This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in China’s Guizhou and Jiangsu provinces have jailed two journalists and one family member after they were critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
On Jan. 8, the Nanming District People’s Court in Guizhou’s provincial capital, Guiyang, jailed former journalist Zhang Jialong for 18 months after finding him guilty of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”
The case against him was built on allegations that he had retweeted or liked tweets critical of the government on Twitter, including tweets about the Hong Kong protest movement, the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in a report on its website.
Zhang had been a journalist with Tencent until 2014, when he met with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and asked him to help “tear down” the Great Firewall, a complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship that limits what Chinese internet users and do and see online. He was fired following that meeting and later detained.
“The result has been decided: he got one year and six months,” Xiao Yunyang, one of Zhang’s defense lawyers, told RFA this week. “He has already said he wants to appeal.”
“My position is that he is not guilty.”
Assuming the authorities count time already served, Zhang will be released on Feb. 11, the eve of the traditional Lunar New Year celebrations.
Zhang’s wife Shao Yuan said that while the outcome wasn’t too bad for her family, she has maintained her husband’s innocence all along.
“Luckily, the dust has finally settled, and we are getting some kind of positive payback from this judgment,” Shao said. “But I think anyone should have the right to express their thoughts, regardless of whether they support or criticize the government.”
“[Zhang] must feel like this is political persecution,” she added.
An ongoing crackdown
Guangzhou-based writer Ye Du said Zhang’s jailing was part of an ongoing crackdown by the CCP on its citizens using Twitter.
“One aspect of the crackdown in recent years has been the conviction of people on the basis of their tweets,” Ye told RFA. “Internet users have been forced to delete tweets, or their Twitter accounts, and have even been detained in large numbers.”
“[Zhang’s] case is one of the most severe examples of this persecution.”
A day before Zhang’s sentence was passed, on Jan. 7, the Pizhou Municipal People’s Court in the eastern province of Jiangsu jailed journalist Li Xinde for five years after finding him guilty of “illegal business activity.”
Li’s son Li Chao was handed a one-year jail term at the same time.
‘A very dangerous business’
Li was first detained by police in October 2019 and placed in “residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL),” not long after he published a claim that a court in Tianjin had wrongfully convicted a businessman.
Li, an investigative reporter, founded and ran the China Public Watchdog Network, which had a focus on exposing corrupt officials.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan commented via Twitter: “To speak out on behalf of those suffering injustice in today’s society, and to monitor the agencies wielding state power, is a very dangerous business.”
Zhang Yu, who heads the writers’ group Independent Chinese PEN, said charges of “illegal business activity” are often brought against peaceful critics of the CCP.
“The main charge used to suppress freedom of speech in China is incitement to subvert state power, but they have to show in what part of their speech or writing they did that,” Zhang told RFA.
“They may use illegal business activity if what they said was particularly sensitive, or if they can’t really find evidence to support [subversion] charges in what they said or wrote,” Zhang said. “It has nothing to do with [the defendant] actually having conducted illegal business activity.”