Global Politics

China is cracking down on both corrupt officials and anti-corruption activists

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Police officers stand outside as Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi stands trial at a court in Haidian District, Beijing, April 8, 2014.

Police officers stand outside as Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi stands trial at a court in Haidian District, Beijing, April 8, 2014.


REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

The Chinese president says he is going after both “tigers” and “flies.” What Xi Jinping means by that is simple. Corrupt officials large and small, beware, because the authorities are coming for you.

The biggest tiger in the government's crosshairs right now might be 71-year-old Zhou Yongkang, China's powerful former security chief. Zhou is not officially under investigation. But if the speculation turns out to be true, he would become the highest-ranking official to be investigated for corruption since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Zhou has been under virtual house arrest since late last year, when the government reportedly began looking into charging him with official misdeeds.

In the latest sign of trouble for Zhou, one of his former aides was just expelled from the ruling Communist Party and removed from his post. The government's anti-corruption watchdog released a statement that said Guo Yongxiang, a former vice-governor of Sichuan province, had accepted bribes and was “morally corrupt.”

Guo joins a growing list of people connected to Zhou Yongkang who are coming under government suspicion. According to Reuters, Chinese authorities have seized $14.5 billion in assets from relatives and associates of Zhou, and they have called in more 300 of Zhou's relatives, political allies, proteges for questioning. 

There is another government crackdown playing out in China.

Three members of a group called the “New Citizens Movement” were expected to be put on trial this week. The founder of the movement, lawyer Xu Zhiyong was sentenced in January to four years in prison. A 46-year-old lawyer and activist, Ding Jiaxi, along with an unemployed 42-year-old man named Li Wei are now being charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.”

A third activist and, 44-year-old Zhao Changqing, who took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was also expected to be charged with the same offense.

A lawyer for one of the defendants, Jiang Yuanmin told the BBC that his client committed no crime.

"People like Ding Jiaxi and Li Wei, they just want government officials to report their assets," he said. "This goes against the interests of a vast majority of officials. So the government is afraid.

And there lies some tragic irony, say human rights groups. The Chinese government says it wants to crack down on official corruption. But at the same time, it is arresting and jailing activists calling for more government transparency.

So, what is the New Citizens Movement exactly?

“It's a loosely-knit group,” says China director for Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson. The group's members are “lawyers, writers, concerned citizens, bloggers – all across the country – who've essentially started to come together, typically over meals,” she says. “[They meet] to talk about what it means to be a good citizen.”

When the activists zeroed in on the issue of public asset disclosure for government officials about a year ago, it started to raise the ire of national and local authorities, Richardson says.

“[Chinese President] Xin Jinping has made numerous speeches about the importance of cracking down on corruption, and he is running the country. These people, the New Citizens Movement, have essentially said the same thing. And they are facing prison sentences.”

Richardson says the message is clear. “It's the Party that will decide who gets to talk about corruption, who gets prosecuted, and who is not allowed to be part of that discussion.”

What is so concerning about the prosecution of these particular anti-corruption activists, Richardson says, is that “they are the moderate middle.”

“These are not people that are calling for the overthrow of the Party. These are not people who engaging in any kind of violence. And the fact that even this kind of activism is so intolerable to the authorities is a distressing sign of what Xi Jinping's tenure is going to be like.”

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