A Chinese academic who published essays strongly criticising President Xi Jinping over the coronavirus pandemic has been released after nearly a week in detention, his friends have told the AFP news agency.
Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, was taken from his home in the capital by a group of more than 20 people on July 6, according to his associates.
He returned home on Sunday and was well, two of his friends confirmed to AFP on Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Xu published an essay, titled “Viral Alarm – When Fury Overcomes Fear”, in February blaming the culture of deception and censorship fostered by Xi for the spread of the coronavirus in China, where the outbreak was first reported in December last year before spreading globally.
“The cause of all of these lies, ultimately, is the axle – a reference to Xi – and the cabal that surrounds him,” Xu wrote in the essay that appeared on overseas websites, adding the chaos in the virus epicentre of Hubei province reflected systemic problems in the Chinese state.
“It began with the imposition of stern bans on the reporting of accurate information about the virus, which served to embolden deception at every level of government,” he said.
It was not immediately clear whether he would face further repercussions.
Beijing police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
A friend of Xu told AFP on July 6 that a man claiming to be police called the professor’s wife to say he had been arrested for allegedly soliciting prostitutes, which the friend dismissed as “ridiculous and shameless”.
The professor – a rare government critic in the heavily censored Chinese academia – had been put under house arrest a week prior to being taken into custody, the friend said.
In a previous essay circulated online, Xu spoke out against the 2018 abolition of presidential term limits, which left Xi free to rule for life.
After Tsinghua reportedly barred Xu from teaching and research in 2019, hundreds of Tsinghua alumni – and academics around the world – signed an online petition calling for his reinstatement.
Freedom of expression in China has always been tightly controlled by the Communist Party, but critics say the grip has become suffocating under Xi.
The United States and the European Union last week called Xu’s detention a human rights violation, pressing for his release.
“It’s good news that Professor Xu has been released, but he should have not been detained in the first place,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Wang called the prostitution accusation “laughable”, saying it was a common government tactic used to smear and silence critics.
Xu is the latest in a wave of intellectuals swept up in what critics say is a crackdown by Xi on dissent in all spheres of public life.
Legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong was briefly detained by Shanghai police in May after publishing an open letter criticising Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus and calling for a democratic government.
Space for independent discussion has shrunk further this year as Xi’s government has sought to deflect blame for the coronavirus, which scientists believe emerged from a wild animal market in Wuhan.