Outspoken Tycoon Sun Dawu Sentenced to 18 Years in Prison

Sun Dawu has been sentenced to prison for 18 years and fined 3.11 million yuan for “gathering a crowd to storm state institutions, obstructing public service, picking quarrels and provoking troubles, disrupting production and operation, conducting coercive trade, illegal mining, illegal occupation of agricultural land, [and] illegal absorption of public deposits.” Sun and 19 other people affiliated with his agricultural conglomerate, the Dawu Group, were arrested in November due to a conflict with a local state-owned company and, some allege, his outspoken political commentary. Sun accused the government of covering up a 2019 African swine fever epidemic and publicly supported Xu Zhiyong after the lawyer called for Xi to resign for mishandling the COVID-19 epidemic. This will be Sun’s second stint in jail. He was convicted in 2003 of “illegal fundraising,” a pocket crime often used to target the state’s perceived enemies, and spent five months in prison. At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong reported on Sun’s unusually speedy trial, which included marathon court sessions that extended over 12 hours:

The court said Dawu Group and other defendants were given “corresponding penalties,” but didn’t provide details. Mr. Sun’s 19 fellow defendants were given jail sentences ranging from one to 12 years, while the company was ordered to pay the equivalent of more than $130 million in fines, restitution and refunds for money they were deemed to have raised illegally, their defense team said.

[…] Lawyers involved in the Dawu case have accused authorities of handling the prosecution with undue haste, saying they were given less than two weeks to read through about 350 sets of case files. In a statement issued Wednesday after the verdict, the lawyers said the case was handled at a speed that suggested that “this wasn’t a normal legal trial.”

[…] Some of Mr. Sun’s supporters took to social media to voice dismay with the verdict. “His life is full of legend and struggle, and his circumstances are the common circumstances of Chinese private enterprises,” Zhao Xiangsong, a blogger, wrote on his verified Weibo social-media account. “How the rights of private enterprises can truly be protected is a matter that concerns the future and fate of this country.” [Source]

While awaiting trial, Sun was kept in residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL). Suspects in RSDL can be held incommunicado at secret locations for up to 6 months without access to legal representation. Six Dawu Group employees, including three of Sun’s children, were also detained in RSDL. They were kept in windowless rooms—Sun said he did not see the sun for three and a half months—and not provided the opportunity to bathe themselves regularly. Sun said, “under RSDL, I suffered terribly, life was worse than death!” Jin Fengyu, a Dawu Group executive also held in RSDL, said the lights in her cell were left on 24 hours a day. “A camera watched me and because of the lack of privacy, I never once could bathe,” she added.

Before his arrest, Sun was something of a philosopher. The Dawu Group operated under a corporate philosophy of Sun’s creation, “constitutional labor-capital republic,” whereby property was held communally and employees elected the board of directors. Sun also had a penchant for public speaking and writing. After his arrest in November, CDT translated an op-ed Sun wrote in 2009, in which he opined on the meaning of true heroism:

The moment I shed tears in court I felt that the best people in the world and the worst people in the world were all in jail. There’s nothing scary about jail, jails are just another place that people go to. I believe that people often have no control over whether things turn out good or bad. Sometimes you want to be a good person but are unable to. Sometimes bad people want to be good, but are also unable to. Death row inmates, too—a lot of them wanted to be good people but wound up in jail. They feel like fate is playing tricks on them, not that their situation was caused by their human nature. Deng Xiaoping said, “Good institutions can make bad people good; bad institutions can make good people bad.” I believe these words.

At the time I did not despair. Rather, I felt a type of power. I have never despaired before, I honor the principle of caring about right and wrong, not about winning or losing. “No matter what everyone else does, I must take the high road.” I was very stubborn as a child. People said that I was an ox [牛], that the last character in my name “Wu” [午] had grown a head. I’m not saying this to brag or to be self-deprecating, this is just a description of my personality. When I set my mind on something, I will complete it; when I set my mind on a way forward, I will pursue it to the end.

[…] At first, compromise is a virtue. It is good forgiving evil, and evil conceding to good. If you compromise once, people usually will forgive you, but if you compromise for your whole life, people won’t usually consider you a hero. This is to say that the wise use the method of compromise to enlighten society, but they are not likely to become heroes. Heroes must have a solemn quality and the willingness to work at something even if success is impossible. Heroes are those who consciously choose the difficult path. [Source]

Sun’s evident fearlessness (in a statement he said, “With my character, I can’t give others a flattering smile. I can’t do it. That has doomed my destiny”) allowed him to offer frank criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. In doing so, he often found himself allied with prominent lawyers and activists. At The New York Times, Paul Mozur documented Sun’s long-standing relationships with China’s activist community:

Under Mr. Xi, a series of crackdowns on civil society has thinned out the ranks of liberal-minded lawyers and independent journalists. Xu Zhiyong, one of three lawyers who represented Mr. Sun in 2003 and a prominent activist, was detained last year after he urged Mr. Xi to resign, writing to Mr. Xi that “you’re just not smart enough.”

At the time, Mr. Sun spoke up for Mr. Xu. This time, there were few left to speak up for Mr. Sun, who argued repeatedly of the need to push back against power grabs and political bullying.

[…] Among Mr. Sun’s supporters was the Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, a human rights advocate who died in detention in China in 2017. Mr. Liu once said Mr. Sun posed a “tremendous challenge” to the Chinese system because he possessed both courage and resources.

“The government,” Mr. Liu wrote, “will definitely go after him with murky laws.” [Source]

Sun’s case is in some respects similar to that of Ren Zhiqiang, the outspoken tycoon sentenced to 18 years in prison after criticizing Xi Jinping. Both cases indicate the government’s limited tolerance for criticism, even from formerly powerful billionaires. In February, Li Yuan of The New York Times wrote a profile of Sun that argued his case exemplifies the dramatic roll-back of China’s political and economic liberalization since Xi’s rise to power:

China was, and remains, an authoritarian country under Communist Party rule. But the nature of its authoritarianism has become much harsher under Xi Jinping, the party’s top leader since late 2012. Mr. Sun’s case exemplifies the country’s drastic turn from a nation striving for economic and social, if not political, liberalization to one increasingly operating in an ideological straitjacket.

[…] Unlike 2003, few are clamoring for Mr. Sun’s release. A former journalist who wrote an influential article about Mr. Sun in 2003 couldn’t find a place to publish a commentary. A close friend of Mr. Sun’s said he had been warned by his state security minders not to talk to journalists. Even people who had received assistance from Mr. Sun in the past didn’t respond to my requests to talk, even off the record.

“Sun Dawu was lucky in 2003,” said Mr. Chen, the veteran journalist. “He was suppressed by the government, but he was rescued by the public. He paid his price, but it was relatively small.” [Source]


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