Chinese police detain fugitive rights activist Xu Zhiyong during ‘coronavirus check’

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A Chinese rights activist in hiding since December was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou after police mounted “coronavirus prevention checks” on the homes of friends and sympathisers, according to other activists.

Xu Zhiyong, 47, had been in hiding since attending a gathering in Xiamen, in the southeastern province of Fujian, to discuss “democratic transition in China”.

Four other activists – Ding Jiaxi, Dai Zhenya, Zhang Zhongshun, Li Yingjun – were detained soon after the gathering without access to lawyers.

“Xu had been hiding and meeting friends in different cities, continuing his work of developing civil movements. But he became stuck as quarantine controls across the country against the coronavirus outbreak were stepped up,” another activist said, referring to heightened restrictions to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Xu was detained at the home of Yang Bin, a Guangzhou-based lawyer and a former prosecutor, during a police “coronavirus check”.

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Yang confirmed that she, her husband, their son and Xu were taken away by police together and all but Xu were released on Sunday evening after being questioned by police.

“I’m fine and telling friends we are safe. Thanks for your concern about us,” Yang said, adding that she could not say more on Xu’s whereabouts and why he had been detained.

A dissident source close to the matter said Xu had been taken away by police from Beijing and Yang’s family remained under police surveillance at their home.

The activist, who had briefly sheltered Xu and declined to be named on safety concerns, said police had visited his home on a “coronavirus prevention” check as well as the homes of others who had helped Xu in recent days.

Xu’s girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based feminist and labour rights activist, has also been missing since she sent a message that “someone is knocking at my door” early on Sunday, according to Hu Jia, a veteran activist based in Beijing and winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, stepped up prevention measures against the virus last week, including authorising the government to take over private property. The province has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 patients outside Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, with most cases concentrated in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

The public security bureau of Panyu district, where Yang’s home is located, could not be reached for comment.

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Xu’s defence lawyer, Zhang Qingfang, said he did not know if the authorities would allow him to represent the activist.

“Xu Zhiyong did hire me and hoped I would be his lawyer if he were arrested,” Zhang said.

Xu, a former lecturer at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, founded a civic group called the New Citizens’ Movement.

He was arrested in 2013 and served four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”. The charge related to a series of small protests he organised in 2012 and 2013 to push for official transparency and the rights of rural children to education.

Early this month, Xu published an article online urging Xi to step down for his “inability to handle major crises”, including the Covid-19 outbreak.

Pro-democracy activist and independent political analyst Wu Yangwei, also known by the pseudonym Ye Du, said Xu’s detention showed that the Communist Party “doesn’t allow any dissent to be voiced, nor the possibility of challenging the party’s rule”.

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