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September 20, 2017

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Chinese grassroots activist Liu goes on trial in Beijing dissent crackdown

BEIJING -- One of the founders of an amorphous movement seeking to end China's one-party rule went on trial Friday amid tight security in the southern city of Guangzhou, where he is charged with disrupting the public order.

The trial against Liu Yuandong of the Southern Street Movement is part of a wider crackdown by Beijing on any form of grassroots social activism that may threaten the ruling Communist Party's grip on power.

Earlier this week, Beijing courts tried two members of the New Citizens movement — including its founder Xu Zhiyong — on the charge of disrupting the public order. The authorities are expected to issue a verdict in Xu's case on Sunday, and his lawyer said a guilty conviction is all but guaranteed. "And we can say it was decided even before the trial," lawyer Zhang Qingfang said.

The New Citizens movement seeks better accountability of government officials and equal opportunities in education, but Beijing is wary that it may develop into a social force that can erode the rule of the Communist Party at the grassroots level.

In southern China, activists have initiated a similar movement with similar demands, though the Southern Street movement has openly called for an end to the one-party rule.

Liu and other initiators of the movement have encouraged people to gather in public streets to hold placards calling for democracy and an end to the one-party rule or to champion other causes.

The movement gained public attention last January when its activists rallied to support the newspaper Southern Weekly, whose journalists protested overbearing censorship after party officials altered the paper's New Year's message without the usual consultation with editors.

Liu's lawyer, Liu Zhengqing, said before the trial he planned to argue that the prosecution is political persecution for Liu's activism. The two Liu's are unrelated.

The charge of disrupting public order stems from Liu's involvement in the public rallies for the Southern Weekly. He also is charged with a business technicality — falsely reporting capital in a business registration.

The trial opened amid tight security, with hundreds of police officers stationed near the court, said Wang Aizhong, one of the movement's founders who was slated to testify for Liu Yuandong in Friday's proceedings.

The Southern Street Movement has purposely kept itself shapeless and without an agenda or leadership, Wang said. "We know the government has zero tolerance toward organization, so we make it unstructured to seek some room for growth."

That approach has its advantages, Wang said.

"You cannot root us out," he said. "Without a leadership or structure, persecution of individual believers will not shake our foundation and cannot damage its core."

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