A bus torched by a frustrated social security petitioner smolders in Xiamen. (Sina Weibo)

Not long ago, Chinese authorities detained Xu Zhiyong, a prominent civil rights advocate, for “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place,” despite the fact that he had been under house arrest for over three months.

Although the incident comes as little surprise, Xu’s detention signals a disheartening step backward in the push for legal reform in China. One of China’s most renowned legal scholars, Xu had been spearheading the New Citizens’ Movement, which has circulated a petition demanding that Communist Party officials publicly disclose their wealth. At least 15 other activists involved in the movement have been also been detained as part of the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on anti-corruption activists.

Although Xu joins a long line of high-profile activists who have been detained by Chinese authorities, including Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo, and Ai Weiwei, his recent arrest strikes a particularly ironic chord. President Xi Jinping has made tackling government corruption one of the ostensible hallmarks of his administration, and the government has acknowledged the need for legal reform, especially concerning China’s egregious number of wrongful convictions.

Xu, who has been called an “extremist in his moderation,” is far from radical. He has long relied on institutional channels to advocate for political rights and legal reform, earning him widespread respect and support both in China and abroad. He first entered the national spotlight in 2003, when he petitioned the Chinese government to abolish its system of “custody and repatriation,” in which vagrants and rural migrants were detained and forcibly removed to the countryside for not having proper documentation. The government abolished the system a few months later. More recently, Xu helped bring attention to China’s extrajudicial “black jails,” which detain petitioners seeking redress, often in Beijing, for grievances that were unresolved by their local courts.

Xu’s efforts contrast starkly with those of Ji Zhongxing, who made international headlines a mere three days after Xu was detained. Ji detonated a homemade bomb in Beijing’s Capital Airport, injuring only himself. A former motorcycle driver, Ji claims that he was paralyzed from the waist down after being beaten by security guards in Dongguan for failing to register his motorcycle taxi service. After spending eight years unsuccessfully petitioning the Dongguan government for an apology and adequate compensation, Ji resorted to decidedly less legal, and more dangerous, methods.

Ji’s desperate act has been described as a “new form of terrorism” that has been sweeping across China in recent years. After exhausting all lawful means to obtain redress for wrongs done to them, some Chinese citizens decide to commit violence, often to themselves. According to Amnesty International, 41 people in China are known to have committed self-immolation between 2009 and 2011 after being forcibly evicted from their homes. Fortunately, Ji warned others away before detonating his bomb so that no bystanders were injured.

But others choose to wreak greater havoc. Take Chen Shuizong, an impoverished man who set fire to a bus in Xiamen two months ago, killing himself and 47 others. Chen had filed repeated requests for social security benefits, only to encounter endless bureaucratic roadblocks. In 2011, Qian Mingqi bombed three government buildings in Jiangxi Province, killing three people, including himself. Qian had spent a decade seeking redress after authorities seized his land to make room for highway construction, to no avail.

What’s more, these suicide attackers, or domestic “terrorists,” have elicited a surprising degree of sympathy from the Chinese public. Ji Zhongxing, the former motorcycle driver, has garnered widespread support from Chinese citizens and is even regarded by some as a hero. As a result, the Dongguan government reopened its investigation into Ji’s claims that he was beaten and paralyzed by security guards. Even Chen Shuizong, whose fiery suicide killed nearly 50 people, became an object of sympathy among many Chinese. Due to the nature of their grievances, these attackers seem to be provoking more compassion than terror.

Which brings us back to Xu Zhiyong, who has spent much of his career litigating and petitioning on behalf of the very sociopolitical rights that eluded these suicide attackers. Because he dared to challenge the government to uphold the rule of law, he too became a victim of its extralegal tactics to maintain “social stability” at all costs. But as we’ve seen in recent years, the Chinese government’s attempts to curtail institutional channels for citizens to seek redress and voice grievances has only fueled greater social unrest and radicalized the discontent.

According to Sun Liping, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University, the number of “mass incidents”—including protests and other disturbances to the social order—in China doubled between 2006 and 2010, rising to an estimated 180,000 incidents in 2010. In response, the Chinese government increased its spending on internal security, which has surpassed expenditures for national defense since 2010.

As Carl Minzer, an expert in Chinese law, has noted, China may very well be at a “tipping point,” and a failure to implement necessary legal reforms may send the country into a downward spiral of political turmoil. The better alternative would be to open up outlets for political participation and move towards a system in which—as Xu Zhiyong passionately expounded in a controversial essay last year—“the citizen is an independent and free entity, and he or she obeys a rule of law that is commonly agreed upon.”

Cindy Hwang is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.