The sentencing of prominent civil society activist Xu Zhiyong on Sunday to four years' prison confirms what many have long suspected: the Chinese constitution isn't worth the paper it’s written on.
Xu is the co-founder of the New Citizens' Movement, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of civic rights. He was officially charged with 'gathering a crowd to disturb public order'. Xu has never committed or incited violent acts, nor has he been accused of such.
Among other things, Xu was charged with using 'the issue of public officials' asset disclosure to organise and orchestrate the gathering of many people in public places, where they engaged in activities such as unfurling banners and distributing leaflets.'
It goes without saying that banners and leaflets aren't illegal under the Chinese constitution. But neither is organising a gathering: Article 35 of the constitution states that 'Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.'
Defending the ruling, Fu Siming, a professor with the Central Committee Party School, told the state-run Global Times that 'It's wrong for some people to interpret today's verdict as suppression against dissidents. It is every citizen's right to express different opinions on the system or any improper government decisions.'
Tell that to Ilham Tohti. The Uyghur academic was arrested in Beijing on 15 January and is likely to be charged with 'endangering state security'. His crime? Using his website uighurbiz.net to 'recruit and manipulate some people to make rumours, distort and hype up issues in a bid to create conflicts', according to police.
In reality the website, now taken down, did no such thing. As far 'dissident' websites go, Tohti's was relatively moderate in its criticism of the central government. On its Uyghur-language pages, it even used the Chinese loanword 'Xinjiang' to describe China's restive Muslim autonomous region, rather than 'East Turkestan', a term favoured by Uyghur nationalists.
The reasons for Xu and Tohti's detainment are in fact similar: both were prominent challengers to the ideological narrative being pushed by the state, and both championed constitutionalism as the only path forward for China.
In light of the arrests, the freedoms guaranteed by Article 35 of the constitution appear laughable. Indeed, the Communist Party itself has little regard for the fundamental law of the state: Document No. 9, an internal CPC memo leaked in August last year, rails against constitutionalism and those who 'attack the Party's leaders for placing themselves above the constitution.'
Document No. 9, which Chris Buckley of the New York Times has said 'bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping', goes on to identify seven 'false ideological trends, positions, and activities' that threaten the party's grip on power. Universal values, including human rights, freedom of the press and civil society, are all mentioned.
It appears state media got the memo. According to a January report from the China Media Project, in 2012 there were 400 domestic articles using the term 'constitutionalism' in the headline, of which all uses were positive. In 2013, 1200 headlines used the term 'constitutionalism'; 86% negative.
The recent arrests are the latest manifestation of President Xi's year-long crackdown on ideological dissent. They are also one of the most brazen violations of the Chinese constitution in recent years. But the way the Communist Party sees it, the constitution plays second fiddle to political whim.