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Chinese Activists Detained for Backing Former Tsinghua Professor

A university student puts up a poster to demand of releasing the 12 Hong Kong activists detained at sea by Chinese authorities, at a "Lennon wall" in the University of Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2020.
A university student puts up a poster to demand of releasing the 12 Hong Kong activists detained at sea by Chinese authorities, at a "Lennon wall" in the University of Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2020.

Authorities in Beijing have detained an outspoken publisher and her husband on suspicion of running an "illegal business operation" after she made public her support for former Tsinghua University scholar Xu Zhangrun, a critic of China’s leaders who is now under house arrest.

Geng Xiaonan and her husband were taken away in September and have both remained in custody, a move observers said was taken to punish Xu, a legal scholar who has criticized President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power.

Analysts told VOA that the continuing crackdown shows that authorities are targeting supporters of dissidents to isolate and neutralize their criticism.

'Bridge' linking generations

Geng Xiaonan is the founder of privately run publishing company Ruiya Books. Over the years, she has been quietly assisting liberal intellectuals such as former premiere Zhao Ziyang’s aide Bao Tong, who remains under house arrest for supporting the 1989 student demonstrators, and outspoken former Communist Party School professor Du Guang, among others.

Recently, she called for the release of citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, who went into Wuhan to report from the then epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been missing since March.

She’s also been ordering groceries for outspoken legal scholar Xu Zhangrun since his arrest in July. Xu is blacklisted by most online vendors in China.

Most of her friends said that they believe it's Geng’s support for dissidents that landed her in prison. Former Tsinghua professor Xu Zhangrun urged others to speak up for Geng’s release. “She is a brave woman. Let us speak up for her, voice our concern for her,” he posted on social media.

Geng is also a friend of Cai Xia, who was expelled from China Party School and stripped of her pension in August over speeches she made criticizing the country’s direction under President Xi. Cai posted on Twitter that several employees of Geng’s company were also arrested. She said Xi’s repressive rule and persecution of dissidents has reached a new high.

Hu Jia, a Chinese human rights activist, told VOA that Geng’s arrest shows that China is not only targeting critics, but also purging their supporters. They are trying to isolate the dissidents by cutting off their access to economic and legal aid, as well as blocking them from international attention.

“Geng acts like a bridge. She’s good at connecting younger and older generation activists; all she did was communication and coordination,” Hu told VOA. “The party now starts to target people like her. Anyone who helps dissidents to contact journalists, lawyers, or offer help to their families will be prosecuted.”

An example to others

By detaining Geng, he said, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to set an example to others. “Her case shows that the CCP can arrest and prosecute you with charges completely unrelated to activism … there’s always a charge that they can ‘tailor’ for you,” he said.

The General Office of the Chinese Communist Party in September released Opinions on Strengthening the United Front Work of Private Economy in the New Era, which requires strengthening ideological training for private business owners so they can be “politically correct.”

The document aims at “enhancing the party’s leadership over private economy, and uniting private business owners closely around the Party.”

Song Yongyi, a renowned scholar of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and a professor of history at California State University, told VOA that this kind of language is an implicit warning.

Hu Jia, who has been under close surveillance by the state, said the pattern of charging people who support dissidents can have a chilling effect on China’s pro-democracy movement.

“They are giving you fear,” he said. "So many people have been ‘disappeared,’ or invited to ‘drink tea,’ or just locked up.

“Especially for the younger generation," he added. "They are thinking twice before devoting themselves to activism.”