Sun Dawu, the entrepreneurial founder of the Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group, famed equally for his clear-eyed political commentary as for his business acumen, is the latest prominent Chinese public figure to be detained on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Sun, his son, and at least 10 other high-level Dawu Group executives were detained on November 10. At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong reported on the shudders Sun’s arrest sent through China’s business and intellectual communities:
Mr. Sun and others are in custody for allegedly causing public disorder and disrupting industrial operations. Local officials have stepped in to manage at least some of Dawu’s businesses, including a hospital and a middle school, according to a person briefed on the matter. Zhao Guang, a lawyer consulted by Dawu personnel, said authorities have restricted access to the company’s assets, leaving its staff unable to pay legal fees. It wasn’t clear how long these arrangements would last.
[…]“A dangerous precedent has begun…an enterprise that one so painstakingly built could be completely taken over in a moment of carelessness,” a writer, who goes by the pen name “Xiao Hui,” wrote in a commentary that went viral on the WeChat social-media platform. It has garnered more than 100,000 views. “In this winter, entrepreneurs across the country will be paying attention to the fate of Sun Dawu and Dawu Group.”
[…] Mr. Sun’s musings on social issues won him respect from liberal-minded intellectuals, while business schools have cited his innovative corporate practices in case studies. “Sun Dawu isn’t just an entrepreneur, but also a thinker,” Wang Jiangsong, an academic at the China University of Labor Relations, wrote in a WeChat post that has since been deleted. “If Sun Dawu the person and Dawu Group are ruined, it’d really be a violent destruction of heavenly creations.” [Source]
The Dawu Executives were arrested after approximately 300 policemen raided their headquarters. The Dawu Group had been engaged in a long-running feud with a state-owned farm it accused of encroaching on its land. The conflict came to a head this August after Dawu Group employees attempting to prevent the state-owned farm from tearing down a Dawu Group building were beaten by local police, injuring dozens.
Although the details of his arrest remain unclear, some commentators say Sun was targeted for his political advocacy. In May, Sun publicly defended human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who represented Sun in a 2003 trial. Xu was detained in February 2020 after 50 days in hiding from a December police crackdown on activists and dissidents in the capital and formally arrested on subversion charges in June. While on the lam, Xu penned multiple essays, including one calling on Xi to resign. Sun also sharply criticized the pace of China’s reforms in an October interview with Radio Free Asia, the U.S. government-funded news organization.
His company also already taken over, RFA report. With the Ren Zhiqiang arrest and sentencing, Party Center sent out a clear signal to localities: any private business causing any trouble, arrest and confiscate the assets.
— 优述/You Shu (@You_Shu_China) November 12, 2020
Both cases cast foreboding shadows on Sun Dawu,孙大午， who was arrested a week ago along with his families and business associates. Sun Dawu is a peasant entrepreneur who successfully built his village into a model of self governing, with democratic elections and hospitals.
— 周锋锁 Fengsuo Zhou (@ZhouFengSuo) November 20, 2020
And in this context the arrest of Sun Dawu in Hebei is instructive. https://t.co/7AJEas8hOq
— Dali L. Yang (@Dali_Yang) November 14, 2020
This harsh sentence against Li Huaiqing is a part of recent govt crackdown on powerful entrepreneurs in the private sector or increasingly independent business leaders in state sector: Ren Zhiqing: jailed for 18 years; Geng Xiaonan, detained; also detained: Sun Dawu, Yang Zonyi. https://t.co/Y4mezjZU4v
— Renee Xia (@ReneeXiaCHRD) November 20, 2020
In 2019, the famously outspoken Sun brought global attention to China’s African Swine Fever epidemic after he took to Weibo to accuse Hebei officials of attempting to cover up a breakout that had already killed 15,000 of his pigs. Two days after Mr. Sun posted pictures of dead pigs online, Chinese officials acknowledge the existence of the epidemic in Hebei province. African Swine Fever first took root in Shenyang in 2018, reducing China’s swine output by over 300 million pigs in 2019 and causing the price of pork to rise to an all-time high of $4.36 per kilogram. Izzy Niu interviewed Sun for Quartz News during a 2019 visual investigation of China’s African Swine Fever outbreak:
I wished I could tell more of Sun' story. He grew a small farm into an agribusiness corporation, built free schools, hospitals; routinely spoke out against govt corruption and incompetence. Then today news broke that he was arrested for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble."
— Izzy (@Izzy_Niu) November 11, 2020
His 2020 arrest and the 2019 accusation Sun leveled against Hebei officials were not Sun’s first tangles with the Chinese state. In 2003, he was charged with “illegal fundraising,” a catch-all economic crime, for raising over $22 million by offering his employees banking services at slightly higher interest rates than state-owned banks. A 2002 Economist article detailed how farmers struggled to get credit at the turn of the century because state-run rural credit co-operatives were reluctant to lend to them. Mr. Sun’s improvised bank offered an attractive alternative, drawing thousands of farmers. Many Chinese intellectuals at the time hailed “Mr. Sun as a modern Robin Hood,” according to a New York Times article covering his case. “They say he battled state finance and trade cartels that they view as draining the savings of China’s 800 million peasants to support urban development.” Some contemporaries alleged that Sun’s 2003 arrest was also political, claiming it was triggered by a frank speech he gave at Peking University in the spring of that year in which he examined why China’s countryside was still poor. Xu Zhiyong, the prominent human rights lawyer and essayist, served as Sun’s defense lawyer in the 2003 case, which became a cause célèbre of sorts. In a recent article at Voice of America, Yu Zhou wrote on the esteem in which the late-Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo held Sun and the significance of his 2020 arrest in the eyes of prominent human rights lawyers:
Human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while he was in prison, wrote an article about Sun’s case in 2003.
“Sun Dawu has the conscience to despise power-money transactions and the courage to speak up. He has both economic resources and organizational capacity, as well as ideas to fight for the rights of farmers and help them get out of poverty. He calls for political reforms from the perspective of constitutional democracy, making him a great political challenge to the current system and likely a new type of rural leader.”
[…] Exiled rights lawyer [Teng Biao] said Sun’s latest detention follows a pattern in China.
“Almost all cases of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and cases in which activists have been sentenced, refer to speech and human rights activities as ‘provoking quarrels.’ In fact, they do no harm to society and even promote the rule of law and human rights progress in society.” [Source]
Read more about Sun Dawu in Chinese from our sister site China Digital Space.