BEIJING — Xu Zhiyong, a 36-year-old Beijing lawyer, is renowned for his spirited defense of Chinese citizens victimized by unfair arrest or consumer fraud. Nowadays, the founder of the Open Constitution Initiative law firm will be lucky if he is able to defend himself.
Xu was seized from his home at 5 a.m. on July 29. His family and colleagues were given no official notice and only after a week of inquiries learned secondhand that he was arrested on charges of tax evasion. His detention has sent a chilling message not only to China's lawyers but to citizens who have found themselves in need of legal representation.
"If even a famous lawyer gets arrested, what can we ordinary little people do?" said Tong Zhongjun, 28, a migrant worker whose infant son developed kidney stones from drinking tainted baby formula.
Xu's law firm was one of the few in China willing to represent the parents of the nearly 300,000 children sickened and the six who died last year as a result of dangerous milk additives.
Since its founding in 2003, the firm, also known as Gongmeng, has not shied away from sensitive topics. It challenged China's secret detention centers, the so-called black jails, after a 27-year-old graphic designer who was arrested for failing to carry his identification card died in custody. Xu represented an editor of the hard-hitting newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily who was arrested in 2004 on what were widely seen as politically motivated bribery charges.
This summer, Xu's firm joined the chorus of voices opposing a requirement that all computers sold in China come preinstalled with software that would filter out pornographic or controversial content.
But Xu is by no means a dissident, preferring to work within a system he has hoped to improve, not overthrow.
His pedigree is impeccable: He earned his doctorate in law at prestigious Peking University, taught law at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and served as a representative to the People's Congress for the Haidian District of Beijing, where he lives. He also was a visiting scholar at Yale Law School.
"He had such confidence in the legal system," said Yang Huiwen, the only lawyer still in the offices Wednesday. Yang said he had wanted to quit the law because of hassles by authorities, but Xu talked him out of it. "He always talked about how the rule of law would help China advance."
This has been a singularly grim year for China's lawyers, with some of the country's leading human rights advocates under arrest or denied the right to practice law. Last month, the Beijing Justice Bureau stripped 53 lawyers of their licenses, mostly on administrative technicalities.
Xu's troubles began last month when the firm got a tax bill for more than $200,000, an assessment made on donations it received from supporters, including Yale Law School.
Just three days later, before the firm had time to file a response, the police came and confiscated most of its computers, furniture and files.
Even after that, Xu was optimistic he could beat back the charges of tax evasion. In China, civic groups such as Xu's cannot legally register as nongovernmental organizations, so disputes about whether they should be taxed as charities or businesses are commonplace.
The evening of July 28, Xu met late into the night at a cafe with other lawyers, planning his defense. But the next morning, when he failed to show up for work, colleagues became worried.
"We were calling all his friends. We went to the university to look for him," said Tian Qihuan, the firm's general manager. It wasn't until the next day that they found the night guard at Xu's apartment complex, who confirmed that the lawyer had been arrested.
Another week went by before Xu's brother learned from the Communist Party secretary at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications that his brother had been charged with tax evasion.
"We still haven't heard anything officially. Under Chinese law, family members are supposed to get notification within 48 hours, but they've heard nothing," said Tian in an interview at the law offices on Wednesday.
The offices are now virtually bare. The files have all been seized except for those relating to the tainted-milk cases, which are still wending their way through the courts. One of the senior lawyers at the firm, Teng Biao, managed to save those files by appealing to the conscience of the police officers as parents. ("How will you be able to face your kids if you take those files?" Teng asked the police, the office manager said.)
Sisi Liu of Amnesty International in Hong Kong said someone of Xu's stature suspected of tax evasion would normally be released on bail pending formal charges.
"Clearly, this is a politically motivated prosecution," she said, "and if there is such strong political motivation, we doubt that legal procedure will be followed."
No one knows how long Xu might be held without formal charges, but recent history isn't encouraging: Gao Zhisheng, a maverick lawyer who represented members of the banned Falun Gong movement, has been held incommunicado for more than six months.