Geng Xiaonan, a Chinese businesswoman who made her fortune publishing lifestyle and cooking books while supporting prominent dissidents in her personal capacity, has been sentenced to three years in prison for “illegal business activities.” Geng, who was arrested alongside her husband in September 2020, had stood out for her outspoken support of Xu Zhangrun, the Tsinghua University professor who wrote a series of articles highly critical of Xi Jinping. Her prison sentence is the latest example of the heightened scrutiny faced by China’s entrepreneurs, who are under renewed pressure to fall in line with Beijing.
Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK reported on the details of Geng and her husband’s sentencing:
According to the live stream of the court proceedings, Geng said she pleaded guilty to the charges and offered her apologies to society, adding that all the evidence were “very true”.
[…] Her husband, meanwhile, was given a sentence of two-and-a-half years, suspended for three years.
Geng pleaded for leniency, saying she had no previous criminal records, did not have any real intention to commit crimes and did not harm anybody.
She also said she needs to take care of her ailing, elderly father, and that she may not be able to be with him in the last years of his life if she is sentenced to a long prison term. [Source]
In charging Geng with the crime of “illegal business activities,” observers have noted an evolution in Chinese prosecutors’ tactics, potentially to avoid the greater publicity that comes with politically charged crimes such as “inciting state subversion.” South China Morning Post’s Mimi Lau reported on the alleged offenses that Geng and her husband were charged with, charges which were dismissed by activist friends of Geng:
After asking the court to disregard her legal defence, Geng pleaded guilty to charges including conducting illegal business activities, according to a video of the trial that was captured and posted online.
[… Ji Feng, an activist and friend of Geng’s] said Geng had been indicted over illegal business activities involving 200,000 copies of mostly cookery books for which the full publishing rights had not been obtained.
“‘Illegal business activities’ is just an alternative charge to ‘inciting state subversion’ when it comes to entrepreneurs who are critical of China’s political ecology,” Ji said. “The purpose is to intimidate, silence and cut off all social networks they have with political dissidents in a bid to isolate them.”
Geng, who is also an art curator and film producer, was detained, along with her husband, two months after she had spoken out in support of Xu. He had been detained by police for “patronising prostitutes” during a trip which Geng organised for a group of academics including Xu to the southwestern city of Chengdu last year. [Source]
Prior to her arrest, Geng had been a supporter of dissidents and liberal intellectuals who had been targeted by Chinese authorities in recent years. Privately, she had organized events that brought together government critics and retired officials. When Chen Qiushi, one of four citizen journalists “disappeared” for their reporting on the Wuhan lockdown, was taken in by authorities, Geng publicly lobbied on his behalf. She was also the first person to publicly reveal details about the detention of Professor Xu Zhangrun. Her friendship with many of China’s liberal intellectuals won her their outspoken support following her arrest–in October 2020, six Chinese scholars wrote an open letter to the CCP calling for her release.
#GengXiaonan is my dear friend. When I met her in Tokyo in 2019/7, she already sensed the danger because of her involvement in human rights in #China. For years, she keenly helped Chinese activists/dissidents a lot while keeping a low profile.https://t.co/atefr5tJXQ
— 滕彪 (@tengbiao) February 9, 2021
Her other "crime?" She has also tried to raise awareness of the ongoing enforced disappearance of citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, who reported from Wuhan during the COVID-19 pandemic & has been missing in police custody since Feb 6.
— CHRD人权捍卫者 (@CHRDnet) February 9, 2021
Analysts have interpreted Geng’s sentence as a warning shot to entrepreneurs and business people, deterring them from supporting government critics, let alone voicing criticism themselves. The News York Times’ Chris Buckley profiled Geng shortly before her sentencing, and wrote about authorities’ growing anxiety over the political loyalty of China’s entrepreneurial class as well as how their business activity could be seen as a kind of leverage for authorities:
“Nowadays, ideological things have been shattered; nobody believes in them,” Guo Yuhua, a professor at Tsinghua University who has been friends with Ms. Geng for years, said by telephone. “But now that effectively ideological rule has failed, they can also use economic punishment and crimes to convict you.”
Most Chinese businesspeople accept the party’s rule — despite complaints about taxes, fees and meddling officials — and many are party members. Only a few risk official ire by assisting or mixing with critics of the government.
But larger numbers of entrepreneurs are anxious about their wealth and security under a system that gives party officials so much power. The party, in turn, worries about the long-term loyalty of the country’s entrepreneurs, said Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing. Those official anxieties, he added, appeared to intensify after pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, when some business owners in the former British colony supported the demonstrations.
“China’s future economic development depends on entrepreneurs,” Mr. Wu said. “But as long as you’re in business, the party can always use an economic crime to take you down.” [Source]
Other prominent business people have been punished for their outspokenness in recent months, including former property tycoon and longtime Party insider Ren Zhiqiang, who called Xi Jinping a “clown” and was sentenced to 18 years in September 2020 for corruption. Alibaba founder Jack Ma, meanwhile, has been blackballed and missing from public life since he delivered a speech highly critical of the state market regulator in October 2020.
The jailing of Geng follows another emerging trend in recent months suggesting the emergence of a new type of “crime”: assisting politically sensitive actors. In a similar vein, two veteran human rights lawyers, Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu, were recently disbarred after they provided legal assistance to the 12 Hong Kongers detained in Shenzhen last year, after they were arrested at sea while trying to escape prosecution in Hong Kong. Lu told the South China Morning Post that their disbarment was likely intended to deter other lawyers from representing politically sensitive defendants from Hong Kong. By punishing the collaborators of Beijing’s critics, authorities seem increasingly determined to dismantle support networks and isolate their opponents.