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China sentences longtime activist to nearly 8 years on subversion charge

Tianjin Court
An elderly man and woman ride on an electric bike past a sign for Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, where Hu Shigen, a writer and member of underground Christian churches, was tried.
(Ng Han Guan / Associated Press)

A former literature professor who spent 16 years in prison after China’s 1989 crackdown on democracy protests was convicted of subversion Wednesday and sentenced to 7½ years behind bars.

Hu Shigen, a writer and member of underground Christian churches, was tried by the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Tianjin, southeast of Beijing. He is among hundreds of people who were detained last year in a broad crackdown on civil society advocates and human rights lawyers.

Hu, two other activists and a prominent lawyer are being tried this week in Tianjin. On Tuesday, activist Zhai Yanmin was convicted on subversion charges but given a suspended prison sentence.

Hu, who is in his early 60s, was born into a poor family and worked in a car factory before going on to study Chinese literature at Peking University in the late 1970s. He became a lecturer at what is now Beijing Language and Culture University in the 1980s.

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After the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, he co-founded the China Freedom and Democracy Party. In the early 1990s, he wrote articles and made fliers calling for the commemoration of the 1989 victims, but when he hatched a plan to fly a drone to release them over Tiananmen Square in 1992, he was arrested.

In 1994, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail for “organizing and leading a counterrevolutionary group” and “engaging in counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.”

Hu was released in 2008 and resumed his activism. He was detained again in 2011 and 2014.

Prosecutors closely linked Hu’s alleged anti-state activities with his participation in underground churches that are not sanctioned by Communist Party officials. Among the evidence presented in Zhai’s trial on Tuesday was a photo of him being baptized at a meeting of an underground church run by Hu.

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According to a transcript of the court proceedings Wednesday, prosecutors said that in 2009 Hu used “illegal religious activities” as a platform to recruit lawyers and petitioners to challenge the rule of the government.

Hu sought to “seriously threaten the safety of the country and the social stability through a series of criminal activities that challenged” government rule, prosecutors said.

According to the state-run New China News Agency, Hu held a meeting with Zhai and other activists and lawyers in early 2015. According to a videotaped confession by Zhai that aired on state-run television before his conviction, Hu told the attendees that there were three “elements” necessary to bring about a transformation in China: a stronger citizen “force,” conflicts within the ruling party and the interference of  “international society” into Chinese affairs.

The agency said Wednesday that Hu had admitted during his trial that he had discussed the three elements for the purpose of inciting a “color revolution.” 

“I intended to taint the reputation of the legal system, the police and the government,” Hu told the court, according to the news agency. “I wanted to make more people agree with me and create more distrust of the government among ordinary people. I paid attention to all sensitive cases, and I liked to use the sensitive cases to push my ‘peaceful transformation’ theory.”

The news agency also said Hu acknowledged sending fellow activist Gou Hongguo overseas in 2014 to learn techniques for fighting the Chinese Communist Party. Those training sessions included supporters of Tibetan and Xinjiang separatism, according to the news agency. That accusation apparently related to an interfaith conference in Taiwan focused on human rights in mainland China, which attracted Tibetan Buddhists and Muslims from Xinjiang, among others.

In addition to his 7½-year term, Hu will have his political rights suspended for five years after his release.

After news of the verdict was released, Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, tweeted that China was “utterly bent on hunting down, locking up or driving into exile every [human rights] lawyer.”

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Still awaiting trial in Tianjin are Gou and Zhou Shifeng, head of the prominent Beijing-based Fengrui law firm.

Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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