BEIJING (AP) — A grassroots activist argued in court Friday that he did not disrupt public order as charged when he joined public rallies that went on for days under the watchful eyes of police, his lawyer said.
Liu Yuandong, owner of a bio-technology company, testified amid tight security at his six-hour trial in the southern city of Guangzhou, the latest prosecution of members of the amorphous Southern Street movement seeking to end China’s one-party rule.
The court did not set a date for a verdict, his lawyer said.
Liu’s prosecution is part of a wider crackdown by Beijing on any form of grassroots social activism that may threaten the ruling Communist Party’s grip on power.
“It’s nothing but a purely political persecution,” fellow Southern Street activist Wang Aizhong, who testified at Liu’s trial, said in a telephone interview.
Earlier this week, Xu Zhiyong, the founder of another group, the New Citizens movement, and fellow activist Hou Xin stood trial in Beijing, also charged with disrupting the public order. A verdict is expected in Xu’s case on Sunday, and his lawyer said a conviction is all but guaranteed. “We can say it was decided even before the trial,” lawyer Zhang Qingfang said.
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke on Thursday urged Beijing to release Xu and fellow activists, saying their prosecutions are “retribution for their public campaigns to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of their views.”
The New Citizens movement seeks better accountability for Party officials and equal opportunities in education. It has stayed away from making political appeals, but officials are still wary that it may develop into a social force that could erode the rule of the Communist Party at the grassroots level.
In southern China, activists like Liu and Wang have been leading a similar movement with similar demands but stronger political appeals. They are encouraging people to gather in public streets to hold placards calling for democracy, an end to the one-party rule, or to champion other causes.
The grassroots movement irked authorities last January when its activists rallied to support the newspaper Southern Weekly, whose journalists protested overbearing censorship after party officials altered its New Year’s message without the usual consultation with editors.
Liu joined the rallies outside the headquarters of the news group that publishes the Southern Weekly, calling for press freedom. Several months later, he was charged with gathering crowds to disrupt public order.
Hundreds of police officers were stationed near the court as the trial opened Friday, blocking streets hundreds of meters (yards) away and preventing his supporters from getting near, witnesses said.
Liu’s lawyer, Liu Zhengqing, said he argued that the protests were peaceful and the defendant was not unruly. The two Liu’s are not related.
“If Liu Yuandong committed a crime, then why didn’t police officers, as law-enforcers, stop him?” the lawyer said, noting the heavy police presence during the rallies. “Where did they go? Logically it does not make sense.”
He questioned why the authorities have targeted protesters supporting the Southern Weekly while turning a blind eye to a group of left-wing Communist Party loyalists who also rallied there to denounce the weekly’s more liberal stance.
At least one former employee of the Southern Weekly offered written testimony in support of the defendant, the lawyer said.
Wang, the fellow activist, said he told the court the demonstrations did not affect pedestrians, vehicular traffic, operations of the news group or public green space. The court wanted to know if Liu Yuandong was a main instigator, but Wang said he responded that participation in the rallies was spontaneous.
The Southern Street Movement has purposely kept itself shapeless and without an agenda or leadership.
“We know the government has zero tolerance toward organization, so we make it unstructured to seek some room for growth,” Wang said in an earlier interview.
That approach has its advantages, Wang said. “You cannot root us out,” he said. “Without a leadership or structure, persecution of individual believers will not shake our foundation and cannot damage its core.”
Liu also was charged with a now-outdated business technicality — falsely reporting capital in a business registration. The practice used to be prevalent among Chinese businesses, but the regime decided last year to remove the minimum capital requirement at registration. Liu’s registration was in 2011, before the change.