Xu was serving a prison term on charges of “leaking state secrets” through his academic work on military history and “economic crimes” related to unauthorized publishing of foreign policy issues. Some observers believed that his jailing might have been related to an article he wrote for the Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly) magazine revealing clandestine Chinese Communist Party support for a Malaysian insurgency in the 1950s and 1960s.
Xu, a permanent resident of Hong Kong, was arrested in Guangzhou and held incommunicado for 18 months until trial. In December 2001, the Shenzhen Intermediate Court sentenced him to 13 years in prison; Xu’s appeal to Guangzhou Higher People’s Court was rejected in 2002.
According to court documents, the “state secrets” charges against Xu stemmed from his use of historical documents for academic research. Xu, also known as David Tsui, was an associate research professor at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. In 1992, he photocopied four books published in the 1950s about China’s role in the Korean War, which he then sent to a colleague in South Korea.
The verdict stated that the Security Committee of the People’s Liberation Army of Guangzhou determined that the books had not been declassified 40 years after being labeled “top secret.” After his arrest, St. Antony’s College at Oxford University, where Xu earned his doctorate and wrote his dissertation on the Korean War, was active in researching the case and calling for his release.
Xu was also the co-founder of a Hong Kong-based academic journal, Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Jikan (China Social Sciences Quarterly). The “economic crimes” charges were related to the “illegal publication” of more than 60,000 copies of 25 books and periodicals, including several books about Chinese politics and Beijing’s relations with Taiwan.
He was arrested just days before an article appeared in the June 26, 2000, issue of Yazhou Zhoukan, in which he accused the Communist Party of hypocrisy when it condemned countries that criticized China’s human rights record.
Xu began his sentence in Dongguan Prison, outside Guangzhou, but he was later transferred to Guangzhou Prison, where it was easier for his family to visit him. He was spared from hard labor and was allowed to read, research, and teach English in prison, according to the U.S.-based prisoner advocacy group Dui Hua Foundation. He suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes.
Dui Hua said Xu’s family members had been informed of sentence reductions that would move his scheduled release date to 2011. In 2009, the Independent Chinese PEN Center honored him with a Writers in Prison Award.