Chinese whistleblower sentenced to life in jail

You wonder what Huang Jingao will be thinking about every day as he wakes up in the prision cell in which he’ll be spending the rest of his life. I wonder if he wishes he’d never spoken out against corruption in China.

A local Communist Party official in southern China who rose to fame last year by denouncing official corruption in a letter on the Internet was sentenced to life in prison Thursday, the culmination of a year-long campaign by party authorities to silence and discredit him.

State media did not report the conviction of Huang Jingao, 53, the whistleblower in Fujian province who captivated the country last year with stories of his attempts to root out corruption in party ranks. But two sources involved in the case confirmed the life sentence handed down by the Nanping Intermediate People’s Court in the provincial capital, Fuzhou.

Huang, who said he wore a bullet-proof vest to protect himself from the subjects of his investigations, was put on trial in September for allegedly accepting about $715,000 in bribes between 1993 and 2004. His supporters say embarrassed party leaders trumped up the charges after he went public with complaints that senior government officials were blocking his efforts to fight corruption.

Huang was serving as party chief of Fujian’s Lianjiang county, located 300 miles south of Shanghai, when he caused a national sensation on Aug. 11, 2004, with an open letter in which he accused colleagues of confiscating land from peasants and selling it at below-market prices to real estate developers in exchange for bribes.

The lengthy missive, featured on the Web site of the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper, triggered an outpouring of support on the Internet from residents across China, where crooked land deals are common and rampant corruption is a source of deep public anger. Newspapers across the country picked up Huang’s story, and tens of thousands of readers posted messages supporting him on popular Web forums.

In his letter and in interviews with state media, Huang presented himself as an honest party official from the countryside who was just trying to do the right thing. He wrote that he had expected party superiors to support him, but instead “ran into all kinds of obstructions, as if a large, invisible net was trying to cover up this corruption case.”

Most memorably, he described rewriting his will and wearing a bullet-proof vest after receiving death threats.

China’s top leaders, including President Hu Jintao, have repeatedly sought to crack down on corruption, declaring it a threat to the party’s survival. But corruption is so deeply rooted in the political system that the leadership has been reluctant to grant investigators full independence. As a result, influential officials routinely shut down probes that could implicate them.

A few days after Huang posted his letter, the party’s propaganda department ordered all media to stop reporting the story, removed the letter from the Internet and wiped the Web clean of messages supporting his cause. Meanwhile, authorities in Fujian published a rebuttal accusing Huang of violating party discipline and committing a grave political mistake.

“The direct result of his behavior was that it would be used by hostile Western forces, hostile Taiwan forces, democratic movement elements and others, thus leading to social and political instability,” the statement said.

Police placed Huang under a form of house arrest a few months later, and state newspapers began publishing detailed stories portraying him as a corrupt and degenerate official with four mistresses whom he kept in different luxury apartments. The newspapers said he wrote the open letter because his crimes were under investigation and he wanted to blame them on others.

Well, I suppose it could be true that Huang is a corrupt and lustful criminal. But if it were, I can’t imagine why they’d have been so secretive about his trial and sentencing (read the rest of the article for the details). And the timing of his arrest sure raises some questions. Remember, these are the fellows who don’t give a second thought to sentencing a journalist to ten years for revealing the contents of speech a few days before it’s about to be delivered. So they obviously have no qualms about locking a whistleblower up for life if he embarrasses them.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

I still have archived on my computer the original story, which had me so excited over fresh prospects for reform. I was cautiously hoping that Huang would be elevated to some kind of national folk hero status.

That Huang instead appears destined for life imprisonment has me more pessimistic than ever over the possiblities of China somehow coming to grips with its monumental corruption problem anytime soon. A very dismaying story.

November 11, 2005 @ 4:24 am | Comment

But didn’t you know, I heard it somewhere that he was seeking prostitutes at the time he was arrested.

November 11, 2005 @ 4:27 am | Comment

Haha! Good one.

November 11, 2005 @ 4:47 am | Comment

This issue is more complicated than this. The “bullet-vest” Huang was almost lauded to a status of National Hero on CCTV a while back. But then his colleagues in the provincial Fujian Government started building a case against Huang and it finally culminated in several serious charges of corruption.

My guess is that Hu’s Central Government was supporting Huang. But Jiang’s old loyalties were spread everywhere, and the “Shanghai Clique” was responsible for building a case against Huang (there were a few People’s Daily editorials trying to sympathize with Huang during his trials, but the Fujian Government’s local papers resisted People’s Daily and went after Huang viciously. And we all know that Fujiang was Jiang’s territory.)

This is actually a pretty dangerous worrying signal. It shows that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is still being resisted by Jiang loyalties at the local levels. The Fujian Government would not dare to openly resist the central government if they did not have some significant political backing. Hu Jintao wanted to rehabilitate Zhao Ziyang, but now it seems that this is put on hold, most likely due to fierce resistance inside the political bureau.

Anyway, I think Hu has a tough road ahead.

November 11, 2005 @ 7:22 am | Comment

Interestingly, Jing Fu Sheng, the propaganda chief of Fujian Government, was recently put under house arrest for charges of corruption.

Jing Fu Sheng was the public figure responsible for building the case against Huang. And the one who authorized the local Fujian papers to go after Huang during his trials….

November 11, 2005 @ 7:37 am | Comment

Well, this is a small thing to be grateful for, but at least they didn’t execute him. Maybe he’ll be released, should the political tides turn in a more favorable direction.

Still, it’s another one of those things that’s turning me from a China optimist to a China pessimist. I just don’t think the Central government has that much time to turn things around before we start seeing some significant breakdowns in public order. And the environmental problems can’t wait much longer either.

November 11, 2005 @ 10:17 am | Comment

Lisa … I think there’s a normal transition among China watchers … (at least, this is how it worked for me) …

1) Wow. Look at all they’re achieving. What a miracle.
2) Wow. Look at all the bad stuff. They’re screwed.
3) Wow. They usually seem to carry on carrying on, despite all the difficulties. Hope to hell they manage it this time.

November 11, 2005 @ 7:34 pm | Comment

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