The authorities in western China have dropped their case against a laid-off teacher turned street musician who was accused of undermining the state in a series of online postings. Chen Pingfu, 55, had been charged with “inciting subversion of state power”—a crime typically reserved for prominent opponents of the Communist Party, like imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
Chen, however, was hardly in the political dissident category. A veteran teacher at a school attached to a state-owned factory in the city of Lanzhou, Chen had taken to playing his violin on the street to earn money to help pay medical bills. He began writing about the injustices he and other people at the lowest rungs of society experienced at the hands of police and chengguan, China’s notoriously thuggish urban management officers.
Prosecutors cited 34 out of the more than 300 articles he had written as evidence of inciting subversion. The charge against him drew widespread criticism within China, with one story posted on the website of Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV drawing more than 120,000 comments largely from mainland readers in support of Chen. Popular Chinese microblogs like Sina Weibo allowed relatively free discussion of Chen’s saga. A handful of domestic media wrote about Chen, including the local Gansu Legal News, the official organ of the provincial political and legal commission. Such coverage is unusual for a state security case in China, particularly before a verdict has been announced.
“Right now, more and more people are waking up,” Chen told TIME in a telephone interview after the charge was withdrawn Friday. “Public opinion is more and more in favor of people like me. I am not surprised they dropped the charge. That matches reality. If they didn’t, they would only cause more and more trouble for themselves. I do think public opinion and the media have contributed a lot to the result in my case. Without it, the story would have been different.” Chen, who suffers from a heart condition, was under house arrest while he awaited a ruling. When the prosecutors’ decision was announced, a cheer went up among the handful of supporters who joined him at the Lanzhou Intermediate People’s Court. Chen then went outside and set off a string of firecrackers.
While Chen said he was confident that the charge against him wouldn’t stand, it was still a rare result. “This kind of outcome is relatively unusual for a case like this involving inciting subversion or other state security charges,” says Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher based in Hong Kong. “Most of these cases end up with convictions.”
Chen’s life story, which followed the tortuous contours of modern China, elicited sympathy both from locals who recognized him from street-side performances in Lanzhou and from people who only learned about his situation online. Chen was among the first generations of youths to attend college after the disastrous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when schools were largely closed. He worked for a state-owned armaments factory that lost business after the end of the Cold War and was unable to successfully shift into other lines of production.
When Chen had to have heart surgery in 2005, he struggled to pay the $6,000 out-of-pocket cost, a common difficulty in China where many people lack adequate health insurance. While playing his violin for handouts, he faced the arbitrary use of power by local officials. He discussed the difficulties of making a living busking on a local TV show in 2011, before he was charged. “Generally, intellectuals care a lot about face. When you play on the streets to earn money, do you feel embarrassed?” the host asked Chen. He replied: “I feel like I’ve been dropped into an abyss.”
Chen’s lawyer, He Huixin, wrote a lengthy defense of his client, citing an argument put forward in support of Chen Duxiu, a Communist Party co-founder charged with similar crimes by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime in 1933: that criticism doesn’t necessarily equate to subversion. The government’s case against Chen didn’t seem to prove that he sought to bring down the system, says Rosenzweig: “The underlying weakness was the underlying weakness in most inciting subversion cases—the tendency to see criticism of the Communist Party and its polices as an attempt to undermine the entire political system.”
Chinese human-rights lawyers say there is at least one recent case with a verdict similar to Chen’s. Zuo Xiaohuan, an activist in Sichuan, was accused of inciting subversion in 2010 and was held in detention for 21 months before prosecutors withdrew the case, according to Liu Xiaoyuan, his attorney.
Liu Junyang, a supporter of Chen’s who wrote frequently about the case on his Sina Weibo microblog, says he hopes the outcome will give the public more freedom to criticize the government. “Two or three years ago, the result would be different,” Liu says. “Then it was normal to sentence someone like Chen to eight or nine years in prison. Without weibo, without the media, you wouldn’t have even heard about the case.”
Still, a widespread relaxation in the way China handles such sensitive cases appears unlikely. “Chinese courts don’t set precedent in the way they do in common-law jurisdictions, so the way this case is handled doesn’t necessarily bind [other] judges,” says Rosenzweig. Sadly, the Chen verdict may prove to be a rare happy outcome.
—with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing
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