12 Years in Prison for Trying to Protect Spotted Seals

By Yaxue Cao, published: November 16, 2015

While the number of spotted seals keeps dwindling, its ardent protector gets jail time – an all too familiar Chinese tale.  


田继光_斑海豹广告The 52-year-old Tian Jiguang (田继光) is an environmentalist living in the northeastern province of Liaoning, China, known for his commitment to protecting spotted seals that breed in the wetlands of his hometown, where the Liao River meets the Yellow Sea. He was arrested in October 2013 for “alleged extortion.” When he was indicted, he was given an additional charge of “embezzlement.”

In September 2014 he was sentenced by the Dawa County Court (大洼县法院) to 12 years in prison—5 years for extortion, and 8 for embezzlement. Last Friday (November 13), Panjin Municipality Intermediate Court (盘锦市中级法院) upheld the original verdict after the second instance trial. The decision once again sent shockwaves, and revulsion, through China’s NGO sector.

According to reports in Chinese media, citing the indictment and other sources, Tian’s detention was a direct result of a blog post in June 2013 that exposed a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation for pollution. After his article was posted, the company sent officials to speak with him—suggesting a RMB100,000 yuan (about $16,000) sponsorship of his NGO. This became the basis for the “extortion” charge against Tian. But according to his lawyer’s defense posted online, Tian never asked the company for sponsorship, and the 100,000 yuan was never transferred. Tian did accept a small reimbursement from the company for the purchase of a Canon camera for the group he founded—the Association of Volunteers for the Protection of Spotted Seals—but his lawyer argued that neither “threats” nor “blackmail” was involved on Tian’s part, necessary to constitute the crime of “extortion.”

田继光_spotted sealsMonths later when Tian was indicted, there was the additional embezzlement charge against him—he was accused of having pocketed RMB 460,000 yuan (about $74,000) from the Association. His lawyer Ni Zeren (倪泽仁) argued that, while there were indeed irregularities in the Association’s bookkeeping, it is “utterly irresponsible” for the prosecutors to accuse Tian of embezzling 460,000 yuan out of the total 490,000 yuan (about $79,000) that the Association had received over the years from donations and sponsorships. Family members said Tian had over the years spent his own money on many of his activities.

During the first trial, two witnesses from the oil company refused to appear in court to be cross-examined. The lawyer told media, during the second instance trial, evidence benefitting Tian Jiguang was not introduced, nor did the court consider the many questions the lawyer raised. It took the court only half an hour to deliver the verdict.

Spotted seals are the only seals that breed in China’s waters. Every November, they swim from Baengnyeong Island, South Korea, to the mouth of Liao River in Panjin. Come January, they give birth to baby spotted seals on ice floats; in April, they swim back to Baengnyeong Island.

In 2007, Tian, a member of the Communist Party, was a private businessman who ran an advertising company. His father was a former chief of Panshan County’s Fisheries Bureau and his brother was a deputy chief in Panshan County’s Ocean and Fisheries Bureau, in charge of the protection of spotted seals. The brother asked Tian to place some spotted seal advertisements, an assignment that led Tian into the field of environmentalism. He soon founded the Panjin City Association of Volunteers for the Protection of the Spotted Seals (盘锦市保护斑海豹志愿者协会).

The Association quickly gained 3,000 members, and Tian often organized them to stand on the street and talk to citizens about issues associated with spotted seals. Once, he mobilized 2,000 volunteers from all over the country to collect garbage on the beach. Each winter, Tian and volunteers would station themselves in an observation outpost to watch and photograph the seals.

Photo: People's Daily

Photo: People’s Daily

Tian set up a billboard on the roadside of the Spotted Seals Reserve, instructing fishermen to call his own cell phone number when they saw spotted seals. They began calling him, for his responsive service, instead of the station set up by the government. Tian’s devotion was recognized by both the people and the authorities: in 2010, he was one of the ten “People of the Ocean” chosen by the State Oceanic Administration.

“Due to ocean pollution, oil drilling, port construction, and the expansion of mudflat aquaculture, not to mention human capture and killing, the number of spotted seals has dwindled from near 10,000 to less than 2,000 today,” he wrote in 2012. “The spotted seals arrived in the Liao River Bay before humans did, and we must leave enough space for the indigenous animals to live and survive as we extract oil, build roads, and seek development for ourselves.”

As he became more well known, Tian led the sometimes contentious process of environmental advocacy. In 2011, he mobilized a large number of NGOs across China to demand the government change the course of a highway that would have gone through the spotted seals habitat. The government finally agreed to move the highway 18 kilometers away.

In April 2013, he revealed through his Weibo account that oil rigs of the Liaohe Oil Field were only one kilometer away from the spot where the seals came to shore. People’s Daily reported the matter and interviewed Tian. “We hope the city will suspend the construction of a viewing corridor and shelve the oil field development so as to leave the spotted seal habitat in peace,” he told the Party mouthpiece.  

In June 2013, Tian exposed the wastewater and garbage pollution of the Oil Field’s subsidiary Special Petroleum Company (辽河油田盘锦特油公司).  

According to the lawyers, Tian rejected the ruling. He believes that instead of penalizing environmental violators, the local government was persecuting him and his environmental group. He vowed to take his case to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s internal investigatory organ.  

The office of the Association of Volunteers for the Protection of Spotted Seals, on the 4th floor of a modest building, is now empty and accumulating dust, according to an article in Southern Weekend; its website has been shut down because no one has renewed the server contract; all of the observation events and public awareness campaigns have stopped.

Members become emotional when speaking of Tian. They believe he was persecuted for his persistence and determination in the cause. Responding to the verdict, an NGO practitioner in China told China Change that “we all feel extremely unsafe.”  

Two years ago today, China announced the abolition of the notorious Re-education Through Labor system and was widely lauded for the move. But the past two years have seen extended detention without trial, trial without verdict, or secret detention, being used to target dissent instead. The charges laid against lawyers, dissidents, activists, and NGO workers are often arbitrary.

In Tian Jiguang’s case, the 12-year sentence legally imposed through the court system makes labor camps, which carry a maximum 4-year sentence, seem like a good deal.



中国环保名人田继光昨日受审,腾讯新闻,May 29, 2015

環保人士田繼光勒索罪維持原判, i-cable in Hong Kong, November 13, 2015.

敲诈罪?侵占罪?律师称:无罪, the first trial defense, Sina blog, March 12, 2015. (with photos)

赶走公路,深陷油污——一个动物保护明星的陨落,《南方周末》,June 11, 2-15.

斑海豹“家”在何处:栖息地宁静不再, People’s Daily, May 2, 2013.



Spotted seals’ habitat under threat again, China Dialogue, October 8, 2012.

See a slideshow of spotted seals at China Dialogue.


One response to “12 Years in Prison for Trying to Protect Spotted Seals”

  1. […] The 12-year sentence for an environmental activist who worked to protect the spotted seal has been u… by a court in Liaoning Province. Charged with embezzlement, Pan and his colleagues believe he was targeted for his activism again pollution by the China National Petroleum Corporation. Yaxue Cao at ChinaChange reports: […]

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