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China charges Xi critic with 'subversion', say activists

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Beijing (AFP)

An outspoken Chinese rights activist who called for President Xi Jinping to step down over the coronavirus outbreak has been charged with "inciting state subversion", rights activists said Monday.

Xu Zhiyong has been detained since February 15, after publishing a series of blogposts criticising the Communist Party's response to the coronavirus outbreak that has now killed more than 3,100 people in the country.

Police at Dongxiaokou station in Beijing told Xu's sister on Saturday that he had been moved to "residential surveillance in a designated location", Hua Ze, a human rights activist in close contact with Xu's relatives, told AFP.

This is a form of extrajudicial detention lasting up to six months where detainees are denied access to lawyers and relatives, and are vulnerable to torture and coercion, according to activists.

Hu Jia, a veteran Chinese rights activist, said police threatened Xu's sister.

Police told her "she was not allowed to visit him due to outbreak prevention and control measures, and would not be allowed to visit even after the outbreak subsided", Hu said.

"We don't know where he is being detained or which exact department is handling his case, which makes it hard to give him legal assistance."

The government has severely curtailed civil liberties since Xi took power in 2012, rounding up rights lawyers, labour activists and even Marxist students.

Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International, said that Xu's detention will have a "chilling" effect on other activists.

"But the Chinese government's attempt to silence all activists and dissidents won't succeed, as we have seen that more ordinary people are making online comments about the government handling of the outbreak," said Poon.

- No comment from police -

Poon added that it was "very likely" that Xu's detention is related to his articles criticising Xi and the government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Dongxiaokou police declined to comment on Xu's case.

Xu's girlfriend, the feminist and labour rights activist Li Qiaochu, has also been in police detention since February 16.

"These two cases are closely related. As far as we understand, police have placed both Xu and Li under residential surveillance and charged them with subversion of state power," said Hu.

"Inciting subversion of state power" is a vague charge frequently used against dissidents and political activists, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

In a scathing open letter published on February 4, Xu urged Xi to resign over a number of issues including the coronavirus outbreak, the China-US trade war and the Hong Kong protests.

"A competent political leader is steadfast and sees opportunity in crisis. But each time you are faced with a major crisis, you are helpless," Xu wrote in the letter which was published on social media.

Xu said the president should have known the truth about the virus in early January but waited until it was "too late to let the facts be made public, which caused the outbreak to explode into a national calamity".

The prominent lawyer and activist co-founded the New Citizens' Movement, a civic rights group that has called for constitutional reform and anti-government corruption.

Xu was sentenced to four years in jail in 2014 for "gathering crowds to disrupt public order".

Since late last year, Chinese police have detained several lawyers and human rights activists who attended a secret meeting in Fujian in early December, according to Hua.

These included the lawyer and democracy activist Ding Jiaxi, another member of the New Citizens' Movement.

Xu attended the gathering and went into hiding before he was finally detained by police in Guangzhou.

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