A Han Chinese activist in Xinjiang sentenced to 19 years for criticizing the government

Zhang Haitao was born in Henan province. He moved to China's northwestern province to seek his fortune. After he was arrested and brutalized for no reason, he became a human rights activist. His criticisms online turned the authorities against him. For his lawyer, the harsh sentence he received comes as a surprise. His wife, Li Aijie, and their one-month child could be thrown out of their own home. "There is nothing to be afraid of anymore," Li said. "Look at the situation we’re already in. How worse can it get?"


Urumqi (AsiaNews) – On January 15, rights activist Zhang Haitao (张海涛) was sentenced to 19 years in prison by the Urumqi Intermediate Court in the northwest Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The 44-year-old Zhang was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” and “probing and illegally supplying intelligence abroad”. The court also ordered the confiscation of his personal assets of 120,000 yuan (,000). The accusations leveled against Zhang include publishing online articles attacking socialism, assisting the work of foreign media, and “rumormongering.”

The harsh sentence handed down to Zhang, a Han Chinese, came as a surprise to both Zhang’s lawyer and family. Lawyer Li Dunyong (李敦勇), who represents Zhang, told China Change that he believed the heavy sentence has a lot to do with the fact that Zhang lives in Xinjiang and has criticized the Chinese government’s Xinjiang policies.

Dissent in this restive region with a large ethnic Uighur population often meets with particularly harsh retribution. “Being a Han Chinese gives you no protection,” said lawyer Li. In 2014, Xinjiang-based democracy activist Zhao Haitong (赵海通), also a Han Chinese, was sentenced to 14 years for “inciting subversion of state power.” 

“The 19-year sentence is utterly ludicrous. I know my husband is a very honest man. The only thing he did was say some honest things online,” Zhang’s wife, Li Aijie (李爱杰), told China Change.  “Accusing him of supplying intelligence abroad is beyond laughable. He did give information about human rights issues to overseas media outlets like Radio Free Asia and Sound of Hope, but there was nothing secretive about the information. It was all public.”

Zhang was first criminally detained by Urumqi police last June for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “ethnic discrimination,” and later formally arrested on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” After nearly five months in detention, the charges were changed to “inciting subversion of state power.”

Originally from Henan Province, Zhang first came to Xinjiang to partake in the electronics retail business after being laid off from a state-owned company in the 1990s. One day in April 2009, while on vacation at his home in Nanyang (南阳), Henan, a group of policemen from Urumqi broke into Zhang’s house and took him to a train station, putting him on a train to Urumqi. During the train ride, the police handcuffed and shackled him, and stopped him from using the restroom. After 30 days of interrogation in a detention center for alleged fraud in Urumqi, Zhang was freed. 

Upon release, to seek justice for the unlawful and unexplained detention, Zhang took legal action, as well as petitioned to different government offices, but to no avail. Through his numerous failed attempts to gain redress for the case, Zhang gradually learned the serious ills of the Chinese political system and began to publish articles online critical of the Chinese government. Meanwhile, he also started to help other petitioners have their own stories of suffering heard online. Zhang became a volunteer for the human rights website Human Rights Campaign (“权利运动”) in China and in 2010 signed a petition urging the Chinese government to abolish the extra-legal Reeducation Through Labor detention system.

In the past five years, Zhang had been under constant police surveillance. When the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the Two Meetings approaches, the police often briefly detain him to prevent him from commemorating those who died in the Massacre or creating any “instabilities.”

Li Aijie, his wife, told China Change that she suspected that the government is going to confiscate the apartment she and her husband own. “We have no money. The only way they can collect the 120,000 yuan is to take our apartment away. The community management people have come several times asking to see the ownership certificate of our apartment,” Li said. “The government is determined to force us out of Xinjiang, but where can my son and I go?” Zhang and Li have a one-month-old infant.

When asked whether she is worried that giving interviews to foreign entities would invoke further government wrath, Li Aijie replied: “There is nothing to be afraid of anymore. Look at the situation we’re already in. How worse can it get?”