Chinese Internet pioneer who exposed misdeeds gets heavy prison term

Huang Qi, 56, who spent nearly 20 years exposing local government malfeasance and brutality, has already served eight years in prison.
Huang Qi, 56, who spent nearly 20 years exposing local government malfeasance and brutality, has already served eight years in prison.PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - A Chinese Internet pioneer who once won Communist Party praise for using the Web to combat social ills was sentenced Monday (July 29) to 12 years in prison - a further sign that the window for independent social activism in China has all but closed.

Huang Qi, 56, who spent nearly 20 years exposing local government malfeasance and brutality, and has already served eight years in prison, was found guilty by a court in southwestern China of "deliberately disclosing state secrets" and "illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities," according to the court statement.

In addition to the prison term, he was deprived of political rights for four years and fined 20,000 yuan (S$3,975).

It was one of the longest sentences given to a rights advocate in recent years and followed calls for clemency by human rights groups, foreign governments and the United Nations.

In light of Huang's chronic bad health, including high blood pressure as well as kidney and heart problems, the non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders called the 12-year term "equivalent to a death sentence."

Huang was most recently arrested in 2016 for "inciting subversion of state power," which often carries a prison term of up to 10 years. The more serious charge of divulging state secrets, and its longer sentence, may have stemmed from his unwillingness to cooperate or confess, according to Mr Patrick Poon of Amnesty International.

During a secret trial in January, Huang reportedly denied all wrongdoing and criticised the government, according to one associate who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

"The authorities are using his case to scare other human rights defenders who also do similar work," said Mr Poon. "Due to his popular website and broad network of volunteers and grasroots activists, his case is highly sensitive."

Huang is one of several activists recently targeted for running human rights websites. One, Zhen Jianghua, who ran the Human Rights Campaign in China, was sentenced to two years last December, while another, Liu Feiyue, received five years in January for running the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch.

Huang's 64Tianwang website was a ticker of social unrest.

He and his team of volunteers fielded dozens of phone calls a day, often from people appealing government decisions to expropriate their land. Many were engaged in street protests or presenting petitions to government agencies, and Huang's team reported on their complaints and actions.

When he started his site in 1999, Huang and his former wife, Zeng Li, helped missing children and their parents unite.

In a 1999 profile, the Communist Party's official newspaper, People's Daily, focused on a man who had disappeared after he followed the banned spiritual practice Falun Gong. Through the site's efforts, the man's family found out he had killed himself.

While that story was in line with government priorities, the newspaper's report also discussed other more sensitive cases that the site handled, including the kidnapping of rural children, which was rampant in the 1990s because of the government's single-child policy.

The website's name reflected its agenda. "Tianwang" means "heavenly web," referring to the idea of heaven as a synonym for "justice." The numbers 6 and 4 referred to the date of the site's founding: June 4, 1999. But that date was also - not coincidentally, Huang said in later interviews - the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when pro-democracy protesters were killed in Beijing.

Soon after the flattering profile in People's Daily, the site's social edge sharpened. Eventually Huang paid a heavy price.

In 2000, the site reported on migrant labourers forced to undergo unnecessary appendectomies, and pay exorbitant bills at state-run hospitals. This also won government praise.

But later that year, the site began reporting on the violent suppression of Falun Gong, which included the beating deaths of followers in police custody. Shortly after that report, Huang was arrested and served five years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power."

He said he spent a year in solitary confinement, often sleeping on a concrete floor, which damaged his kidneys and led to regular dialysis.

Released in 2005, Huang reopened the site and won numerous human rights awards for his reporting of malfeasance, especially about the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

Those reports led to another prison stay, this time of three years.

He relaunched the site after his release, remaining optimistic that it was having an effect. In a 2013 interview, he said that the site was read by the country's security apparatus, and that it helped publicise citizen grievances, applying pressure.

Huang also expressed optimism that the new government of Xi Jinping would be more tolerant of his work because of its avowed goals of promoting a transparent legal system and cracking down on corruption.

Huang said, however, that the struggle could be prolonged and costly. Comparing his efforts to those of American revolutionaries, he said the British agreed to negotiate only after Washington inflicted defeats on them.

"It's like that with us now," Huang said. "It's only after pressure from the people that the government will change its opinions."