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June 23, 2017

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Chinese activist stays mum in protest at trial

BEIJING -- The founder of a grassroots movement to boost accountability for Chinese officials went on trial Wednesday on charges of disrupting public order but didn't utter a word during the six-hour, closed-door proceedings to protest what he considered an unjust case, his lawyer said.

The trial of legal scholar and New Citizens founder Xu Zhiyong reflects the determination of the government led by Xi Jinping to quash the loosely knit activists before they can challenge Communist Party rule, even though their goals largely overlap with the party's stated drive to root out corruption and build a fairer society.

The court did not set a date for a verdict. Xu's lawyer Zhang Qingfang said a guilty conviction is mostly certain, and that prosecutors suggested five years in prison — the upper limit for the crime of gathering crowds to disrupt public order.

"If it is a crime to demand a clean government, to ask officials to declare assets, and to demand equality in education, then how can this country have equality and justice?" said Du Guowang, an activist for education equality with no link to the movement. "This government has no confidence, but is fearful."

A conviction against Xu could motivate more people to take up civic activism, Du said. "People will no longer have any illusion about this government," he said.

Xu has participated in small public rallies that, among other issues, have called for officials to declare their assets as a way of curbing graft — something party leaders have expressed a willingness to consider but have resisted while pushing a high-profile corruption crackdown.

The proceedings opened the same day a U.S.-based journalist group released a report linking relatives of Xi and other political leaders to offshore tax havens, renewing allegations that the Communist elite has benefited from China's economic boom and hidden the proceeds overseas.

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