NGO activists admitted into prisons; labor activists missing

Two activists of the Changsha NGO Funeng (长沙富能) have been admitted into prison. The families of Cheng Yuan and Wuge Jianxiong only recently learned of Cheng and Wuge’s admittance in October after receiving notices from the prisons.

It was widely reported that Cheng Yuan, Wu Gejianxiong, and Liu Dazhi were secretly tried and sentenced in May. However, Cheng’s wife claimed that the families did not receive any documents related to the trial procedures, such as indictment and court hearing notices, and the families did not receive the judgements after learning about the sentences in August. All defendants were represented by court appointed lawyers.

The prison admission notice was sent by the Hunan Jinshi Prison to Cheng Yuan’s father. Dated September 17, the notice confirms that he was sentenced to five years by the Changsha Intermediate Court on May 25, 2021 for subversion. Cheng was reportedly detained in July 2019. This would put his release in July 2024.

Wuge’s father Wu Youshui only received a phone call from the Hengzhou Prison notifying him that Wuge has been transferred to the prison. Wuge was reportedly sentenced to three years, also for subversion. He will be released in July 2022.

Liu was reportedly sentenced to two years and was released after the conviction.

Many observers have speculated about the reasons for the activists’ arrests and convictions. Funeng has been advocating equal employment rights for those with HIV and hepatitis.

In recent months, several labor advocates have been placed in custody or gone incommunicado for endangering state security crimes. Fang Rang of Nanning, a PhD student at HKU with an interest in labor safety, has been under Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location for subversion since August 26. Wang Jianbing of Beijing, an advocate for labor safety standards and education for children in rural areas, has been missing in Shenzhen since September 19 when he accompanied a friend who was en route to Hong Kong. It has been speculated that Wang was also investigated for inciting subversion, possibly due to frequent gatherings of friends and activists at his home. The friend, journalist Huang Xueqin, is also reportedly missing.

The Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-Governmental Organizations within the Territory of China grants the police the power to investigate NGO activities. The law, commonly referred to as the foreign NGO law, passed in 2016. Activists, especially those who have received funding from overseas, are at greater risk of being seen as a threat of state security.

Lawyers avoid arrest for trial video release; unrelated charge suggested

Criminal lawyers in China collectively let out a sigh of relief following the news that the arrests for Zhou Xiaoyun and Nei Min were not approved by the procuratorate.

Zhou and Nie were taken by the Panjin police of Liaoning in early August for releasing a video clip of a court trial hearing. The Panjin police accused the two of picking quarrels and provoking trouble (PQPT) by spreading false information on the internet.

The Panjin Procuratorate, however, rejected the arrest request on September 30. In the public announcement, the procuratorate found that Zhou and Nie’s actions, while causing some harm to society, did not cause serious discord to the social order.

While this is seen by many as a victory, albeit a small one, such positive developments can be short lived. The procuratorate, having closed a door while leaving open a window, made clear that Zhou and Nie would not be let off easily.

The procuratorate suggested that although releasing the video online did not reach the seriousness of a criminal act, it still violated regulations of court conduct for lawyers. The procuratorate also made a more serious allegation. The public announcement laid out that during the investigation of PQPT, the police found the lawyers had charged their client (the defendant in the case) a large amount of money in addition to collecting the regular legal fee. The procuratorate suggested the police should refer the findings and the matters to the relevant judiciary organs and associations.

The regulatory violation could result in administrative penalties handed down by the local or provincial bar associations. Penalties usually include public criticism, blocking transferal to new law firms, and temporary or even permanent suspension of practicing license. Such administrative penalties have been increasingly used to punish outspoken lawyers, in and out of court.

The possibility that the two lawyers will face tax evasion charges is troubling and could complicate the situation further. The lawyers might not be able to practice law while under investigation by the tax administrative organs. The charges, if resulting in conviction, could lead to a simple fine or a criminal conviction and prison sentence depending on the severity of the charges.