Zhang Qingfang, lawyer of the founder of Chinese grassroots movement Xu Zhiyong, center, talks to foreign diplomats after they…
Zhang Qingfang, center, lawyer for Xu Zhiyong, talks to foreign diplomats after they attend Xu's case at the Beijing Supreme People's High Court in Beijing, April 11, 2014.

HONG KONG - Prominent Chinese activist and legal academic Xu Zhiyong, who has urged President Xi Jinping to step down over the coronavirus epidemic and other crises, has been held by authorities in secret detention on a state security charge that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in jail, his friends said Sunday.

Xu, a former law professor and champion of social equality and the rule of law, was detained Feb. 15. His family found out from Beijing police Saturday, after repeated inquiries, that he has been held on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power,” said fellow activist Hu Jia and legal academic Teng Biao.

A placard with a photo of legal scholar Xu Zhiyong is raised by a demonstrator protesting against a Chinese court’s decision to…
Chinese Activist Detained After Calling on Xi to Resign
Detention of critical intellectuals show intensifying crackdown amid coronavirus outbreak

They said Xu had been placed in “residential surveillance at a designated location,” a form of solitary detention that can last up to six months in an unknown location without lawyer or family access.

Many government critics and human rights lawyers who have been held in such detention have been subjected to torture, sleep deprivation and forced medication in solitary confinement for months before being formally charged and jailed on state security crimes.

The authorities are also holding Xu’s girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, on the same charge at a secret location, Hu said.

Charges of inciting subversion

Hu, who has been jailed himself for “inciting subversion,” predicted Xu would be handed a long jail term, probably as long as eight years, because he has been jailed once but continued to push his social campaign New Citizens Movement even after his July 2017 release.

Xu served a four-year prison sentence for “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” for protesting for the rights of China’s internal migrants and his campaign to get officials to release information about their personal assets.

“The authorities really hate him, because they wanted to ‘educate’ him and he just wouldn’t change. They want to contain him and undermine his activism so they have been seeking evidence to jail him again,” Hu said.

Beijing police refused to comment by phone Sunday.

FILE - Xu Zhiyong at a meeting in Beijing.

Crack down on free speech

Xu’s detention is the latest in a crackdown on free speech as China maneuvers to control the narrative on the growing coronavirus epidemic.

Xu delivered harsh criticism of Xi in an impassioned essay posted online in early February while hiding from the authorities. He blasted the leader for what he said was Xi’s inability to cope with crises that included the coronavirus epidemic and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

“You didn’t authorize the truth to be released, and the outbreak turned into a national disaster,” Xu wrote. “Mr. Xi Jinping, please step down.”

Xu predicted his bold words would land him in jail yet again.

“Seven years ago, I wrote you an open letter hoping that you would lead China towards constitutional democracy … but you jailed me for four years,” he wrote while in hiding. “Now your people are looking for me everywhere, seeking to throw me into jail again.”

“Where are you taking China? Do you know? Towards democracy or dictatorship? Modernization or the Cultural Revolution?” Xu wrote.

On the run

Xu has been on the run from state security police since December, after the police started rounding up participants in a secret gathering in the southeastern city of Xiamen in Fujian province. Xu was among about 20 activists and human rights lawyers attending. Xu has been critical of Xi’s policy of maintaining stability at the cost of civil freedom and human rights.

Teng, a longtime friend of Xu who started fighting for migrants’ rights with him as Ph.D. graduates in 2003, said Xu’s criticism of the government was an exercise of freedom of speech, which is protected by the Chinese constitution.

“But obviously China has no plan to honor this basic freedom ... he is highly likely to be given a heavy sentence,” said Teng, who was frequently harassed and detained by the authorities before he moved to the United States in 2014.