With his thin frame, shabby suit and graying hair, Chen Pingfu, who played his violin for handouts on the streets of the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou, hardly seemed to be a threat to anyone. But after he wrote a series of online essays criticizing the country’s ruling Communist Party, the 55-year-old laid-off teacher was accused of “inciting subversion of state power” — a criminal charge generally reserved for China’s most prominent dissidents.
Such cases are generally handled quietly in China, with little mention in the domestic press and online discussion closely censored, despite whatever attention and criticism they may receive from foreign governments and human-rights activists abroad. A prime example is literary critic Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to an 11-year prison term for inciting subversion in 2009. He is little known or discussed at home, but was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Chen is the complete opposite. Largely unknown outside China, he has gained a surprising level of online support in China since he went on trial on Sept. 4.
On Chinese blogs and Twitter-like services like Sina Weibo, many people describe Chen as an exemplar of free speech who wrote about the injustices he faced in Chinese society. “I think they identify themselves with him because he is an ordinary person,” says Wang Songlian, a Hong Kong–based researcher for the nongovernmental organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “He doesn’t have connections, he’s not rich, he’s not going forward in life. A lot of netizens feel the same.” Some commenters expressed concern over the effect his case might have on online discourse, which despite censorship has seen significant room for discussion of sensitive topics in recent years. “If this is a crime, then how many people who are active on Weibo should be convicted?” wrote Xing Jianmin, a lawyer from Hebei province. “How is it that the jails aren’t exploding?”
Caixin, an aggressive Beijing-based business magazine, ran a story on its website that was later removed. When Hong Kong–based Phoenix TV reposted the Caixin story on its website, it quickly gathered more than 120,000 comments, largely from mainlanders in support of Chen. “For a lot of people, this case involves different layers of injustice that generate considerable empathy and make people angry,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human-rights researcher based in Hong Kong. “This is not somebody who is a veteran political dissident. Those sort of people may not generate that kind of empathy. People feel they should know better, that they are just causing trouble. This guy, he’s got a grievance with the system and there seems to be a good reason. People see why he might question whether the one-party system has been good for China.”
Amid China’s boom, Chen serves as a stark reminder that for all the fortunes made and hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty, others have been left behind. Born in 1957, Chen was one of the first generation of students to take the national college-entrance examination after it was reintroduced following the chaos of the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, when universities were largely shuttered. He attended the Northwest Normal University from 1978 to ’82, and took a job at the Shengli Machinery Factory in 1984. The factory originally made armaments as part of Mao Zedong’s “Third Front,” when industrial production was developed in the Chinese interior, far from the threat of potential foreign invasion. During the Cold War, demand was strong, and despite its remote location, business was good for the factory. Chen, who taught various subjects for workers’ evening classes, married and had a son. In the 1990s China began to streamline its military, and the factory struggled to transition to useful commercial products, like farm equipment.
Chen had his own struggles too. He underwent heart surgery in 2005, and had to pay the $6,000 expense out of pocket. At the same time his son was planning to attend college, adding to his debt woes. So Chen began playing his violin on the streets of Lanzhou to earn extra money in his spare time. Three years later, the factory went bankrupt, forcing him to busk full-time. The ill treatment he received from local police, employees of a local homeless shelter and urban-management officers known as chengguan drove him to start writing online in 2007. “During my days of playing violin on the street, I was constantly insulted and abused by people from the government. They didn’t help me at all,” he told TIME in a phone interview from Lanzhou, where he remains under house arrest pending the outcome of his trial. “It was only the general public that gave me the help. That made me decide to write articles online.”
Chen says he wrote 300 to 400 articles over the next five years. Prosecutors in Lanzhou identified 34 in particular as evidence of the charge of inciting subversion. The titles include “I Can’t Bear Humiliation in Silence,” “The Call to Overthrow the Dictators Has Sounded” and “I Want Freedom, Respect and to Live Like a Normal Person.” They all bear the distinct voice of an educated man who once held a respected position in society enraged by the abuse he endures as an outcast hustling for a living on the streets. “Yesterday I saw a gang of fierce, imposing chengguan who drove away a middle-aged shoeshine man,” he wrote in a 2010 essay called “A Weasel Serves the Chickens.” “That shoeshine man wasn’t doing anything to inconvenience pedestrians, so why did they drive him off? If it weren’t for family difficulties or a lack of money, who would subserviently shine shoes like that?”
Chen places much of the blame for the injustices he faced on authoritarian system, and by endorsing the Arab Spring last year he made himself a target for the crackdown that followed in China. In an essay from February 2011, titled “Study the Egyptians, We Don’t Want to Be Fooled Again,” he wrote, “I’m convinced that if we didn’t have the [Communist] Party’s leadership, this society would finally be harmonious and peaceful.” At that time Chen says he found a new job teaching in southern Yunnan province, but police blocked him from taking it due to his writing, which only increased his desperation. “They accuse me of attacking the social system,” he told TIME. “Indeed, I am attacking the system. It’s too brutal. The general public is very kind, but the government is inhumane. I’m not insulted by their accusations because I’m innocent. I only spoke the truth.”
His defense attorney, Lanzhou-based He Huixin, argued that Chen’s criticism of the government and the Communist Party don’t equal an attack on the state. He noted the same reasoning was put forward in 1933 on behalf of Chen Duxiu, a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, who was accused of threatening the state by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. The argument didn’t work, and Chen Duxiu was convicted, but a public outcry spared him a harsh sentence. Nearly a century later, it’s unlikely the argument will work for Chen Pingfu either, but he too can hope the concerns of China’s online masses will save him a long prison term.
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing