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China jails economics professor who highlighted government’s personnel costs

China's President Xi Jinping. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)
September 09, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A Chinese court on Thursday handed down a four-and-a-half-year jail term to an outspoken economics professor who had estimated the high personnel costs of the Chinese government, finding him guilty of “incitement to subvert state power,” according to rights website.

The Guiyang Intermediate People’s Court handed down the sentence to former Guizhou University professor Yang Shaozheng in a trial behind closed doors on July 29, a post on the Weiquanwang rights website said.

“Yang Shaozheng expressed dissatisfaction with the judgment in court and filed an appeal,” the group said. “The reason for the appeal was that this was an illegal trial.”

Yang’s appeal argued that members of the Chinese Communist Party had presided over the case from start to finish, including the investigation, the prosecution and the trial itself.

“The actions he was charged with fell under freedom of speech and expression, and to criminalize a citizen for exercising those rights was a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression,” the report paraphrased Yang’s appeal as saying.

A key member of Yang’s defense team, Zhang Lei, declined to comment when contacted by Radio Free Asia, indicating that he was under a lot of pressure from the authorities, while repeated calls to another member of his defense team rang unanswered on Thursday.

Cost to Chinese taxpayers

Yang, 53, lost his job at Guizhou University’s Institute of Economics in November 2017, on the orders of someone “higher up” the government hierarchy, and was subsequently investigated by police amid a purge of outspoken academics and the adoption of President Xi Jinping’s personal brand of ideology across higher education.

Hunan-based dissident Chen Siming said an article in which Yang calculated that party and government personnel cost the Chinese taxpayer an estimated 20 trillion yuan (US$2.75 trillion) annually was likely the trigger for his arrest.

“These questions [he was asking] hit home,” Chen said in an interview last month. “He was later expelled from Guizhou University, and then secretly arrested. During this period, lawyers and family members weren’t allowed to meet with him.” 

Yang spent some time on the run in 2019 after being shackled to a chair and interrogated by state security police for eight hours, around the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Just before that stint in detention, Yang had criticized a new wave of ideological training being launched in China’s colleges and universities.

He was arrested in secret in May 2021 and placed under incommunicado detention for six months on suspicion of “incitement to subvert state power,” before being formally arrested and prosecuted. He is currently being held in the Guiyang No. 1 Detention Center.

His lawyers filed an administrative complaint with the Guizhou provincial state prosecutor on March 3, alleging that state security police were trying to force a “confession” from Yang through torture, which caused him to lose consciousness several times and lose some 25 kilograms (55 pounds) in weight.

The complaint said the abuse took place during the six months he was held under “residential surveillance at a designated location,” a type of incommunicado detention frequently used to target critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in “national security” cases.

A Guizhou-based lecturer who gave only the surname Yu said Yang, whom she counts as a friend, is a “rare” person in today’s China.

“I think Yang Shaozheng knows very well what he was bringing down on his own head when he spoke out like that, but he did it anyway,” Yu told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview. “He is a politically brave person, which is a rare thing in our society.”