Artist Geng Xiaonan for years quietly helped dissidents and liberal intellectuals who’d crossed China’s Communist Party and lost their jobs or their freedom – most recently ordering online groceries for former Tsinghua University scholar Xu Zhangrun, who was blacklisted by vendors following his arrest in July. So when Geng and her husband were taken away by police in Beijing's Haidian district on Sept. 9 on suspicion of running an "illegal business operation" after the film producer and publisher made public her support for Xu, it was the legal scholar himself who led the charge to publicize the couple’s plight.“Xiaonan is a brave woman… Let’s speak up for her; voice our concerns,” Xu told RFA. Since party general secretary Xi Jinping began an indefinite term in office in March 2018, his administration has stepped up a purge of liberal intellectuals from higher education institutions.Authorities in Beijing detained Xu on July 6 after he had published strident critiques of Xi and calls for political reforms online, on allegations of "seeking out prostitutes."He was released a week later, but told the media that he had been fired from his teaching post and subjected to public sanctions for "moral corruption" by Tsinghua University's law school. Geng, the owner of a private art and culture salon in China and an independent film producer, has championed dissidents who have taken great risk in Xi’s China. Dissidents who have been aided by Geng include Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar who called for Xi’s resignation and was sentenced to four years in prison; Early Rain Covenant Church Reverend Wang Yi, who was sentenced to 9 years in jail for inciting subversion of state power and for running an illegal operation; and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, who sneaked into Wuhan during its lockdown to report from epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been missing for since March. Blacklisted online After his release, from detention, Xu Zhangrun was fired from Tsinghua University losing his livelihood, while an on-line blacklist stripped him of the right to receive donations from the public. Geng Xiaonan began to order groceries online for Xu on August 26th to relieve his financial burden. She found that Taobao, TMall, and Hema -- the three grocery order apps owned by popular e-Commerce merchant Alibaba – had set “Xu Zhangrun” as a “prohibited” search phrase. “She was arrested because of me!” Xu told RFA. Xu said Geng had texted him last week, saying that police has arrested several employees of her husband’s publishing company on Sept. 6, and two days later, authorities blocked her husband’s his company’s Weibo accounts. Geng then told Xu early on Sept. 9 that she was out running errands, and went incommunicado, along with her husband, Xu said, calling it “definitely unusual.” Friends of Geng told RFA’s Mandarin Service before her disappearance, a series of events pointed toward gathering trouble for her, beginning in early August with a police visit to her father’s house in Sichuan. On Aug. 14, police in Beijing’s Haidian district visited Geng’s home, checking on exit routes and the electricity breaker box. On Aug. 27, police secretly searched warehouses of the publishing company that Geng Xiaonan’s husband runs in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province, warning the warehouse managers to keep the search secret from the couple, friends said. Geng told RFA in early September that she thought these actions did not pose great danger and there was no need to report on these incidents Intellectuals back Geng Several well-known Chinese female intellectuals, including Tsinghua Professor Guo Yuhua, former China Party School Professor Cai Xia, and Hoover Institute visiting researcher Li Nanyang, have all taken up Geng’s cause. “Xiaonan is a good friend of mine for years. She’s kind and righteous,” said Cai, who was expelled from party’s top training academy and stripped of her pension in August over speeches she made criticizing the country’s direction under Xi. “For many years she has been so kind to help senior political dissidents,” she said, mentioning former Zhao Ziyang aide Bao Tong, who remains under house arrest since supporting 1989 student demonstrators, and other liberal figures. “Her chivalrous courage is admirable. She has worked so hard to rescue Xu Zhangrun and other persons of conscience. She is a talented writer of remarkable style. Now that she is being placed in great danger. We call for her release. “ Analysts noted that charges of "seeking out prostitutes" have been used before by the Chinese authorities to target peaceful critics and activists, or anyone who runs afoul of local officials and powerful vested interests. Xu has lodged a legal challenge, and denies the charges. Rev Wang Yi was also jailed on charges that included “running an illegal operation” – the same accusations Geng and her husband are facing. “Under the authoritarian dictatorship, the kind suffer while the wicked run rampant. Random citizens may lose their freedom for the sake of conscience and justice,” said Xu. “Geng Xiaonan spoke for justice. She cried for the political dissidents who lost their lives,” he added. “We cannot just sit back and let it be. We shall make our voices heard and call for her release,” he told RFA. Reported by Bei Ming for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Min Eu. Written in English by Paul Eckert
Property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who was detained and expelled from the ruling Chinese Communist Party after penning an article highly critical of general secretary Xi Jinping, was planning to plead not guilty at his trial on Friday, sources told RFA.Ren opted to defend himself at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, where he faced charges of bribery and abuse of power."He didn't request a defense attorney, but defended himself," a family member of another dissident told RFA on Friday, adding that there weren't many places available to family members to sit in the gallery during the trial."Ninety-nine percent of the small number of places for family members were taken up by officials from the court, prosecution, and other departments," the family member said.Veteran political journalist Gao Yu confirmed the report."Ren Zhiqiang had no lawyers, and he has declared he will conduct his own defense," Gao said.She said a prison term for the former boss of the Beijing Huayuan property group was a foregone conclusion."I think we are looking at 5-10 years, or maybe even more," Gao said.Sources told RFA Ren Zhiqiang has refused to "confess" or plead guilty to the charges against him since the start of the investigation.A person who witnessed the trial said Ren appeared to be in good spirits during the proceedings, which lasted through the morning and afternoon.The prosecution made its case in the morning session, detailing its evidence, much of which was based on company accounts and documents, the source said.The trial was adjourned at 3.00 p.m.Police checkpoints, tight securitySecurity was tight outside the court building, with police setting up a cordon and checkpoints in the streets outside from around 6.00 a.m., eyewitnesses said.Only those with special invitations were allowed inside the building, one eyewitness said via social media.A Beijing resident surnamed Wang said Ren's trial occupied a similar level of concern among the Communist Party leadership as that of Nobel peace laureate and political dissident Liu Xiaobo."You couldn't get anywhere near [the court]," Wang said. "There was a lot of attention to Ren's case from foreign embassy and consular staff, who normally follow the cases of dissidents in China."Chongqing-based journalist Zhang Ying said there was a strong police presence on the streets outside the court."They fortified the gate of the No. 2 Intermediate Court, and nobody could get near it," Zhang told RFA. "There were a large number of police, both plainclothes and uniformed.""Ren Zhiqiang's trial has attracted a lot of public attention inside China, because he is a princeling who dared to oppose [Xi]," Zhang said. "He's obviously a man of conscience."Zhang said Ren is unlikely to get off lightly for his open show of opposition to Xi, who is currently serving an indefinite term in office.Sources said European, U.S., Australian, and Japanese diplomats had all been denied access to the court.Expelled from the partyThe Xicheng district branch of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's disciplinary arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in Beijing, said in July that it had expelled Ren from the party and handed over the case materials to the municipal prosecutor's office for prosecution.Ren was expelled for "violations of party discipline and the law," and had "brought country and party into disrepute," exhibited disloyalty to the party, and behaved in a dishonest manner, resisting investigation, it said."Ren ... used his power for personal gain, wining and dining on public funds in violation of regulations," the CCDI said. He had also caused "major losses" to state coffers, it said, adding that at least some of Ren's assets were being confiscated.Ren, 69, was probed by the CCDI after writing an open letter about Xi's responses to the coronavirus epidemic, the Sino-U.S. trade war and the Taiwan elections.Sources have said investigators handled the letter, which took the form of a long and highly critical essay, as an instance of "internal strife" within the ruling party.Act of defianceXi was reportedly furious at the letter, saying Ren was "incorrigible," and designated Ren's letter an "act of defiance against me."The letter attributed to Ren doesn't mention Xi by name, but criticizes his policies, including the president's insistence that the media are part of the same family as the ruling party, and must always represent its interests."When the media have the same name as the party, it's the people who are left out," the letter said. "The coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan has shown us just how true that is."The article, titled "The lives of the people are ruined by the virus and a seriously sick system," doesn't mention President Xi by name, but it takes aim at decisions made under his direct command, including the decision to go ahead with a mass Lunar New Year banquet for thousands of people that resulted in a huge cluster of COVID-19 cases in the weeks that followed.Xi has ordered China's media to follow the party line, focus on "positive reporting," and "speak the party's will and protect the party's authority and unity."Ren was berated by state media in 2016 for causing chaos and for failing to stand up for the party, and for "pursuing Western constitutionalism."Reported by Qiao Long and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.