A Tweet, A Year In A Labor Camp, And Now An Appeal
This is the tale of a single tweet and its far-reaching consequences in China.
In April 2011, retired forestry official Fang Hong posted a scatological tweet, mocking a powerful Chinese politician, Bo Xilai, the Chongqing party secretary.
Fang had been critical of Bo in the past. But last year, he was fired up by what he considered the injustice of a court case taken against lawyer Li Zhuang, who'd been defending an alleged gangster during Bo's clampdown against the mafia. In the heat of his outrage, Fang posted his tweet, which also mocked the powerful police chief, Wang Lijun.
After that, Fang went out to buy vegetables and didn't think about the tweet. He estimates only around 90 people saw it that day. But despite its limited influence, that night he was summoned to the Fuling public security bureau and asked to delete the tweet, which he did.
The next day, more than 20 police officers came to his house to arrest him.
Fang believes he was an easy target for Bo Xilai. "I'm from Chongqing, so firstly, it's easy to arrest me," he told NPR over the telephone. "Secondly, he didn't want any dissenting voices, especially officials. If you disagreed with him, he'd sack you. He was totally lawless. He wanted to impose red terror on the city."
Without a trial, Fang was sent to a re-education-through-labor center for a year.
A Major Scandal
But things have changed dramatically in Chongqing in the past year.
Bo has fallen from power in China's biggest political scandal in decades. His wife is suspected of murdering a British businessman. And his former police chief could be facing treason charges, according to Hong Kong media reports, after his attempt to seek asylum at a U.S. consulate.
And Fang Hong, who completed his time at the labor camp, has now filed a landmark case appealing his punishment, which could also shine a light on Bo's reign.
When Fang was inside the camp, he worked for as many as 14 hours a day. Initially he made Christmas tree lights for export to Germany.
"A skilled worker at the company welds 4,300 lights a day, but we welded 6,500 lights a day each," he says. "If you didn't finish, you weren't allowed to eat meat, buy cigarettes or sleep at night, and your sentence might be extended. We earned one U.S. dollar, 25 cents a month."
Those who did not make their quota were sometimes even beaten, he says, with the pressure rising in the summer when orders had to be filled for export in time for Christmas. Later he made wiring for laptop computers.
He describes life inside the labor camp as riddled with corruption. Those with money paid the guards to get out of working. Prisoners say Police Chief Wang Lijun was seen as presiding over a police force that operated with impunity.
Prisoners Celebrate Police Chief's Downfall
When news spread that Wang had fled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu, there was jubilation.
"I told them Wang was committing treason," says Fang, chuckling at the memory. "Everyone was jumping for joy because Wang was so cruel. Half the people in the camp were there for a year or two for fighting or disrupting social order. No knives or weapons were involved, so they felt it wasn't fair."
"They said that he deserved it," Fang says. "He had himself to blame. He was given a taste of his own medicine."
Fang's son, 22-year-old Fang Di, who'd tried to help him, was sentenced to 14 months in detention for "abetting drug-taking," a charge Fang says is false. Fang himself was released in April, after a year in labor camp. Despite everything, he doesn't regret posting that tweet.
"Even though it made me lose my freedom for a while, it let people around the world see China's human rights situation," he says.
Fang says his son has no hard feelings, despite his own sentence.
"My son doesn't blame me, and I don't blame him," he says. "Living in Chongqing under the reign of Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun was a time of red terror. Even if they had nothing on you, they could make something up and put you away for it."
Filing An Appeal
Fang's now lodged an appeal against the Re-education Through Labor Committee that sentenced him, and it has been accepted by the courts. This was a surprise, even to his lawyer. He's arguing there's no evidence that Fang "fabricated facts and disturbed public order," as charged.
"This case touches upon the Internet, twitter and the freedom of speech," says his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who believes it's a landmark case. "It also takes in criticism of Bo and his anti-mafia campaign. It also touches upon the system of re-education through labor. In the context of China's constitutional government, the significance of this tweet is huge."
Pu wants to use this case to end the system of re-education-through-labor. He argues it's a totalitarian tool, with no constitutional basis.
But he's pragmatic about his chances. Bo Xilai may have fallen from power, Pu says, but China's leaders and their factions answer to no one.
"One big problem is that Chinese politicians have no principles," he says. "They don't need to be responsible for their political credibility. They can do this today and the opposite tomorrow."
This is a test case, the first known victim of Bo's rule whose case has been accepted by the courts. How it's handled could be a sign of whether the leadership will correct the excesses of the past.
But, with hundreds of other victims waiting in the wings, the danger is the court system could be flooded with claims. Even if Fang wins his case, his son still remains in police detention.
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