Earlier this week, Chinese authorities detained Xu Zhangrun, an outspoken law professor who has published many articles criticizing Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other top leaders. While China routinely punishes people for holding political beliefs the government opposes, the detention of a public intellectual with a long history at a prestigious university surprised some observers who see it as further evidence that Beijing cares little about how outsiders view its harsh treatment of critics.
Who is Xu Zhangrun?
Xu is a 58-year-old legal scholar who earned his master's and doctoral degrees from China University of Political Science and the University of Melbourne in 1983.
After returning to China in 2000, he began teaching at Tsinghua University Law School, one of China's most distinguished universities, where he was the editor-in-chief of the school's law journal. He was selected as one of the top 10 outstanding young jurists in the country in 2005.
"He's very learned and scholarly and understands Chinese history and Chinese philosophy. But he stands up for the truth and for moral rectitude. So he's an intellectual that the Chinese people can be proud of," said Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University.
What did Xu do?
In a series of articles over the past few years, Xu has harshly criticized Xi, accusing him of moving toward authoritarianism since he came to power in 2012 and blaming him for China's political, economic and cultural setbacks.
He has analyzed the legal implications of Xi's abolition of the presidential term in China, calling it "a slap in the face" that would take "China back to the fearsome Mao era."
He also recently criticized the Chinese Communist Party's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, calling it a man-made disaster worse than an all-out war.
Human Rights Watch's Sophia Richardson said she sees not only the rigorous logic of a jurist in Xu's writings, but also a pursuit of justice in the face of an authoritarian regime.
"His logic and his thinking are very methodically laid out. But there's also, I think, such a sense of injustice that the law isn't applied, that people are treated arbitrarily. And I think there's a certain kind of professional indignity there that, you know, these principles and these values that his work has centered around are not shared by the leadership."
According to his friends, Xu was detained in Beijing earlier this week, on what friends, family and critics argued were fabricated charges of arrest for soliciting a prostitute in 2018. China's Foreign Ministry and state media have not yet commented on the case.
The U.S. State Department has criticized Xu's arrest and called for his immediate release.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "We were deeply troubled to learn this week that the CCP detained Xu Zhangrun for criticizing General Secretary Xi Jinping's repressive regime and the CCP's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic."
Xu's recent troubles may have begun more than a year ago, when he was suspended by Tsinghua University and placed under "investigation."
Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called Xu's arrest both shocking and unsurprising.
Paal said the arrest was "a shock because those who wanted him arrested are turning their backs on the best in Chinese traditional culture and modern achievements. Unsurprising, because we are seeing thuggish behavior by the leadership entirely across the spectrum of government/party behavior. It is another serious stain on Xi Jinping's claim to greatness."
Columbia University's Nathan shared that feeling.
Nathan said, "Yet even without being surprised, I'm shocked that the regime is so harsh that it will crack down on a very distinguished professor who has been doing nothing illegal under the Chinese constitution."
Xu's detention is just the latest example of Beijing's crackdown on dissent, he said.
"It is a practice of the Chinese government to use a series of steps to try to rein people in, as we know from many cases of other intellectuals and dissidents, lawyers, feminists and so forth."
The Chinese government's approach to dissidents and critics often includes first inviting them for "tea" and then warning and punishing them through their workplace, followed by stalking them, even displacing them from their homes to restrict their freedom of movement, Nathan said.
He said the detention of Xu sent a signal internationally that China no longer cares what the international community thinks about its human rights record.
He also said the charge of soliciting prostitution is more of an embarrassment to the government than to Xu himself.
Stella Hsu and Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.