After the men were released from prison, they continued to speak out, and to organize gatherings like the one in Xiamen in 2019, though public protests had become increasingly risky. Then, weeks after the Xiamen meeting, Mr. Ding was arrested. Mr. Xu evaded detection at first — even writing an open letter from hiding that urged Mr. Xi to step down — but was arrested in 2020.
The authorities, in laying out the charges against the two men, described a litany of offenses over the past several years, including “developing so-called ‘citizen community groups,’” and calling for “equal access to education.” Mr. Ding was also sentenced to three years of deprivation of political rights after his release, Ms. Luo said, which can entail further detention and surveillance.
Teng Biao, a lawyer and friend of Mr. Xu and Mr. Ding, said Monday’s sentences showed how rapidly human rights had deteriorated under Mr. Xi. Mr. Teng, who left China in 2013 after being detained himself several times, said that under Mr. Xi’s predecessors, it was “not possible to imagine” that a small-scale private gathering like the one in Xiamen could lead to such lengthy sentences.
But Mr. Teng noted the repression of Uyghurs in the far western region of Xinjiang, and the life sentence handed down to Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur activist and academic, under Mr. Xi. “They don’t care about human rights or the Constitution or international human rights standards,” he said of the government.
Several other lawyers and activists from the Xiamen gathering were also detained. Mr. Xu’s girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, who was not at the gathering but had spoken on Mr. Xu’s behalf after his detention, is also awaiting trial.
Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said she was personally pained by the sentences, noting that she had looked up to Mr. Xu as a college student in China in the late 2000s. The admiration he elicited was apparent when he was first tried and sentenced in 2014, when foreign diplomats and ordinary citizens gathered outside the Beijing courthouse, despite police intimidation, in protest.
Nine years later, heightened surveillance make such organization nearly impossible, and many of the lawyers’ supporters have themselves been jailed or forced into exile, Ms. Wang said. And censorship had dimmed Mr. Xu’s public profile.
“Now, it’s an entirely different era,” she said. “Young people, college students now have no idea who Xu Zhiyong is.”
Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan.