Chinese Dissident Sentenced to 8 Years After He Tried to Fly to His Dying Wife

A court in southern China has sentenced one of the country’s most unyielding human rights activists to eight years in prison for essays he wrote and a website he created, in the ruling Communist Party’s latest warning blow against political dissent.

The activist, Yang Maodong, was detained in 2021 when he tried to catch a flight to the United States to be with his wife, who was gravely ill. Mr. Yang — who is better known by his pen name, Guo Feixiong — was sentenced at the end of a one-day trial on Thursday in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province. He was accused of “inciting subversion of state power.”

A guilty judgment from the Communist Party-controlled court seemed assured, but the swiftness of Mr. Yang’s conviction and sentencing took his supporters by surprise. Chinese courts often wait a week or longer after a trial before announcing a decision. Mr. Yang was sentenced after a morning hearing that lasted around two hours.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, over the past decade in power, has strengthened and emboldened the security apparatus to remove any perceived threats to the party’s rule. The police swiftly extinguished a flare-up of protests against harsh “zero Covid” restrictions in late October last year, when some demonstrators denounced Mr. Xi and the party.

But Mr. Xi and other leaders appear determined to make sure that no lingering sparks of opposition have a chance to ignite broader opposition. Mr. Yang’s sentencing came one month after another Chinese court sentenced two prominent human rights lawyers, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, to 14 years and 12 years in prison.

In accusing Mr. Yang of inciting subversion — a vague charge that amounts to denouncing the Communist Party — prosecutors cited essays that Mr. Yang had written over many years, as well as a pro-democracy website he helped set up, and an interview he gave, Mr. Yang’s brother, Yang Maoquan, said in a statement that was posted online.

According to the brother’s account of the proceedings, the prosecutors said that Mr. Yang’s statements amounted to a “long-term assault on and vilification of China’s political system, inciting others to subvert state power.” Yang Maoquan’s account was confirmed by Mr. Yang’s sister, Yang Maoping, who was not at the trial but spoke to people who were. Mr. Yang’s lawyer, Zhang Lei, declined to comment.

“He didn’t subvert anyone,” Ms. Yang, the sister, said in a telephone interview on Friday. “Who has the strength to subvert a country as big as this? Is it unacceptable just to speak out a few words?”

Still, Mr. Yang, 56, seemed unbowed, even as he faced his third prison stint. He started reading a long statement that he had prepared for the trial that defended his activism and ideals, but a judge ordered him to stop after a few minutes. The statement was published by Yibao, an overseas Chinese website, and corroborated by Mr. Yang’s sister.

Since he first joined protests in the 1980s, Mr. Yang said in his statement, “my political credo and ideals have never changed: for China to fully realize authentic freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law. This is the original, foundational and ultimate intention of all my social, intellectual and academic activities.”

Mr. Yang has been one of China’s most persistent opponents of authoritarian rule. He became widely known in activist circles in 2005, when he helped organize villagers in southern China to protest land seizures that they said were corrupt and unfair.

He was sentenced to prison in 2007 on charges of illegal business activities related to publishing (Mr. Yang also wrote science-fiction novels.). After his release, he resumed his political activities, and in 2013 he joined protests at the Southern Weekend newspaper in Guangzhou, where journalists had denounced tightening censorship under Mr. Xi.

Mr. Yang was sentenced to six years in prison in 2015 on charges of disturbing public order and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for his role in the newspaper protest and for supporting a campaign for China to ratify an international rights covenant.

He was detained again in January 2021 when he sought to fly to the United States, where his wife, Zhang Qing, was in the late stages of cancer. She and their two children had settled there in 2009.

“He just wanted to visit his sick wife, fearing that maybe he would never see her again in this life,” said Zan Aizong, a friend of Mr. Yang’s in eastern China who recalled meeting him in late 2021 and discussing his plans to reach the United States. “I guessed that he wouldn’t be allowed to leave, but he was very confident that he would get to see her, because this was plain humanitarianism.”

Mr. Yang went to Shanghai, hoping to take a flight to San Francisco. But airport officers told him that, as a “national security risk,” he could not board the plane, Mr. Yang said at the time. He has been held ever since. His wife died almost a year after Mr. Yang’s attempted flight.

Even in detention, Mr. Yang has defied the authorities, appearing emaciated from frequent hunger strikes, said his sister, Ms. Yang. She said she worried about whether he could endure years of detention before his possible release. Even after his formal release from prison, he is likely to come under oppressive informal confinement, like many other dissidents.

“I’m really, really worried,” Ms. Yang said.

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