This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A court in Shanghai has secretly sentenced Shanghai-based housing activist Chen Jianfang to four-and-a-half years in jail, RFA has learned.
The Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court found Chen guilty of “incitement to subvert state power,” a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, after a closed-door trial.
Chen, 51, won the Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2018 for her activism on behalf of people who lost homes in Shanghai’s race to construct high-rises and mass transportation projects. The award is sponsored by Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch, Human Rights Campaign in China, and the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network.
According to the court judgment, Chen had taken part in training programs run by foreign organizations and “slandered China’s leaders in a number of ways,” including sending photos to overseas media and WeChat groups.
She had “intended to incite the subversion of state power and overthrow the socialist system,” the court found.
Aside from the jail term, Chen also had 30,000 yuan (U.S. $4,200) of her personal assets confiscated.
Rights lawyer Wang Yu said Chen’s family didn’t find out about the sentencing until recently.
“Chen Jianfang’s husband was perhaps a little more cooperative, so the authorities let him know the verdict,” Wang told RFA. “It hardly needs saying that these so-called charges are all unfounded.”
“Even a one-day sentence would have been too long, because she is totally innocent,” she said.
Chen told the court she would appeal the sentence.
Chen was arrested earlier this year shortly after she had served a three-year term on the same charge.
She was tried without having access to an attorney, Wang said.
“She appeared in court alone, and no-one was present, neither family members or defense attorneys, when the verdict was pronounced,” she said, adding that Chen had asked her daughter to instruct Wang as her attorney to appeal to the Shanghai Higher People’s Court.
But Wang said she had her license to practice stripped by the government amid an ongoing crackdown on rights lawyers and hadn’t yet sought the appeal.
Collaboration with Cao Shunli
Retired Shanghai teacher Gu Guoping said Chen, who started out campaigning for her own rights after being a victim of forced eviction and demolition by local officials in her rural hometown, is extremely brave.
“Chen Jianfang … is a courageous woman from an underprivileged background,” Gu told RFA. “She is from a rural area and was the victim of a forced demolition.
“She went from being a petitioner for her own rights to a human rights activist,” he said. “It’s pretty ridiculous for them to say that a … woman like her tried to overthrow the regime.”
Gu said the authorities’ targeting of Chen likely stems from her collaboration with late human rights activist Cao Shunli, who died from medical neglect in a police detention center in 2014 after being detained en route to the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva.
Chen was invited by Cao to attend a similar meeting in 2013, but was prevented from boarding the plane to Geneva at Guangzhou’s airport.
“Chen Jianfang had been talking to some so-called good friends [in a group chat] but the phones of rights activists are closely monitored by the government round the clock,” Gu said.
“She shared [her Geneva trip] on the phone, which was immediately heard by the Chinese Communist Party’s state security police, who intercepted her in Guangzhou,” he said.
Highlighting mass evictions
Gu said the planned trip, along with Chen’s 2018 rights award, meant that she had become a thorn in the side of the Shanghai government.
Prior to her first sentence, Chen was held incommunicado for more than six months, which human rights experts say put her at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment. Four United Nations human rights officials appealed on her behalf to the Chinese government at the time.
Chen’s work highlighted the widespread mass evictions behind Shanghai’s skyscrapers and high-speed railways, key elements in China’s development showcase that mask widespread abuses of residents’ rights.
She once referred to Cao Shunli as “my spiritual teacher, from whom I learned some of the highest ideals.”
“My own rights defense work is indivisible from what she taught me,” Chen wrote to RFA at the time of the award.
Cao was detained on Sept. 14, 2013, as she was boarding a flight to Geneva, where she was to attend a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.