The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese man appeals labor camp sentence over T-shirt slogan

When Patrick Henry proclaimed "Give me liberty or give me death" at the Virginia Convention in 1775, he convinced the colony to send troops to the Revolutionary War.

When a 25-year-old Chinese civil servant named Ren Jianyu ordered a T-shirt off the Internet with the same message inscribed on it, he was sentenced to two years in a labor camp.

Last September, Ren was sent by the Chongqing Public Security Bureau to be re-educated in a labor camp for two years. The evidence against him consisted of his  ordering the Revolutionary-themed shirt and forwarding and commenting on "more than 100 pieces of negative information" on the Chinese social network Weibo, the English-language Chinese site Ministry of Tofu reported.

Ren is appealing his sentence, arguing that he's been jailed without cause. The messages he was accused of re-posting or commenting on were by Chinese activists such as He Weifang and Yang Hengjun, and some were critical of Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party boss who was recently ousted from China's Communist Party for his alleged involvement in the murder of an English businessman, for which his wife has been convicted.

According to the ministry site, Ren has received widespread support from even pro-government voices:

Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global Times, a Communist tabloid well-known for its nationalist editorials and pro-government slant, wrote, “I believe he (Ren) can win (the lawsuit). Because the era of getting punished for pure speech that does not bring personal harm or social impact – no matter how ‘anti-party’ or ‘anti-socialism’ they are – should be over.

In the Global Times, a party-owned paper, columnist Yu Jincui wrote, "It's worrying that people can still be punished for expressing or writing critical thoughts in modern China."

Chongqing's Third Intermediate People's Court heard the appeal last week but is still determining a verdict. A closing argument by Ren's lawyer, Pu Zhuqiang — "As for a bad political system, we won’t stomach it long" —  has been re-posted on Weibo more than 18,000 times.

Ren is one of a series of Chongqing residents who have been detained for online postings about local officials. According to Global Times:

Fang Hong was detained by the local public security bureau in April 2011 for deriding Wang Lijun, who was Chongqing's police chief at the time. Peng Hong, another Chongqing resident, was also given two years labor re-education for reposting comics that mocked the municipality's anti-gang campaign.

The case also speaks to the power of Weibo — for better or worse — in China. As The Washington Post's William Wan reported, a Weibo outcry over the lavishly expensive watches worn by Chinese civil servants has led to investigations and firings.

The site has also been used to raise thousands for various local charities, thwarting government attempts to maintain control over the flow of social assistance in the country.

“Weibo is the best gift God has given to the people of China," Deng Fei, a former investigative journalist, told Wan.