Under tight security and with an angry crowd holding a vigil in sub-zero temperatures outside, a court in this northeastern Chinese city tried two prominent labor leaders on subversion charges today, then adjourned without announcing a verdict.
Yao Fuxin, 52, and Xiao Yunliang, 56, were arrested last March for helping organize large-scale protests in Liaoyang demanding aid for workers left jobless by economic reforms and punishment for officials unfairly profiting from the privatization of state industries. The protests, which drew as many as 30,000 people from factories across the city, were among the biggest labor demonstrations in China in years and underscored the Communist Party's difficulties with rising labor unrest.
Several international labor and human rights organizations, as well as a group of U.S. congressmen, have appealed to Beijing to release Yao and Xiao. But the Chinese government determined to stick to its longstanding strategy of suppressing independent labor activism by severely punishing worker leaders.
Prosecutors at the Liaoyang Intermediate People's Court portrayed Yao and Xiao as members of the banned China Democracy Party who worked with such "hostile elements" as foreign journalists and overseas labor activists to "subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system," according to several people who were in the courtroom.
But the prosecutors called no witnesses, depriving defense lawyers of the chance to cross-examine them, and the judges repeatedly cut off Yao as he spoke in his own defense, the courtroom sources said. The trial was completed in four hours. Yao and Xiao could receive sentences of up to life in prison when the judges return with a verdict, which could be as early as this week.
"We're not optimistic," said Yao's daughter, Yao Dan. "We still have hope, but we're very worried."
Authorities sealed off roads near the courthouse, and police officers were stationed in large numbers outside the building and in worker neighborhoods, apparently to stifle protests. Over the past few weeks, police have also cut the phone lines to the homes of several labor leaders and threatened to ruin their children's lives if the workers attempted to stage more demonstrations, workers said.
Still, a few hundred workers showed up outside the courthouse this morning, wrapped in thick coats and scarves, straining to get a glimpse of Yao and Xiao as they were taken in and out of the building. A row of police officers blocked their path but took no action as the workers complained loudly about the government's decision to prosecute the men.
"How is it a crime to ask for our wages?" asked one unshaven worker, stamping his feet to stay warm. "How can that be subverting state power?"
Tickets were required for admission to the trial, and only a few dozen workers and family members made it in. Workers said most of the 200 or so people seated in the room were government officials and police officers. A French journalist who attempted to enter the courthouse was detained and forced to return to Beijing.
Yao and Xiao were escorted into the courtroom wearing orange prison vests and handcuffs. They appeared thin but healthy and in good spirits, people in the room said. Xiao bowed his head and raised his hands above his head in a gesture of thanks to the workers before the trial began.
When given a chance to speak, Xiao mocked the charges against him, asking how an unemployed worker like himself could overthrow the government, audience members said. Yao delivered a more emotional statement, they said, arguing that everything he did was for his fellow workers and shedding tears as he described how poor they were. Some workers in the gallery wept too, and police forced them to leave the courtroom.
The Chinese government had previously accused Yao and Xiao of violence during the protests. But prosecutors made no mention of that allegation today. Instead, they focused on linking the pair to the China Democracy Party, a short-lived independent political party that was crushed in 1998.
People in the courtroom said prosecutors cited as incriminating evidence phone calls between the defendants and reporters with Agence France-Presse, the Wall Street Journal and two human rights organizations based in Hong Kong, as well as Yao's decision to attend a memorial for students killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The trial also offered a glimpse into the authorities' divide-and-conquer approach to crushing labor activists. Courtroom sources said prosecutors highlighted a statement accusing Yao of recruiting people to join the China Democracy Party. The statement was allegedly made by Pang Qingxiang, a top worker leader who was arrested with Yao and Xiao in March but released last month.
Yao acknowledged attending two meetings of the China Democracy Party in 1998 but said he never joined because he supported the Communist Party, his daughter said. He also defended his contacts with foreign journalists and human rights groups, saying he had already tried to persuade Chinese journalists and institutions to help without any luck.