Imagine, for a moment, how it might sound to turn on the news one day and hear that the head of the A.C.L.U. had vanished from his home in the predawn hours. Or, think how America might be different today if a pesky young Thurgood Marshall had been silenced using an obscure tax rule and kept out of the courts.I hardly know what to add to this, beyond the usual, "go read the whole thing."
At around 5 A.M. on Wednesday, Chinese authorities visited the home of Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal scholar and elected legislator in Beijing, and led him away. He has not been heard from again. Unless something changes, he is likely to stay away for a long time, with or without formal charges. Anyone with an interest in China, its economy, its place in the world, or the kind of future it will fashion, please take note: This is a big deal.
Xu might not have reached Marshall status yet, but he is as close as China gets to a public-interest icon. He teaches law at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. He has also run the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research organization that worked on many of China’s path-breaking cases. He and his colleagues had investigated the Sanlu milk scandal, in which dangerous baby formula harmed children’s health, and assisted people who had been locked up by local officials in secret undeclared jails. All of those activities are emphatically consistent with the goals of the Chinese government, even if they angered the local bureaucrats who were caught in the act.
I remember the first time I was in China learning about what the risks of dissent were, how omnipresent the surveillance, how easy it was to cross the line (I will never forget one of of my students, who was sent to a reform camp for "riding in a car with a foreigner without a hat"). Things are very different in China today. The bargain has been, you can do what you want, as long as you don't organize and pose a political threat to the established order. But when things like this happen, when people like this are detained for following the Chinese Constitution's own laws, I wonder what the future holds for China. If there is a monopoly of political power, if a press is not allowed to serve as a watchdog, if public interest groups are not allowed to serve the public's interest...are Chinese people simply supposed to trust that the government will do the right thing? Particularly when many Chinese regard their local authorities as hopelessly corrupt? What's the remedy here?
Of course I'm in a pretty bleak mood about government in general these days, when our own "democracy" has reached such a state of paralysis that the media devotes endless bandwidth to "beer summits" while the President and Congress are unable to craft a decent health care bill — unless your definition of "decent" is a bailout to the insurance industry, which seems to be where this is heading.
But I digress.
Back to work.