Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Subversion in Xi’an: The Trials of Guo Ran & Kou Ji

The Xi’an Intermediate People’s Court building. Image credit: Xi’an court website 

Dui Hua’s research into Chinese government sources uncovered new information concerning Guo Ran (果然) and Kou Ji (寇稽). The two men received lengthy prison sentences in a closed-door trial for subversion held in Xi’an in 2013. Subversion is a crime of endangering state security and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. 

Dui Hua first discovered their names in an annual work report an annual work report released by the Xi’an Intermediate People’s Court in June 2013. The report stated that Guo and Kou were tried for subversion, but the trial outcome was not disclosed. Their fate was only subsequently revealed by sentence reduction decisions posted on China Judgements Online around 2016.  

The first reduction decision Dui Hua found stated that Kou, born in 1969, was serving his 10-year prison sentence in Shaanxi’s Weinan Prison. Because of good behavior and meritorious service, Kou received his first sentence reduction of nine months in February 2016, about four years into his sentence. Two years later, in May 2018, Kou received his second sentence reduction of seven months.  

That same year, Guo, born in 1981, received his first sentence reduction of five months in September. The sentence reduction decision stated that Guo was serving his 14-year prison sentence for subversion in the same prison as Kou. The clemency he received took place seven years into his prison sentence. Kou completed his prison sentence on July 13, 2020, and his three-year supplemental sentence of deprivation of political rights (DPR) is thought to have expired on July 12, 2023. Guo’s sentence is expected to end on July 1, 2025, after which he will begin his five years of DPR. All three sentence reduction decisions have since been removed from China Judgements Online

A search for "inciting subversion of state power" that yielded no results in July 2021. Dui Hua conducted another search in May 2024. As in 2021, the search yielded no results. Image credit: China Judgements Online

The court documents did not provide other case specifics beyond their background, crime, sentences, sentence reductions, and new release dates. The acts leading to their imprisonment were unknown. Around 2019, information from unofficial news sources concerning this subversion case began to surface. However, it was only briefly reported that Guo frequently held gatherings on his own business premises to discuss pathways to achieve freedom and democracy. The duo was reportedly detained in 2012 and formally arrested on February 20, 2013. 

A Chinese government publication Dui Hua uncovered in 2022 sheds light on this mysterious case of subversion. Guo operated a private gallery, and Kuo was an architect. The two were accused of establishing a political group known as the “Xingya Party” (兴亚党, lit “Thriving Asia Party”). Guo published posts online and recruited people online to join the group. Members were to become citizens of the “Chinese Federal Republic” (中华联邦共和国). Guo allegedly called on online recruits to carry out violent activities.  

As part of their operation, which they named “Dawn of Liberty,” Kou was allegedly tasked with collecting intelligence about troop deployment and military facilities on Chongming Island, China’s third largest island located on the estuary of Yangtze River in Shanghai. Guo intended to launch a military occupation there and create the “Chinese Federal Republic,” according to the official narrative. Kuo was also accused of scheming and drafting the “state creed.” Guo was arrested for subversion, and Kuo was initially arrested for kidnapping.

Military patrol on Chongming Island. Image credit: Sohu 

While this account is likely the only official source which provides information about the acts of Guo and Kou, Dui Hua is unable to assess how truthful the description of criminal activities is. Assuming this account is accurate, Guo and Kou are not the first people to have been sentenced to lengthy terms for subversion for founding opposition parties and advocating for a violent overthrow of the Chinese government.  

According to Records of People’s Courts Historical Judicial Statistics: 1949-2016, Chinese courts accepted 162 subversion cases involving 347 individuals in the 18-year period from 1998 to 2016. Many of these subversion cases are by nature sensitive, and information pertaining to these cases is far from transparent. 

Among the earliest cases of subversion involved leaders of the so-called “Southwest Yangtze Column of the Chinese Anti-Corruption Army” (中国人民农工反腐败大军西南长江纵队) in Chongqing. Established by farmers in 1998, the group called itself a democratic alternative to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It opposed excessive agricultural taxes and distributed fliers calling for the rehabilitation of June Fourth prisoners on the tenth anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy movement. Sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for subversion in the early 2000s, Song Bukun (宋步坤) is believed to be the last member of the group to be released from prison in September 2013. Dui Hua received two responses from inquiries dating back to 2008 in which government sources said Song received an 11-month sentence reduction in February 2009. 

In March 2006, dissident writer Ren Ziyuan (任自元) was sentenced to 10 years in prison for subversion because he established the “Mainland Democracy Frontline” to promote the right to end tyranny by violent means. He reportedly published anti-government views on the Internet, including a tract entitled "The Road to Democracy" and other essays. Some human rights organizations claim that some of his essays asserted citizens’ rights to violently overthrow tyranny. Ren was released from Shandong No.1 Prison on May 9, 2015, without receiving a single sentence reduction. 

Dui Hua uncovered details of another political party that was accused of “violent intent” in 2019. The “People’s Party,” later renamed the “New Era Communist Party of China,” was founded by Dong Zhanyi (董占义). The group aimed to fight corruption and recruit aggrieved workers and petitioners to overthrow the CCP. Dong and another founding member Chen Guohua (陈国华) established a corporate entity called Tongkang to operate a supermarket project. The plan, according to official documents, was to use the supermarket project to employ online recruits and raise money to fund their political activities, including assassination plots and procuring weapons. Dong was convicted of subversion and fraud and was sentenced to life in 2011 by a Beijing intermediate court. The sentence later was commuted to a fixed 19 years' imprisonment in 2015. Chen was convicted of subversion and sentenced to 14 years. Other key party members were also given long sentences. 

Xu Zhiyong (left) and Ding Jiaxi. Image credit: VOA 

Subversion is not exclusively used to criminalize leaders of opposition parties nor is it confined to suppressing calls for the violent overthrow of the Chinese government. As recently as April 2023, prominent rights activist and legal scholar Xu Zhiyong (许志永) and rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) were both convicted of subversion. Unlike Guo and Kou's case, Xu and Ding did not establish a dissident party. They are advocates of non-violent resistance and the responsible use of civil and social rights. In late 2019, they organized an informal gathering with around 20 activists and lawyers in Xiamen to discuss current political affairs and activism. Xu and Ding were sentenced to 14 and 12 years in prison, respectively, and their appeals were rejected in November 2023. Despite their rejection of violence, Xu and Ding's sentences are among the harshest for a subversion conviction, exceeding in length even cases where the accused allegedly called for the use of force. 

The fates of Kuo and Guo may no longer be shrouded in secrecy, but the acts leading to their imprisonment were revealed only a decade after they were incarcerated. Such gaps in disclosure further concerns that vague laws with ambiguous wording and low levels of legal transparency are eroding confidence in China's judicial system.