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In a secret court decision made on Wednesday, October 31, in the southwest city of Kunming (昆明), Cao Haibo (曹海波), a young internet café owner, was sentenced to eight years in prison after being detained for 13 months for “subversion of state power.” (Note: the verdict is “subversion of state power,” not “inciting to subvert state power.”)
The verdict was notified of Cao Haibo’s lawyer Ma Xiaopeng (马小鹏) Thursday morning, Beijing time, via a phone call. The lawyer told 64tianwang.com, a Chengdu-based rights advocacy website, that it is outrageous that the Kunming Intermediary Court made the decision without the knowledge of either the lawyer or the family and that their procedures a violation of China’s own law.
Cao Haibo and his wife, a young couple in their 20s, moved to Kunming to seek opportunities last fall. Also last fall, Cao founded an online QQ chat group called 振华会 (League of rejuvenating the Chinese nation – his own translation) to discuss ideas of constitutional democracy. More specifically, Cao Haibo advocated to give new meanings to Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People based on the current circumstances: the Principles of Nationalism, the Principles of Democracy and the Principles of People’s Livelihood. The website of Cao’s virtual group, which he announced on his Tencent Weibo account, has since been severed.
After announcing Cao’s arrest, according to 64tianwang.com, a senior state security officer in Kunming spoke to Cao’s 23-year-old wife Zhang Nian (张念), who was then six-month pregnant, pressuring her not to talk about Cao’s case, and promising her that the more she kept it to herself, the more likely Cao would receive lenity.
On May 22, Cao Haibo was tried in the Kunming Intermediary Court. The court denied all applications for court observation, including that of his wife, with prosecutors’ claim that the case involved state secrets. After the trial, Zhang Nian and her new-born baby was allowed a brief meeting with Cao Haibo, for the first time since his detention.
Cao Haibo’s sentence came a week before the CCP’s 18th National Congress and the once-in-a-decade leadership transition, amid rumors and speculations about hopeful prospects of political reform. Upon hearing the news of Cao Haibo’s sentence, media professional Wen Yunchao (温云超) with iSunAffairs Weekly in Hong Kong, tweeted that “The Cao Haibo verdict, delivered at this particular juncture, cannot possibly be a decision made by the local court. Instead, it can be seen as a signal, a gesture, from the top.” Wen Yunchao hopes Cao’s case, and the severe nature of his sentence, will receive media attention from journalist colleagues.
While the reaction on China’s domestic Weibo is understandably measured, or self-censored altogether, an online commentator points out that, “to sentence a dissident like Cao Haibo heavy-handedly on the eve of the Party’s National Congress is to declare to ‘the unstable elements of the society’ that, as always, the Party clamps down ruthlessly on any attempts, even if it’s merely virtual, of association or organization. More and more cases are indicating that stability maintenance in China is evolving into political terrorism.”
The same commentator also points out, insightfully, that “Cao Haibo received heavy sentence not because of what he had said, but because he founded an interactive platform and a website with the name ‘League for Rejuvenating the Chinese Nation’. This is perceived as an action of organization, and the sentence indicates that their tolerance for such perceived action of organization is zero.”
Tweeting just moment ago, the Beijing-based independent journalist and writer Gao Yu (高瑜) said: “I’m heartbroken looking at Cao Haibo’s photo. …This all-powerful ruling party is capable of mobilizing 1.4 million volunteers to help protect a meeting of theirs, but billions of us, the people, are unable to help an innocent fellow citizen. If you still believe there is such a thing as the so-called ‘reform faction’ among the senior leaders, think about Cao Haibo!”