Democracy Advocate Cao Haibo Sentenced to Eight Years for Subversion

December 4, 2012

Chinese authorities sentenced democracy advocate Cao Haibo to eight years' imprisonment on the charge of "subversion of state power" for creating online discussion groups and sending text messages relating to democratic reforms and the philosophies of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). Cao's trial was marred by procedural issues, and his sentence disregards international norms and PRC Constitutional principles. His verdict also demonstrates the continuing trend of harsh sentences for democracy advocates.

On October 31, 2012, the Kunming Intermediate People's Court sentenced democracy advocate Cao Haibo to eight years in prison on the charge of "subversion of state power" (Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), 1 November 12). The same article noted the charges related to Cao's discussions of democratic reforms and constitutional rights in an online chat group called "Society to Strengthen China" (Zhenhuahui). According to a November 5, 2012, Human Rights in China (HRIC) article, Cao also created other online chat forums to talk about the Three Principles of the People, a political philosophy created by Sun Yat-sen, a leader of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the first provisional president of the Republic of China (1911–1912) who was considered to be the father of modern China. (Encyclopedia Britannica, online). A December 6, 2011, Independent Chinese Pen (ICPC) article via Boxun noted Cao's wife, Zhang Nian, remarked that Cao expressed in an overseas online forum approval of Sun Yet-sen's purported advocacy of violent revolution. The article also noted that she said Cao was just venting his opinions online. The author of the article noted "expression should be distinguished from action." In addition, a November 1, 2012, Reuters article said Cao's lawyer remarked that Cao had tried to form the "China Republican Party," which a November 1, 2012, New York Times article noted had only "existed on paper, and only for one day."

Authorities Modified Charges Against Cao, Warned Wife to Remain Silent

Authorities modified the original charge against Cao, basing his sentence on more serious allegations. According to a March 7, 2012, CHRD briefing, officials from the Xishan district, Kunming Municipal Public Security Bureau (PSB), Yunnan province, first detained Cao on October 21, 2011, and formally arrested him on November 25 on the charge of "inciting subversion of state power," a crime under Article 105, paragraph 2 of the PRC Criminal Law. News reports do not indicate why authorities modified the allegations against Cao and tried him on the more serious charge of "subversion of state power," a crime under Article 105, paragraph 1 of the Criminal Law. PSB officials purportedly warned Cao's wife not to talk about Cao's case (ICPC via Boxun, 6 December 11; CHRD via Boxun, 6 November 12).

Cao's Opaque Trial

The sentencing came five months after the court tried Cao in a closed trial on May 23, 2012, (HRIC, 23 May 12). Prior to the hearing, authorities reportedly held Cao in the Xishan District Detention Center in Kunming (CHRD, 1 November 12). Authorities did not allow a public trial because they claimed Cao's case involved state secrets, according to the May 23 HRIC article. The November 5, 2012, HRIC article noted Cao's lawyer as saying that Cao's "trial procedure was certainly incorrect" because the court did not inform the family of the trial. Authorities also reportedly did not notify Cao's lawyer or family members about the October 31 sentencing hearing beforehand (CHRD, 1 November 12); nor did they provide a sentencing notice (HRIC, 5 November 12).

Sentence Disregards International Norms and Chinese Constitution

Chinese authorities' actions against Cao are questionable under international law which protects free speech and under the Chinese Constitution which protects freedom of association. Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 29) require that any restriction on free expression be limited to that which is "necessary" to protect national security, public order, or public health or morals. According to a 2009 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (Item 5(p)(i), 12 October 09, A/HRC/RES/12/16 -click on resolution number at this link, then click on your language of choice), governments should refrain from imposing restrictions on activities including reporting on human rights, or engaging in political debate, peaceful demonstrations, and political activities. Principle 6 of the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (Article 19 via UN Refugee Agency), which were endorsed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression at several sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights in the late 1990s and 2001, provides that expression may be punished as a threat to national security only if a government can demonstrate that "the expression is intended to incite imminent violence, is likely to incite such violence, and there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence." In addition, the PRC Constitution protects the freedoms of speech and association. Article 35 of the Constitution states: "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration."

Authorities Continue Trend of Harsh Sentences for Democracy Advocates

Over the last year and a half, authorities imposed harsh sentences on other democracy advocates, including Chen Wei (9 years), Chen Xi (10 years), and Zhu Yufu (7 years). Other democracy advocates who have received long prison terms in recent years include Li Tie (10 years), Liu Xianbin (10 years), Guo Quan (10 years), and Xie Changfa (13 years).

For more information on some of these cases, see previous CECC analyses:

  1. "Authorities Suppress Calls for an Official Accounting in Lead-Up to 23rd Anniversary of Crackdown on 1989 Protest," (5 June 12),
  2. "Zhu Yufu Case: Application of Inciting Subversion Provisions Fell Short of International Standards" (23 March 12),
  3. "2011 Crackdown Update: Ding Mao, Chen Wei, and Ran Yunfei" (15 November 11),
  4. "Authorities Crack Down on Rights Defenders, Lawyers, Artists, Bloggers" (3 May 11).

For more information on official actions against democracy advocates and China's institutions of democratic governance see the CECC 2012 Annual Report (pp. 125-132) and the CECC 2011 Annual Report (pp. 158-169).