When Xu Zhiyong read a news report in late April, 2003, about a young man who had been beaten to death in police custody, he slumped dumbfounded in front of his computer.
Sun Zhigang, 27, a graphic designer from Wuhan , was picked up by police on March 17, 2003, during a random identity check in Guangzhou, where he worked.
Unable to produce a temporary residence permit, Sun was placed in a custody and repatriation centre. Three days later he was dead after being attacked by staff and inmates.
A postmortem examination showed he suffered extensive bruising to his heart, brain, lungs, liver and kidneys.
Sun’s death caused a national outcry and led to angry demands for the scrapping of the regulation that gave police the power to arbitrarily detain people found without urban residency permits in cities. Xu and best friends Teng Biao and Yu Jiang , who had all recently graduated with doctorates in law from the prestigious Peking University, decided they had to take action.
Ten years ago today, they sent an open letter to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, petitioning it to conduct a review of the regulation on the detention and repatriation of non-city residents.
They argued it was unconstitutional because it violated the personal freedom of citizens.
They also hoped their appeal would have a wider impact by creating a precedent for citizen-initiated constitutional reviews, so that other laws and regulations that violated the constitution could be challenged.
The next month, the unthinkable happened. The then premier, Wen Jiabao , announced that the regulation on “the custody and repatriation of vagrants and beggars in cities” would be abolished.
The move surprised and heartened the young academics. The case also led Xu and Teng into careers in rights activism.
“Then, I was filled with hope and I decided to devote my life to human rights and NGO work,” Teng, now a legal scholar and prominent activist, said in a recent interview. “It was the turning point of my life.” A decade on, the “Sun Zhigang incident” is regarded as the event that marked the start of the weiquan, or rights defence movement, in which ordinary citizens use the law as a tool to defend their rights through litigation or activism.
It is not clear whether the petition letter played a deciding role in the abolition of the detention and repatriation regulation.
But the three academics believe their proposal helped influence public opinion, putting pressure on the government – particularly after state media were muzzled by censors.
“It was a significant event for the rule of law,” Teng said. “The involvement of intellectuals, lawyers, the media and internet users made it an influential incident.”
Yu said an important legacy of the incident was the rise in ordinary people’s awareness of their rights over the past 10 years.
“The Sun Zhigang incident had a role in promoting the understanding of law and human rights, and the concept of freedom of movement and personal freedom,” said Yu, now head of law at Huazhong University of Technology.
“Before, people just thought it was bad that police had beaten someone to death, but didn’t think about why it was unreasonable. Nowadays people tend to think injustice happens because of the system.”
Xu said the government had not fundamentally shifted its stance on human rights in the past decade. But thanks to the rapid development of social media, public opinion had become a much stronger force and had often forced the government to make concessions.
“The human rights situation has improved … but it’s mostly due to social progress, as people’s tolerance of [rights abuses] has lessened,” he said. “In the past 10 years society has progressed, but the autocratic system has not.”
While public pressure pushed the government to scrap the detention and repatriation system, Xu, Teng and Yu regret that the government failed to conduct a constitutional review, which could have set a precedent for challenging other unconstitutional laws. Over the past decade, serious cases of rights abuses have continued to emerge.
While some caused a public outcry, not one has pushed the government to abolish other unconstitutional laws and regulations. Teng said that while media attention and public anger could sometimes influence the outcome of victims’ court cases, the lack of an established legal procedure meant justice could not be guaranteed.
“You can’t always expect a positive outcome,” he said. “Sometimes the government will make a concession, but there is no predicting it.”
Yu said their success 10 years ago was tempered by the fact that it failed to become a catalyst for sweeping systemic change that would have enabled other unconstitutional laws to be scrapped. “It didn’t result in a significant change in the system, so the meaning of the Sun Zhigang case is limited,” he said.
Xu and Teng, who vowed to take up the challenge of seeking justice for the underprivileged, have ironically become the victims of official retaliation and rights abuses themselves.
Yu focused on academic research and did not take up rights activities like Xu and Teng. Xu is now under constant police surveillance. He has been confined to his home since last month, when he was barred from travelling to Hong Kong to attend an academic conference commemorating Sun’s death.
Since launching the New Citizen social movement – an initiative to push for democracy and basic civil rights – in May last year, he has been subjected to arbitrary house arrest numerous times to prevent him from meeting supporters.
Xu is officially still a law lecturer at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. But he was barred from teaching after his non-profit legal aid centre, the Open Constitution Initiative – co-founded with Teng, Yu and others – was closed by the authorities in 2009 and he was put in custody for nearly a month.
Observers say the work of the legal aid centre touched a nerve with the authorities because it was a strong force in the rights defence movement, which they fear could threaten their rule.
It has challenged so-called “black jails”, sought rights for petitioners, death row inmates and migrants’ children and has helped the parents of babies poisoned in the melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008 to seek legal redress.
Teng, a law lecturer at China University of Political Science and Law and founder of the NGO China Against Death Penalty, has frequently been harassed for his vocal stance on rights issues.
In 2008, Teng had his lawyer’s licence revoked and he was once kidnapped by police, who hooded him and held him for days for his criticism of rights abuses ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
In 2011, in the aftermath of Tunisia’s “jasmine revolution”, which saw popular revolts overthrow several authoritarian regimes in North Africa, he was detained for 70 days at unknown locations. Most of the time he was handcuffed, deprived of sleep and made to sit in fixed positions for long periods under strict surveillance in curtained rooms.
But Xu and Teng say they have no regrets. “For society to progress, someone has to pay a price,” Xu said.
“And of course, it has been worth it – we have helped lots of people in our push for social progress for the past decade.”
For example, Xu said his campaign for education rights for migrant workers’ children had partially succeeded, after they were allowed to take university entrance examinations in the cities where their parents worked, with the exception of Beijing and Shanghai.
Teng said he was undeterred by the harsh treatment because he was convinced he was doing the right thing for the country.
“As long as you pose a threat to the authorities, and you do things according to your conscience, you will clash with the regime some time,” Teng said.
“My ideals are the same as 10 years ago. The constitution says citizens have human rights and freedoms, but the government doesn’t allow opposition voices to limit its power.
“So we should do whatever we believe is right. We haven’t done anything wrong and have no regrets at all over our choice.”