Asia Pacific

China arrests top Xi critic as it plans crackdown on political foes

AFP-Jiji

Beijing police arrested an outspoken critic of Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday morning as his administration took steps to crack down on potential threats to the Communist Party stemming from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University, was taken away by police from his house at a Beijing suburb, according to his friend, Geng Xiaonan, who said she got the information from his domestic helper, his wife and students. She said she believed Xu’s arrest was linked to a book he published in New York last month, a collection of 10 political essays with scathing criticisms of Xi and the Communist Party’s rule.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said he had no information about the arrest when asked during a regular briefing on Monday in Beijing.

News of Xu’s detention came as the official Legal Daily reported that a special working group on political security was added to a law enforcement task force first established in April to defuse any social unrest stemming from the government’s response to the virus. The group "recently” convened its first meeting in Beijing, the article said.

At the gathering, it was emphasized that "protecting the safety of the political system” and "safeguarding the regime’s security” should be the first priority. Officials also vowed to take strict precautions against and move to stop activities including infiltration, subversion, terrorism, ethnic secession and extreme religious activities.

Xi had warned early in the COVID-19 crisis that the epidemic posed a threat to "social stability,” and since then his country has faced criticism from nations including the U.S. and Australia over its handling of the initial outbreak. Xi’s government has repeatedly expressed suspicions that foreign nations were spreading disinformation and attempting to foment unrest within China.

Led by Guo Shengkun, one of the 25 most powerful Communist Party members, the task force initially set up two working groups: one to maintain social order and another to contain risks at the city level. Rising international tensions in recent months appear to have added another focus: stemming the influence of international actors on the country’s populace.

The party’s Politics and Law Commission said on its official WeChat account on Monday that the new working group’s meeting came as safeguarding political security becomes a top priority "amid a changing global situation.” It cited examples including American politicians "deflecting blame” to China over its failure to contain the pandemic, "intervention” by the U.S., Taiwan, and Australia over national security legislation in Hong Kong, and the deadly border conflict with India.

The list of international disputes continues to grow as China asserts its power on the world stage and defends its record on the virus. In recent months, it has also stepped up fighter jet exercises near Taiwan, clashed over territory in the South China Sea, charged two Canadians it detained under murky circumstance, sparred with Australia over an investigation into the virus’s origins and quarreled with the European Union over a range of issues.

Xu had been placed under house arrest after publishing an essay criticizing Xi’s one-man rule as the root cause of an unfolding coronavirus crisis. In another essay in May, Xu said China was "backtracking toward Mao Zedong’s totalitarian rule” and becoming more isolated in the world, adding: "It is high time for China to turn wrongs to rights and return to the path pursuing a modern constitutional democracy and a people’s republic.” None of the articles are accessible on China’s internet.

Xu is among a growing list of critics who were arrested since January for writing articles lambasting Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and clampdown on dissent. Outspoken property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was placed under investigation in April after he was widely associated with an anonymous article denouncing the country’s "great leader” as a "clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor.”

Xu Zhiyong, another prominent dissident who previously served four years in prison, wrote an open letter calling on Xi to resign for mishandling the coronavirus crisis. He was formally charged with "inciting subversion of the state power” last month.

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