he wrote, going on to ridicule Mr. Xi as “clueless.”
By then Prof. Xu had already been demoted from his professorial position and relieved of instructional duties at Tsinghua. He warned: “This may well even be the last thing I write.”
On Monday morning, his friends said, about a dozen police cars arrived at his house in Beijing and took him away.
China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said Monday it has no information about Prof. Xu.
Chinese authorities routinely arrest people who challenge Communist Party authority, including lawyers, scholars, writers and journalists – at least 48 of the latter were in prison last year. The detention of Prof. Xu “reveals the paranoia of the current leadership over perceived threats to its power,” said Rush Doshi, director of the China Strategy Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
But seeing Prof. Xu disappear less than a week after the imposition of the new law in Hong Kong has only served to elevate concern among that city’s scholars that, “with the national security legislation, the political pressure being applied to academics might increase,” said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In the future, researchers “might exercise self-censorship. They might not want to be seen as criticizing the Beijing regime,” he said.
It is impossible to separate what has happened to Prof. Xu with what is taking place in Hong Kong, argued Badiucao, the pen name of a Shanghai-born artist who creates biting satirical images about modern-day China and its leadership. On Monday, he published a stark black and red image of Prof. Xu surrounded by the letters for “Free Xu.”
The “Iron Curtain is closing,” he said in an interview.
The government message behind Mr. Xu’s detention, he added, is this: “No matter where you are – mainlander or Hong Konger – no matter who you are – famous academic or civilian – we will arrest you and destroy your reputation.”
In Hong Kong, at coffee shops such as the 9¾ Café, employees spent the weekend clearing away notes from protesters that had been posted to the walls and declared support for independence, some saying, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times” – an eight-character slogan in Cantonese that Andy Wan, a worker at the café, referred to simply as “the eight words.”
“We wouldn’t say them loudly in public,” he said.
The café has saved the messages it removed from the walls. But “we are just keeping them as a memory,” Mr. Wan said. In Hong Kong today, “you can’t even say the things that you want to say. You have to say or write what the government wants you to do or wants you to say.”
In January, Prof. Xu pointed to Hong Kong as a “ray of hope,” after months of demonstrations brought millions of people to the streets to oppose closer ties with mainland China and protest Beijing’s authoritarian rule.
“A breakthrough originating from the periphery may augur once more a moment that favours a push towards meaningful constitutional and legal rule in China,” he wrote in an essay translated by scholar Gereme Barmé.
Elsewhere, Prof. Xu warned, China courts risk in pursuing the establishment of a new “Red Empire” rooted in Marxism-Leninism, an ideology he derides as unworthy of a modern state.
“If you are going to force people into silence, blind them to reality, hamper the natural and free growth of inquiring minds, and instead feed them a diet of a dated nineteenth-century Germano-Slavic dogma,” he wrote, “then all you’ll end up with is a nation of reduced intellect, a country that has crippled itself.”
Under Mr. Xi, he wrote, Chinese leadership is “fixated on ensuring eternal ‘One Family Domination.’ They are heedless of what the times require; their folly is absolute.”
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