Detained activist fears for missing zero-Covid protesters in China

The detained human rights activist Ding Jiaxi has expressed concern for the young protesters who have disappeared since participating in the “blank paper” protests against zero-Covid that stunned China last year.

At least 16 of them are still in police detention, according to names gathered by activists, while Ding himself has been detained for more than three years.

On Friday he met his lawyer, Peng Jian, via video link. It was the first time the two had met since Ding was awarded the US state department’s global human rights defender award on 1 February. According to his wife, Luo Shengchun, who lives in North Virginia, he was grateful to learn of the honour.

Ding is also worried about his own health. He asked Peng to procure multivitamins for him. “The beard on Ding’s chin has basically turned white,” wrote a representative of Peng on Twitter, adding that Ding is “often unwell”.

Ding, a human rights lawyer, was detained on 26 January 2019 after participating in a meeting with about 20 other activists in the port city of Xiamen, where they discussed human rights and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, among other matters. Several other attenders were also arrested, while some fled the country. Another high-profile participant, the legal scholar and lawyer Xu Zhiyong, went into hiding but was caught in Guangzhou in February 2020.

Ding and Xu were the de facto leaders of the New Citizens’ Movement, a network of activists set up in 2010 that called for greater government transparency. Both were detained in 2013 for signing an open letter calling for greater scrutiny of the wealth of China’s leaders. But after their release from prison they continued to advocate for political reform.

Luo Shengchun, the wife of Ding Jiaxi, poses with a photo of her husband at her home in Alfred, New York, last year. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic meant the arrests of Ding, Xu and the other activists after the Xiamen meeting received less international attention than previously. But advocates hope the award from the US government can draw attention to Ding’s plight. Teng Biao, a human rights scholar based in New Jersey and a friend of Ding, said international pressure could sometimes help to improve the treatment of political prisoners, even if it does not affect the outcome of their case.

Ding’s video meeting with Peng is only the second time the two have met since his trial on 24 June, which took place behind closed doors. Ding was charged with “subversion of state power” along with Xu, whose trial is believed to have been held at a similar time. Xu has also had limited contact with his lawyers: he was originally represented by Liang Xiaojun, who had his licence revoked in December 2021. Two other lawyers have stepped in to replace Liang.

No verdict has been announced in either case.

Ding is looking forward to the verdict, Luo said. After the verdict is handed down, he will be able to move from his detention centre to jail. “Maybe there he can get a pen and pencil.”

Last year President Xi Jinping secured a precedent-busting third term as China’s leader, making him the most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong. Next month he will also be anointed as president for a third term at the annual parliamentary meetings known as the “two sessions”. Under his rule the space for dissent has been squeezed to near zero.

Amnesty International has raised concerns that Ding and Xu have been tortured. But Luo said Xu and her husband were resilient. They are “very determined”, she said. “As a wife I love my husband but I also admire both of them … Mr Xi Jinping just puts the best people in jail.”

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