Two Chinese activists sentenced to 15 months’ jail for archiving censored internet material
Two Chinese activists were sentenced to 15 months in prison on Friday for archiving censored internet materials during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a family member.
The Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court handed down the jail sentences to 28-year-old Chen Mei and 27-year-old Cai Wei on Friday, said Chen Kun, the brother of Chen Mei.
The two activists, who were officially charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a catch-all offence often used by police to muzzle dissent – pleaded guilty in court.
They have been in custody in Beijing since April last year after publishing articles about the health crisis on GitHub, the world’s largest open-source website.
“They will be released this Sunday, if everything goes well,” Chen Kun said.
He also repeated the defence lawyers’ statement that Chen Mei would not appeal if the court’s sentence was in keeping with the prosecutors’ recommendation. The defenders were appointed by the authorities after lawyers hired by his family were refused access to the case several times.
“I’m very happy now, although I know they are not guilty,” Chen Kun said.
The latest round of Covid-19 outbreaks and epidemic control measures prevented Chen Kun’s parents from going to Beijing from their hometown in Shaanxi province in northwestern China to pick up his brother, so friends would accompany him to see what his brother would do next.
Chen Mei and Cai published articles blocked or removed by censors from mainstream Chinese media and online platforms from 2018. Some of their earliest work related to the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, but they have also covered issues such as the eviction of poor migrant workers from their homes in Beijing.
Before they were detained, they had archived around 600 articles, of which 100 related to Covid-19. One of the most popular reports they published about the coronavirus was an interview with Ai Fen, a whistle-blower doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital, which was first published online by China’s People magazine in early March, but removed within hours.
Also swept up in a crackdown against activists and citizen journalists, 37-year-old Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was sentenced to four years in prison in Shanghai in December for her reporting on the coronavirus pandemic in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, also on charge of picking quarrels and making trouble.
Guangzhou-based independent political analyst Wu Yangwei said that from the current evidence, what Chen Mei and Cai Wei did was not a crime. He said the final sentence was to be a deterrent, warning people not to contradict the official narrative but to keep in line with the mainstream.
“The conviction itself is wrong, from Zhang Zhan to Chen Mei and Cai Wei. Punishing them is a warning to others,” Wu – also known by the pseudonym Ye Du – told the South China Morning Post.
“It’s working. It is expected that this repression will certainly continue afterward, as the pandemic has offered an excuse to the government to strengthen control over the whole society. No one dares to publicly criticise that. It’s very costly, a price the authorities are willing to pay,” he said.