Authorities in the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing have jailed a prominent philanthropist for 20 years on charges of “incitement to subvert state power.”
Li Huaiqing was handed the sentence on Friday by the Chongqing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, which found him guilty of “incitement to subvert state power,” “fraud,” “extortion” and “false imprisonment.”
The court also froze all of Li’s assets, believed to be worth around 100 million yuan.
His defense attorney Huang Li said the sentence was inexplicable.
“I’m completely speechless, that’s all I can say,” Huang said. “I have no explanation for this decision, and I can’t comment on the matter, I think you know what I mean.”
A person working in the legal system who asked to remain anonymous said the heavy sentence for Li comes as part of a three-year campaign targeting private entrepreneurs.
“We have had three years of this anti-organized crime campaign now,” the person said. “The way they are targeting entrepreneurs is particularly frightening because the cases are processed very fast and heavy jail terms are mandated.”
“Many of them have been miscarriages of justice,” the lawyer said, adding that all regions of China are now expected to show similar results by the end of the year.
According to the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights in China (HRIC), which cited Li’s wife Bao Yan, the allegation of “false imprisonment” came after a defaulting debtor reported him to police, although Li had produced witnesses to counter the claims.
Private chats as evidence
The indictment against Li accused him of using WeChat seven times from October 2017 to January 2018 to “incite subversion of state power” and call for the overthrow of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Evidence for the subversion charge rested on four private chat messages, as well as reposts and audio files from Li’s WeChat account, HRIC said.
Li’s wife Bao Yan said she had met with him after the sentence was passed.
“He asked me to meet him in the basement of the court building,” Bao said. “We just chatted for a while.”
“My husband seemed calm, and said he was honored by the charges against him, especially the one of subversion,” she said. “He comforted me and told me not to be sad.”
“It’s pretty absurd that this so-called incitement charge rests on private messages and chats on WeChat as the only evidence,” she said. “We will definitely be appealing.”
Eight of Li’s former employees were also handed jail terms ranging from four to 16 years.
Li is currently being held in the Chongqing Jiangbei District Detention Center. No formal notice of arrest has ever been issued to his family.
Bao said Li was targeted by Sun Lijun, then deputy minister of public security, after a charitable foundation he ran started talking about official corruption.
“After that, Sun had everyone in the foundation investigated,” Bao said. “I think some of those people had powerful backing, and that my husband didn’t.”
Some of Li’s charitable work was aimed at helping victims of pneumoconiosis, often a workplace-related health problem suffered by miners and other industrial workers.
According to HRIC, Li was initially detained on Jan. 31, 2018 by Chongqing police on suspicion of offenses relating to organized crime, while eight of his employees, Bao and the couple’s son were also hauled in for interrogation.
In May 2018, police visited their 10-year-old son’s school and interrogated the child about his father.
They later froze not just Li’s assets, but those of Bao and her sister, leaving the family in financial hardship, the group said.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.