Detained Since: February 15, 2020
Charges: “Subversion of state power,” carrying a life sentence in prison (January 2021); Xu was previously charged with “inciting subversion of state power” (June 2020).
Biography: Xu Zhiyong is a Chinese writer, legal scholar, and civil rights activist who has been an integral member of China’s most important civil rights movements over the last 20 years. Alongside his civil rights advocacy, he is well known for his series of online essays concerning contemporary social issues in China.
Amid news of a spike in detentions of other associated civil rights activists, Xu Zhiyong went into hiding in December 2019. For two months, he traveled to numerous locations and took measures to cover any trace his movement left—Xu threw away his mobile phone, was careful in accessing the internet, and did not share his whereabouts. Despite his low profile, Xu continued to write online about his views on President Xi Jinping’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership during the novel Coronavirus pandemic. On February 4, 2020, his essay “Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go” was published online. He arrived at lawyer and former Chinese prosecutor Yang Bin’s home on Seagull Island in Guangzhou just a few weeks before he was ultimately detained, on February 15, 2020. Reports say that Xu was apprehended in a “coronavirus prevention check” at Yang Bin’s home, when Yang’s household was taken in for questioning and released after 24 hours, with the exception of Xu. Reports also detail that Li Qiaochu, Xu’s girlfriend, heard from police that Xu was identified by facial recognition cameras in Xiamen, the city where he and other activists convened in December 2019. For four months, Xu was held in an undisclosed location under residential surveillance in a designated location, a form of enforced disappearance. He was finally charged with inciting subversion against state power in June 2020 and transferred to Linshu County Detention Center.
Officials have reportedly tortured Xu while in prison, and have attempted to silence Xu’s girlfriend and partner, Li Qiaochu, who has spoken publicly of the reported torture and filed a complaint against Linshu County Detention Center for their mistreatment of Xu. Hours after she posted her complaint on Twitter in February 2021, she was detained and has since been held on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” After Xu’s initial 2020 apprehension, Li had also been detained in “residential surveillance in a designated location” for four months.
In January 2021, Chinese officials upgraded the charge of “inciting subversion of state power” to “subversion of state power,” increasing the maximum sentence for Xu from 15 years to life in prison, if convicted. In August 2021, Xu's lawyers were informed that he had been formally indicted for 'subversion of state power,' bringing his case closer to trial.
Xu Zhiyong has received international support in the form of awards from PEN America and recognition of his legal advocacy by Foreign Policy. PEN America selected Xu for the 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, honoring him as a writer imprisoned for his free expression. In 2013, Foreign Policy recognized Xu Zhiyong by naming him one of 100 Global Thinkers for “promoting people power as an antidote to corruption.”
Advocate: Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA)
Advocacy Partner: PEN America