A court in Beijing has sentenced Chinese literary figure Geng Xiaonan, who angered the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by expressing public support for dissident professor Xu Zhangrun, to three years’ imprisonment after finding her guilty of “illegal business operations.”
Geng, her husband and co-defendant Qin Zhen and nine employees of the couple’s publishing company arrived at Beijing’s Haidian District People’s Court at 9.30 a.m. to face charges of “illegal business operations,” a charge often used to target critics of the CCP.
The court handed down a three-year jail term to Geng, while Qin received a two-and-a-half year suspended sentence. Both pleaded guilty.
“I plead guilty to everything that is in the indictment, to everything the prosecution has charged me with,” Geng told the court. “I am grateful to have this precious opportunity here in court to admit my mistakes and to apologize.”
“All of the evidence that has been read out against me just now is correct,” Geng said in a video recording of the trial. She had earlier fired her defense attorney, rights lawyer Shang Baojun, a common demand made by the authorities in political cases.
Geng and Qin were accused of illegally preparing 200,000 copies of books for publication. However, the couple’s trial is widely believed to be connected to her public support for Xu Zhangrun, an outspoken critic of CCP general secretary Xi Jinping.
A friend of Geng’s told RFA: “This was mainly because she gave an interview to Bei Ming for RFA about Xu Zhangrun.”
“They are suppressing her, like they did [former journalist] Chen Qiushi and [property mogul] Ren Zhiqiang before her,” the friend said. “They are using economic crimes to target her for political reasons.”
Outspoken political journalist Gao Yu said Geng had pleaded guilty and apologize to protect her employees.
“This case was so complicated and involved her husband along with about a dozen other people in the company,” Gao told RFA. “She had mortgaged her house to start this company, and it has sustained heavy losses, with its assets left unattended.”
“She has nothing left, so she had no choice. She had to do this to try to get a more lenient sentence [for everyone],” said Gao, who once made her own televized “confession” to stop the authorities from arresting her son.
A second friend of Geng’s who gave only the surname Song, said Geng’s “mistakes” had nothing to do with the publishing company, and that the three-year jail term was far too harsh.
“Geng Xiaonan is just a publisher of children’s books and cookery books,” Song said. “Even a one-year sentence would have been too long.”
Trumped up charges
Geng and Qin were detained on Sept. 9, 2020 on suspicion of “illegal business operations,” and formally arrested a month later. The charges were later escalated with the inclusion of hundreds of thousands more books in the list of “evidence,” making a harsher sentence more likely.
Xu Zhangrun has called for the couple’s release, saying in an open letter that “illegal business operations” is a blanket charge used to target people for political reasons, and has been arbitrarily applied to Geng and her husband.
Authorities in Beijing detained Xu on the morning of July 6 after he called online for political reforms, on allegations of “seeking out prostitutes.”
He was released a week later, but later told the media that he had been fired from his teaching post and subjected to public sanctions for “moral corruption” by Tsinghua University’s law school.
Charges of “seeking out prostitutes” have been used before by the Chinese authorities to target peaceful critics and activists, or anyone who runs afoul of local officials and powerful vested interests. Xu has lodged a legal challenge, and denies the charges.
Xu had penned a 10,000-word essay dated May 21, 2020, in which he hit out at Xi Jinping for “isolating” China from the international community with his foreign policy.
The essay called for China’s leaders to be held politically accountable, for the release of prisoners of conscience, including journalists and human rights lawyers, and for an end to the political targeting of academics.
Xu has also called for constitutional amendments allowing indefinite rule by Xi to be revoked, and for legislation requiring officials to publish details of their assets and financial interests.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.