Officials Give Environmentalist Liu Futang a Suspended Three-Year Sentence for Exposés

December 14, 2012

Former forestry official and environmentalist, Liu Futang received a three-year suspended sentence and a fine for allegedly engaging in "illegal business activities" linked to his self-publication of environmental exposés that may have embarrassed local government leaders.

On December 5, 2012, the Longhua District People's Court in Haikou city, Hainan province, imposed a three-year suspended sentence and a 17,000 yuan (US$2,727) fine on Liu Futang, a retired forestry official and environmentalist, for allegedly engaging in "illegal business activities" (Chinadialogue, 5 December 12; Caixin journalist's blog entry, 11 October 12). Liu's sentencing came nearly two months after his trial on October 11 (Southern Weekend (SW), reprinted in Chinadialogue, 19 October 12). Officials charged that Liu privately printed and sold or gave away books on environmental issues without obtaining permission to publish the books from the appropriate government department (SW, 16 October 12). Liu, who was named a winner of the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards for his microblog exposés (Chinadialogue, 5 December 12), admitted he had not obtained mainland publication numbers for the books, which were based on his many years in environmental protection work (SW, 16 October 12). Liu reportedly tried to get his book, "Speaking the Truth," published in 2009, but three Chinese publishing companies said the book's contents were "too sensitive." Liu said he believed he had no choice but to obtain a publication number from Hong Kong (SW, reprinted in Chinadialogue, 19 October 12).

The indictment against Liu reportedly alleged that he had illegally earned over 78,000 yuan (US$12,500) in profit for the books (Caixin journalist’s blog entry, 11 October 12). Liu argued that he gave away the books to government officials and environmentalists without intending to earn a profit, pointing out that he spent more than 200,000 yuan (US$32,100) of his own money on the books. Three witnesses at the trial said that Liu sent them a large number of his books and they voluntarily sent him contributions, not to pay for the books, but to support his environmental work (SW, 16 October 12). Procuratorate officials reportedly argued that a business does not need to be profitable to qualify as an illegal business. Liu's lawyer argued there was insufficient evidence to prove his actions disrupted market order, therefore his actions do not constitute a criminal offense (SW, reprinted in Chinadialogue, 19 October 12).

Questionable Legal Procedures and Calls for Liu’s Release

News reports highlighted procedural problems associated with Liu's detention and trial. One report noted a Chinese lawyer's comment that the exchange of evidence in court took place behind closed doors, indicating the court did not want to handle the case transparently (South China Morning Post, 12 October 12). Another report stated that authorities prohibited Liu’s relatives from seeing him prior to the trial (Guardian, 11 October 12). No one had seen Liu since authorities took him from the hospital in July 2012 (SW, reprinted in Chinadialogue, 19 October 12).

Liu's case received broad media attention and reportedly was closely followed in environmental and legal circles (Chinadialogue, 5 December 12; Global Times, 12 October 12). In addition, people took action in support of Liu:

  • Hundreds of people reportedly contacted Liu's lawyer expressing support for Liu, and a statement written by Liu's lawyer calling for a fair trial and protection of the freedom of speech garnered an unspecified number of online signatures (Chinadialogue, 5 December 12).
  • In mid-October, nearly 100 concerned citizens and groups signed an open letter urging the district court in Haikou to consider Liu Futang's contributions to the protection of the Hainan natural environment, to find Liu not guilty, and to drop the "unreasonable" charges against him (copy of open letter on Liu Hongqiao's blog, 16 October 12).

Liu's Environmental Advocacy and Detention

Liu Futang, who was also a former Hainan province People's Political Consultative Conference (PPCC) member, had a long history of environmental work and activism, including exposing official corruption linked to illegal logging and helping to free two villagers detained for trying to prevent illegal logging. (For more information on these and other examples of Liu's work, see the October 19 reprinted Southern Weekend article and the October 11 Caixin journalist's blog.) In the spring of 2012, Liu reportedly posted critical comments about the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Yinggehai township, Hainan province (Radio Free Asia (RFA), 16 August 12). In March and April 2012, thousands of people demonstrated against the proposed plant (RFA, 12 April 12 and 11 March 12). Officials warned him about his postings (Chinadialogue, 5 December 12), and two months after these large-scale protests, authorities blocked two of Liu's microblog sites (SW, reprinted in Chinadialogue, 19 October 12). In May 2012, Liu reportedly included his articles and microblog postings about the Yinggehai power plant in a book, titled "Hainan Tears 2," which he then published at his own expense (Chinadialogue, 5 December 12). On July 20, Haikou city public security officials detained Liu on the charge of "illegal business activities," while he was at a hospital in Haikou receiving treatment for high blood pressure and diabetes, and the Longhua district procuratorate indicted Liu on September 19 (Caixin journalist's blog, 11 October 12). Authorities held him in the Haikou Judicial Hospital until his trial on October 11, 2012 (SW, reprinted in Chinadialogue (Chinese), 19 October 12).

Government Monopoly on Information

The crime of "illegally operating a business" (Article 225 of the Criminal Law) has been used by officials in the past to selectively punish those who publish materials which officials consider sensitive. Authorities detained the environmental protection advocate Xie Chaoping, for example, for publishing a magazine insert "The Great Relocation (Da Qianzou)," which traces problems related to the Sanmenxia hydroelectric dam relocation programs. (For more information about Xie Chaoping's case and other cases, see this December 10, 2010, CECC analysis.) China's licensing scheme for publishing prevents citizens from publishing through anyone but a government-licensed publisher. The government requires a publication to have a unique serial number, the allotment of which the government controls. These restrictions force citizens who wish to publish information that may implicate government officials to refrain from doing so or to risk punishment for publishing without government permission.

For more information on environmental issues and activism, see Section II—The Environment in the CECC 2012 Annual Report (pp.114–119). For more information on the abuse of criminal law provisions in freedom of expression cases, see Section II—Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2012 Annual Report (pp. 49–58), and for more information on how the Chinese government uses publishing regulations to restrict free expression, see Section II—Freedom of Expression in the CECC 2011 Annual Report (pp. 65–66).