A Chinese court on Wednesday sentenced agricultural magnate Sun Dawu to 18 years in prison for a range of crimes, including “provoking trouble” after the outspoken billionaire and human rights supporter was tried in secret.
The court in Gaobeidian near Beijing said Sun was found guilty of crimes such as “gathering a mob to attack state organs,” “obstructing government administration” and “provoking quarrels and causing trouble,” a collective term used often used against dissidents.
He was arrested by police in November along with 20 family members and business associates after his company was embroiled in a land dispute with a state competitor.
In the 1980s, the charismatic Sun and his wife built one of China’s largest private farms from a few chickens and pigs.
He is also an outspoken champion of rural reform and was a whistleblower during a devastating 2019 swine fever outbreak, posting photos of dead pigs online after local officials were slow to respond to the disease.
Sun was also fined 3.11 million yuan ($475,000) by the court on Wednesday.
The hearing began on July 15 in the Gaobeidian People’s Court in northern Hebei province, according to his lawyers, who said in a statement that the secrecy of the trial “was contrary to legal guidelines and did not protect the defendant’s procedural rights.”
Sun was previously sentenced to prison in 2003 for “illegal fundraising,” but this was overturned after a massive outpouring of support from human rights defenders and the public.
Video footage shared by his lawyers on Tuesday showed tight security outside the courtroom, with convoys of police vehicles and plainclothes officers.
Sun’s legal team said the trial was “not a normal legal process,” pointing to marathon hearings lasting more than 12 hours and the complex charges.
‘Problems beyond words’
Prosecutors alleged that the Dawu Group defrauded its employees, “seriously interfered with local orderly administrative management” and “endangered national political stability,” according to a court witness report shared by its legal team.
In response, Sun said the Dawu group was “completely socialist, everyone is moving towards common prosperity and the Dawu employees are living very well,” the account said.
Sun described at trial that he went on a hunger strike and experienced “incomprehensible misery” during his time in detention, the report said.
The Dawu Group employed more than 9,000 people before Sun’s assets were seized by the state and the workers became unemployed after Sun’s detention in November.
The businessman has been an outspoken critic of China’s rural policies for decades, demanding more freedom for farmers to organize to protect their economic interests.
He ran a website in the early 2000s criticizing state-owned banks, which he accused of neglecting investment in rural areas and funneling savings from rural residents to urban projects.
His farms were hit hard by the 2019 African Swine Fever outbreak, which decimated pig herds across the country.
He criticized Hebei’s local government for trying to cover up the scale of the outbreak and posted photos of thousands of dead pigs online, forcing it to respond quickly.
China has dealt with high-profile corporate figures critical of the Communist Party rule in recent years, with former chairman of real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang also serving up to 18 years in prison last year after writing an essay criticizing President Xi Jinping for his treatment of COVID-19.