Former Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun has called for the release of Geng Xiaonan, a former colleague detained after she spoke out in support of him, and who now faces trial on charges of alleged “illegal business operations.”
Former Tsinghua law professor Xu and five other Chinese scholars wrote an open letter to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) calling for the immediate release of Geng and her husband.
Geng’s defense attorney Mo Shaoping said the defense team had also applied to the state prosecutor’s office with a request to unapprove the formal arrests of Geng and her husband.
“We believe that detention is unnecessary in her case, because the alleged crime is non-violent in nature, and she has a fixed residence in Beijing and there is no possibility of her absconding,” Mo told RFA.
“According to the rules, she should have been released on bail pending trial, but the the procuratorate hasn’t approved this,” he said.
Xu’s open letter, dated Oct. 21, was also signed by Peking University law professors He Weifang and Zhang Qianfan, Tsinghua sociology professor Guo Yuhua, Harvard University Fairbank Center Co-Researcher Hao Jian, and Chinese art critic Li Xianting.
The letter says that “illegal business operations” is a blanket charge used to target people for political reasons, and has been arbitrarily applied to Geng and her husband.
“The real motive is to punish Geng Xiaonan for remarks she made,” it said. “The authorities are violating both Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, and abusing their power under the Administrative Procudure Law.”
“We hope that Geng will be treated in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and not be subject to political pressure for appealing on behalf of Professor Xu,” the letter said.
The letter has sinced garnered further signatures, including those of exiled former ideology professor Cai Xia and former 1989 pro-democracy leader Zhou Fengsuo, founder of the U.S.-based rights group Humanitarian China.
Public show of support
Mo welcomed the public show of support for his client.
“It is hard to say whether it will affect the judicial outcome,” he said. “But it’s a comfort to Geng Xiaonan that so many people are concerned about her.”
Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Sui Muqing said the charges likely had little to do with the running of the couple’s business.
“They’re just using it as a pretext to detain her,” Sui said. “It’s a fake charge which is a commonly used form of political suppression.”
“At least the letter is calling out their lies in public.”
A Chinese scholar who asked to remain anonymous said many see Geng’s arrest as marking a new level of totalitarian rule and political persecution under CCP general secretary Xi Jinping.
“It used to just be scholars, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and news media people who outspokenly expressed their opinions … and were targeted for suppression,” the scholar said. “But now we know that you could be persecuted even if you don’t express your opposition directly.”
“Just supporting and helping dissidents can get you targeted for suppression,” the scholar said. “The purpose is to intimidate everyone in China.”
Police are using the couple’s publication of around 8,000 nutrition and cookery books to claim their Ruiya Books publishing house had been operating illegally from the start, their lawyers have said.
Call for political reforms
Authorities in Beijing detained Xu Zhangrun on the morning of July 6 after he called online for political reforms, on allegations of “seeking out prostitutes.”
He was released a week later, but later told the media that he had been fired from his teaching post and subjected to public sanctions for “moral corruption” by Tsinghua University’s law school.
Charges of “seeking out prostitutes” have been used before by the Chinese authorities to target peaceful critics and activists, or anyone who runs afoul of local officials and powerful vested interests. Xu has lodged a legal challenge, and denies the charges.
Friends said at the time of Xu’s detention that it could be linked to the publication of one of his books in New York last month, a collection of some of his most controversial essays and articles.
Xu recently also criticized the Beijing municipal authorities for demolishing an artists’ village, and said that Xi Jinping is taking China into “a dead end.”
In a 10,000-word essay dated May 21, 2020, Xu described China as isolated from “global civilization,” which would de-Sinicize in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Xu’s essay called for China’s leaders to be held politically accountable, for the release of prisoners of conscience, including journalists and human rights lawyers, and for an end to the political targeting of academics.
Xu has also called for amendments nodded through by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) in 2018 to be revoked, and for an end to massive international expenditure to boost China’s influence overseas, as well as for legislation requiring officials to publish details of their assets and financial interests.
Reported by Jane Tang for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.