China Sentences Hu Shigen, Democracy Advocate, to 7 Years in Prison

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Originally published by The New York Times on August 3, 2016

BEIJING — An advocate for democracy and religious freedom in China was sentenced to more than seven years in prison on Wednesday, the state news media reported, as the government continued its prosecution of a group of rights activists accused of subverting state power.

The advocate, Hu Shigen, 61, has been a fierce and fiery defender of free expression and the right to protest. He has already served a 16-year prison term for helping publicize the government’s assault on student protesters near Tiananmen Square in 1989. As a Christian, he has also led several underground churches.

On Wednesday, the authorities made clear that Mr. Hu’s religious activities and support for Western ideals had contributed to his harsh sentence.

Xinhua, the state-run news agency, reported that Mr. Hu had used “illegal” religious groups to “spread subversive thoughts and ideas.” Prosecutors accused him of trying to manipulate public opinion to overthrow the government.

Mr. Hu pleaded guilty, according to Xinhua, although his friends said his admission was probably coerced.

Mr. Hu was the second activist to be sentenced this week in Tianjin, a city about 80 miles southeast of Beijing, as part of a series of trials that the government has used to publicize its crackdown on China’s “rights defense” movement. On Tuesday, it sentenced Zhai Yanmin, another activist, to a suspended three-year prison term for organizing protests critical of the government.

Over the past year, the authorities have detained hundreds of lawyers and activists, accusing many of them of plotting against the party. At least 15 people remain in detention and have not been given trials, according to Amnesty International.

“The message is clear: The government wants to show that it does not tolerate any dissent,” said Patrick Poon, a China researcher for Amnesty International based in Hong Kong.

Mr. Hu was a leader of several churches that operated without the government’s approval. President Xi Jinping has tightened oversight of such churches in recent years, concerned that Christianity might be used to spread Western ideals and open the door to what he has called “overseas infiltration by religious means.”

The trials this week have been notable for their repeated attacks on foreigners, which have dovetailed with a broader effort by the government to increase oversight of foreign entities operating in China. A propaganda video that surfaced on social media this week warned that Western forces, led by the United States, were seeking to incite social conflict abroad and subvert foreign governments.

At the trial on Wednesday, prosecutors highlighted Mr. Hu’s ties to foreign groups. In a statement before the court, Mr. Hu said he had “long been influenced by bourgeois liberalism,” according to Xinhua.

Friends of Mr. Hu said they doubted that his confession was genuine. Zhu Hong, an activist who served as a leader of an underground church alongside Mr. Hu several years ago, compared him to Nelson Mandela.

“He is a true believer who fights and sacrifices for his convictions,” said Mr. Zhu, who now lives in California. “Making a confession is just a strategy, not his will.”

Mr. Hu was imprisoned from 1992 to 2008 for his role in spreading information about the government’s attack on protesters near Tiananmen Square. He had helped devise a plan to drop pro-democracy fliers on the square on the third anniversary of the crackdown, but he was caught and sentenced to two decades in prison for leading a “counterrevolutionary ring.”

While in prison, Mr. Hu endured frequent beatings and abuse, he later told friends. But every year on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, he made a point of fasting, he said, to remember the dead.

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