Activists Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng went on trial today on charges of “gathering crowds to disrupt public order.” The charges relate to a January 2013 protest outside of the newspaper Southern Weekly (also referred to as Southern Weekend), which took place after an editorial advocating for reform was censored and reworked as praise for the Communist government.
Guo, whose real name is Yang Maodong (though he is better known by his pseudonym), was arrested on August 8th, 2013, and is also accused of encouraging others (including Sun) to post pictures of themselves online engaging in similar activities, including holding placards with reformist slogans on them. The placards called for “press freedom, for officials to publicly disclose their assets, and for the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it signed in 1998.”
In this video, Guo speaks outside of the Southern Weekly offices. Unless you can understand Mandarin, there’s not much to be gleaned from it, but I thought it would be good to see what he looks like talking.
According to a friend of Guo’s, part of what he says is:
“China’s media censorship is the most reactionary thought policing system that should have long been abolished. We are here today to support the Southern Weekend, not just because they were suppressed; we are here to fight for a universal right, and that universal right is the freedom of speech.”
Protesters–including many journalists and former employees of the Southern Weekly–uploaded pictures of the demonstration to the popular Chinese microblogging website, Sina Weibo. Apparently, search terms involving the Southern Weekly controversy are now being filtered.
According to the BBC, at the time of the protest “35 prominent former staff and 50 interns at the paper have demanded the resignation of the provincial propaganda chief in Guangdong, Tuo Zhen,” who is widely believed to have been behind the editorial’s censorship. Zhuang Chen, the editor of BBCChinese.com, told the BBC that it was the first time journalists had openly confronted Communist Party officials.
Guo’s lawyer, Zhang Xuezhong, says that there were two different groups in the crowd the day of the protest–freedom of speech activists, and pro-Communists, yet only those opposing the government were charged with disrupting public order. The pre-trial proceedings have also been very irregular, and some of the defendants’ lawyers have sworn to boycott the trial due to these problems. During Guo’s detention, he was prevented from seeing his lawyer for three months. Both Sun and Guo face a maximum five years in prison on the current charges.
This is not the first time Guo has been involved in protests within China. Known as one of the “leaders of the weiquan (rights defense) movement,” he first came to prominence in 2005 after organizing rural Guangdong residents to protest against corruption and the seizure of their land. In 2006, he was arrested for his participation in nationwide hunger strikes begun by the imprisoned activist Gao Zhisheng (now released), and allegedly experienced horrific torture while in custody. In 2007, he was convicted on charges of “illegal business activities related to his publishing work,” which many maintain was a move on the part of the government to attempt to silence him after publishing a book on Communist politics in Northeast China. He was released in 2011.
The new Chinese President Xi Jinping had initially spurred hopes of reform by promising to crack down on corruption, but those hopes have been dashed over the course of this year as the government has done its utmost to crack down on dissent.
According to the Telegraph, “Dozens of members the New Citizens’ Movement – a coalition of reform-minded lawyers, academics and campaigners of which Mr Yang was a key articulator in the country’s south – have been detained or jailed since the start of last year.” China maintains a massive firewall, known as the “Great Firewall of China,” which blocks “subversive” and “pornographic” material, and Chinese media is supervised by government departments which have authority over content. I could go on and on about China’s culture of repression, citing innumerable examples of violated human rights and vehement denials of wrongdoing by officials, but I think we all have seen quite enough of that.
Guo once wrote, “The dictators believe they can control and strangle us. It’s time for us to tell them, with our actions, that, no, they can’t!” In an article he wrote about the Southern Weekly protests before his arrest, he says: “A citizen is by definition a man who possesses political rights and exercises his political rights. Real citizens are active citizens.” All Guo has done is try to be a good citizen. It’s time for China to recognize that.