Two Arrests, Two Outcomes Tell a Tale of Xi Jinping’s China

In 2003, a rural businessman named Sun Dawu was arrested after defying the Chinese government. A group of reform-minded officials, journalists, lawyers and academics waged a successful campaign to free him.

In 2020, the Chinese government went after Mr. Sun after another bout of defiance. But China has changed, and the outcome so far has been vastly different.

Mr. Sun has been held for three months without being charged. His family and senior management team, 24 people in total, were arrested with him. Initially, he couldn’t hire a lawyer. His company has been taken over by the government. And this time, the outside world didn’t try to rescue him.

China was, and remains, an authoritarian country under Communist Party rule. But the nature of its authoritarianism has become much harsher under Xi Jinping, the party’s top leader since late 2012. Mr. Sun’s case exemplifies the country’s drastic turn from a nation striving for economic and social, if not political, liberalization to one increasingly operating in an ideological straitjacket.

The lessons of Mr. Sun are helpful to keep in mind as the Chinese government circles the business empire of another prominent entrepreneur, Jack Ma. The de facto leader of Alibaba and Ant Group has himself not been charged with wrongdoing, and it is not clear how severely Chinese regulators may rein in his businesses. But whatever the merits of the government’s case against Alibaba, few will dare to speak up on its behalf.

Mr. Xi has steadily undermined China’s civil society — the businesspeople, lawyers, civic groups and many others who make up the fabric of a nation’s daily life. People in many countries take civil society for granted. In China, where the Communist Party had sought to fill all roles, civil society was budding in 2003.

Since Mr. Xi came to command, it has been virtually wiped out. Journalists with an independent bent have been silenced. Lawyers are jailed. Officials, even retired ones, know to keep their mouth shut. Businesspeople tread carefully to avoid crossing the government.

China has always been plagued with human rights violations, said Chen Min, a veteran journalist who is known by his pen name, Xiao Shu. The difference, he said, is that civil society once had some space to push back.

“Now there’s neither civil society nor space,” he said. “These are two different eras.”

Under Mr. Xi, the party’s traditionally suspicious stance against businesspeople who are politically active or outspoken has worsened. Wang Gongquan, a former venture capitalist who financed advocacy for more liberal social and political policies, was among the first high-profile individuals jailed after Mr. Xi came to power. Ren Zhiqiang, a retired real estate tycoon, was sentenced last year to 18 years in prison after he repeatedly criticized Mr. Xi’s policies, including the government’s mishandling of the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

In private chatrooms and behind closed doors, some people are asking what signal Beijing is sending to the private sector by arresting Mr. Sun. Outspoken and generous, Mr. Sun is in some ways the model of the civic-minded businessman the party extols. He has built a town — Dawu City — around his company’s campus in rural Hebei Province, complete with a hospital with 1,000 beds.

“My dream,” he once said, “is to build a modern city in the countryside.”

Mr. Sun, 66, was born in Xushui, in Hebei Province, about a two-hour drive south of Beijing. He joined the People’s Liberation Army after graduating from middle school. He left the army eight years later and moved back to his hometown to work at the state-owned Agricultural Bank of China.

A curious and restless soul, he studied college law and took Chinese literature courses in his spare time. In 1985, he quit his banking job and started a business with 1,000 chickens and 50 pigs. His company, Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group, now employs about 9,000 people, many from nearby villages.

As his business grew, Mr. Sun sought out liberal intellectuals in Beijing. By the spring of 2003, he was becoming a voice for farmers and entrepreneurs’ rights, giving speeches at top Chinese universities.

After irritating the authorities, he was arrested on accusations of illegal fund-raising. His new friends leapt to his defense. Legal scholars argued that the law he was accused of violating had been written in a way that gave the authorities broad discretion to charge businessmen who fell out of favor.

Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist who later became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and who died in prison in 2017, explained then that Mr. Sun “poses a tremendous challenge for the current system.” As an entrepreneur, wrote Mr. Liu, Mr. Sun despised bribery, had the financial resources to act independently and had the courage to speak up and urge political reform.

“He will probably become a new kind of leader for farmers,” Mr. Liu wrote. “The government will definitely go after him with murky laws.”

Mr. Sun had won national fame when he was released five months later. Even state television covered his newfound freedom, and a retired senior official visited him immediately.

Despite his arrest, he continued to mingle with intellectuals and former officials. He provided conference venues for liberal-leaning groups, think tanks and publications until they were banned in recent years. He remained close friends with a few high-profile dissidents, even after they became politically radioactive.

A few noted his ego, and the cult of personality around his company. His words were printed as slogans in many places around the campus. “I’ll be ashamed if my hospital makes money,” goes one of them. “I’ll be honored if my hospital loses money.”

Even his critics noted his bravery, however. In 2015, when China was arresting rights defense lawyers, Mr. Sun said he would pay about $15,000 to a lawyer who would defend one of them.

In 2019, he said on social media that the local government would not publicly acknowledge a potential swine fever outbreak at his company, where 15,000 pigs had died. Two days later, the central government confirmed the outbreak.

In May he spoke up for Xu Zhiyong, one of three lawyers who represented him in 2003 and a prominent legal activist who was detained after urging Mr. Xi to resign.

Such moves by the state, he argued, demanded a reaction. “When confronted with terror, what could ordinary people like us do?” Mr. Sun said in a 2015 speech. “Open our eyes in fear and shriek.”

In November, the authorities came for Mr. Sun.

On the surface, Mr. Sun and his people were arrested for their conduct during a land dispute between his company and a state-owned farm that at times led to physical altercations between workers. Then, at 1 a.m. on Nov. 11, six busloads of armed police officers with dogs showed up at a Dawu company residential compound, according to the newspaper Southern Weekly.

Nearly three months later, details remain murky. Initially, Mr. Sun and his family members had no lawyers because Chinese law requires a family member to sign for permission, and all of them were locked up. Now they have representation, but their lawyers would confirm only that they had met with Mr. Sun and his family.

Unlike 2003, few are clamoring for Mr. Sun’s release. A former journalist who wrote an influential article about Mr. Sun in 2003 couldn’t find a place to publish a commentary. A close friend of Mr. Sun’s said he had been warned by his state security minders not to talk to journalists. Even people who had received assistance from Mr. Sun in the past didn’t respond to my requests to talk, even off the record.

“Sun Dawu was lucky in 2003,” said Mr. Chen, the veteran journalist. “He was suppressed by the government, but he was rescued by the public. He paid his price, but it was relatively small.”

This time nobody expects him to be lucky. The question is how unlucky he will be.

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