The outspoken Chinese billionaire Sun Dawu was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges ranging from causing trouble to illegal fundraising on 28 July. He was also fined 3.11 million yuan ($480,000) as part of his sentence. Latest reports also revealed that his two sons and two brothers were also sentenced to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 12 years by the Gaobeidian People's Court.
According to a statement posted by the court, Dawu was charged for "picking quarrels and provoking troubles". The business tycoon, who runs one of China's largest private agricultural businesses in the northern province of Hebei, was arrested in March this year along with 20 relatives and business associates over a land dispute with a government-run farm.
Dawu's company, Hebei Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group, employs approximately 9,000 people in poultry processing, pet food production and other industries. However, in the past, the 67-year-old Sun has spoken out about human rights and some topics which are considered to be politically sensitive.
As reported, Gaobeidian People's Court said on its official WeChat account that Dawu was found guilty of "gathering a crowd to storm state institutions, obstructing public service, picking quarrels and provoking troubles, disrupting production and operation, conducting coercive trade, illegal mining, illegal occupation of agricultural land, illegal absorption of public deposits".
Dawu was one of the few Chinese citizens to publicly accuse the government of seeking to conceal the scope of the African swine flu outbreak in 2019, which claimed the lives of more than 100 million pigs. In May 2019, he told CNN that local officials only retested his pigs for the disease after he began posting pictures of the dead animals online.
According to Reuters, there have also been claims in local media that Dawu is involved in a land dispute with a local government-owned farm. As per the news agency, he said that hundreds of his employees were hurt in a battle with police in 2020 after attempting to stop state agricultural staff from demolishing one of their structures.
According to a statement issued on 14 July by the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), Dawu is being tried "as a blatant attempt to punish Sun for his support of human rights".
Ramona Li, a senior researcher and advocate for CHRD, said: "Sun Dawu has made extraordinary contributions to improving the life of Chinese citizens living in rural China. His support of rights defenders was an extension of his concern for the welfare of people on the margins of the Chinese economy." Meanwhile, one person familiar with the case told the South China Morning Post that Dawu's story exemplifies the current constraints on free expression in China.
However, in a pre-trial hearing, Dawu reportedly disputed many of the allegations levelled against him, portraying himself as an "outstanding Communist party member". As per the reports, he apparently admitted to making mistakes, such as sending inappropriate comments over the internet.
Dawu said: "The way they're investigating me now is making those close to us suffer and those who hate us rejoice. I wish to take the charges upon myself, even if they're severe, in exchange for the release of others. We are people who have made contributions to society."
The sentencing comes as China tightens its grip on private businesses, attempting to rein in the country's free-wheeling business behemoths. The Communist Party stated in a set of instructions released in September 2020 that the private sector needs "politically sensible people" who would "firmly listen to the party."
Like Dawu, Ren Zhiqiang, another Chinese billionaire, was sentenced to 18 years in jail for corruption in September 2020. Zhiqiang had been a strident critic of Chinese President Xi Jinping's coronavirus prevention campaign.
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