A local Communist Party official in southern China who denounced official corruption in a widely publicized letter on the Internet was sentenced to life in prison Thursday, a year after he was silenced by officials who attempted to discredit him.
State media did not report the conviction of Huang Jingao, 53, a whistle-blower in Fujian province who captivated the nation last year with stories of his attempts to root out corruption in party ranks. But two sources involved in the case confirmed the life sentence, handed down by the Nanping Intermediate People's Court in the provincial capital, Fuzhou.
Huang, who said he wore a bulletproof vest after receiving death threats from those he criticized, was put on trial in September for allegedly accepting about $715,000 in bribes between 1993 and 2004. His supporters said embarrassed party leaders trumped up the charges after he went public with complaints that senior government officials were blocking his efforts to fight corruption.
Huang served as party chief of Lianjiang, a county in Fujian located 300 miles south of Shanghai. He published an open letter on Aug. 11, 2004, in which he accused colleagues of confiscating land from peasants and selling it at below-market prices to real estate developers in exchange for bribes.
The lengthy letter, featured on the Web site of the People's Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, triggered an outpouring of support in China, where crooked land deals are rampant and corruption is a source of deep public anger. Newspapers picked up Huang's story, and tens of thousands of readers posted messages of support on popular Web forums.
In his letter and in interviews with state media, Huang presented himself as an honest party official from the countryside who was trying to do the right thing. He wrote that he had expected party superiors to support him, but instead "ran into all kinds of obstructions, as if a large, invisible net was trying to cover up this corruption case."
China's top leaders, including President Hu Jintao, have sought to crack down on corruption, declaring it a threat to the party's survival. But corruption is deeply rooted in the political system, and influential officials routinely shut down probes that could implicate them.
A few days after Huang posted his letter, the party's propaganda department ordered all media to stop reporting the story, removed the letter from the Internet and erased Web messages supporting his cause. Meanwhile, authorities in Fujian published a rebuttal accusing Huang of violating party discipline and committing a grave political mistake.
"The direct result of his behavior was that it would be used by hostile Western forces, hostile Taiwan forces, democratic movement elements and others, thus leading to social and political instability," the statement said.
Police placed Huang under a form of house arrest a few months later, and state newspapers published detailed stories portraying him as a corrupt and degenerate official with four mistresses whom he kept in luxury apartments. The newspapers said he wrote the open letter because his crimes were under investigation and he wanted to blame them on others.
A local journalist who allegedly helped publicize Huang's story, Li Changqing, was also arrested and has been charged with inciting subversion.
It was unclear why state media did not report Huang's sentence, but party censors have restricted reporting on the case and may have decided to withhold the news pending a review of the sentence by higher authorities.
"There is a sentence now. That's all I can say," said Xie Changhua, Huang's attorney. "You know I can't say too much. You should contact the court directly."
A provincial court official reached by phone declined to comment. "This is a political case," she said. "It's inconvenient to release information about it."