US urges Beijing to release outspoken Chinese law professor Xu Zhangrun

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The US State Department has demanded that China release a law professor who was taken from his home in Beijing by police on Monday after he publicly criticised Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

It was the latest example of the countries’ rapidly deteriorating relationship, less than one week after Beijing imposed a new national security law in Hong Kong that many fear is designed to smother free speech in the territory.

“We are deeply concerned by the PRC’s detention of Professor Xu Zhangrun for criticizing Chinese leaders amid tightening ideological controls on university campuses in China,” Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a tweet on Tuesday.

“The PRC must release Xu and uphold its international commitments to respect freedom of expression,” she said.

Beijing has not yet acknowledged the arrest, which was reported by close contacts of Xu’s family, but the outspoken 57-year-old professor had been closely watched by Chinese authorities since at least last year.

In May, he published an essay urging the country’s leadership to reflect on its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and apologise for its mistakes.

In February, while the outbreak still raged in China, he publicly blamed senior Chinese leadership for “putting politics ahead of the people” and wrote that the country’s political system had “collapsed under the tyranny”.

One year before, Xu had been suspended from his teaching post at Tsinghua University, one of China’s top schools, after he published an article condemning the Communist Party’s decision to remove presidential term limits.

In the same period of time, especially after Covid-19 began to spread widely in the US, the State Department has grown increasingly comfortable issuing blunt condemnations of China’s actions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a radio interviewer on Monday that there was an “enormous mismatch” between Xi’s policies and “the most fundamental human rights”.

On Tuesday, another top American official, the head of the FBI, issued his own dire warning about China’s efforts to stifle criticism inside and outside its borders.

In a speech on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that Beijing has been systematically pressuring overseas Chinese citizens whom the Communist Party views as dissidents to return home, in some cases by threatening their families.

He said the programme, called Operation Fox Hunt, was led by Xi.

“We’re talking about political rivals, dissidents and critics seeking to expose China’s extensive human rights violations,” Wray said.

He encouraged people who fear they are a target of the programme to contact their local FBI field office.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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