Prominent Chinese activist sentenced to eight years under subversion charges

William Yang
6 min readMay 14, 2023

After prominent Chinese human rights activist Guo Feixiong was sentenced to eight years earlier this week, his sister said Guo’s weight has dropped to 45 kilograms, and his arrest has also seriously affected his son and daughter. While the Chinese government has increased the level of crackdowns on civil society in recent months, June Fourth student leader Zhou Fengsuo said many people in China are still trying to pursue freedom.

Prominent Chinese human rights activist Guo Feixiong was sentenced to eight years under the charge of “inciting subversion of state power” on May 11 in Guangzhou. The ruling attracted criticism from human rights organizations while several governments issued statements to condemn the outcome.

His family members characterized the Chinese government’s crackdown on him as a “lack of conscience” and insisted that the charges against him were “trumped up.” His sister Yang Maoping said she learned about the verdict from a friend, as Guo asked her not to attend the trial.

“I was very shocked by the verdict because my younger brother was only trying to go visit his dying wife Zhang Qing in the United States,” she said. “After waiting for the government’s approval for a year, he tried to sneak through the authorities’ surveillance but he was arrested at Shanghai Pudong airport while he tried to board a flight to the US.”

According to his sister, authorities in China began to “create different charges” that could be used against Guo Feixiong, and on January 12, 2022, which was two days after his wife died of cancer in the US, Guo was officially arrested under “inciting subversion of state power.”

“Five days after his wife died, I asked the police why didn’t they let my brother go to see his dying wife, and they said ‘we didn’t know it would happen so fast,’” said Yang, adding that she was informed that Guo had been arrested and the charges against him would follow.

On May 11, the court in Guangzhou accused Guo Feixiong of “attacking” the Chinese political system for a long time through writing and publishing articles online, founding a forum to publish “incendiary articles” written by himself or others, and doing an interview with Radio Free Asia after he was banned from leaving China.

After he was sentenced, the defense opening statement that he had prepared was shared online. In the statement, Guo said his political advocacy and political ideals haven’t changed since he joined the student movement in 1986.

“It’s the complete realization of true freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in China,” he wrote. “This is the original, fundamental, and ultimate intention of all my social, intellectual, academic, and political activities.”

“Someone who does things based on his ideals”

Guo Feixiong, whose real name is Yang Maodong, was an important participant and a key leader in the New Citizens’ Movement. In 2006, he urged the international community to pay attention to the Chinese government’s crackdown on Falun Gong while actively advocating for detained human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. He was charged with illegal business crime and sentenced to five years in jail.

After he was released, he demanded Chinese officials to reveal their properties and authorities consider him as one of the organizers of relevant activities, which caused him to eventually be sentenced to six years under the charges of picking quarrels and provoking trouble as well as disruption of public order by gathering a crowd.

His sister said Guo has been studious since very young and he has always lived his life according to his ideals. “He was never materialistic and he has always been very noble,” she said. “Even though we didn’t support what he chose to do, he did these things out of his sense of justice. Even though what he has done doesn’t match the mainstream value, he’s not done anything wrong. We are all distressed and heartbroken by his ordeal.”

Former June Fourth student leader Zhou Fengsuo said prior to Guo’s latest jail sentence, his family has been “torn apart” due to his two previous jail sentences. According to Zhou, Guo has been very low-key since he was released and he doesn’t have the same space to initiate any social movement.

“The fact that he has been sentenced to eight years in jail for requesting to be allowed to travel to the US and visit his dying wife is very crazy, inhumane and outrageous,” he said.

Since Guo has been on a hunger strike since his latest arrest, his sister said his weight has gone from between 67.5 kilograms and 75 kilograms to 45 kilograms. “My other brother attended the trial and said Guo has ‘changed,’” she said, adding that while Guo hasn’t had any physical illness, his ability to chew and swallow has deteriorated.

Serious impact on his children

Following Guo’s third arrest since 2005 and his wife’s passing in January 2022, the lives of his two children have been seriously affected. Guo’s sister said his son has dropped out of university for more than a year. “During this time, he didn’t do much,” she said.

“He and his sister haven’t met Guo for more than a decade, causing them to feel distant from their father. But due to his mother’s influence, Guo’s son still cares about him. He would often write letters to Guo and I will also share letters from Guo with them. However, since he is more introverted and he has not met his father since a very young age, the latest sentencing has a serious impact on him.”

In fact, since many human rights lawyers’ family members will continue to face threats in China, some lawyers’ wives will be forced to go into exile with their children. With most human rights lawyers or dissidents facing exit bans even after completing their jail sentences, they often can’t meet their wives and children for a very long time.

According to Zhou Fengsuo, since the Chinese government often impose pain on dissidents and their family members, many prominent activists including Gao Zhisheng, Liu Xiaobo, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi all have to face the difficult situation of being separated from their family.

“The last time Guo’s son met him was when he was five, and after so many years, he still can’t meet his father. This is such a human tragedy. By doing so, the Chinese government has demonstrated the cruelty, cold-bloodedness and shamelessness of this regime,” said Zhou.

He urged the international community to keep speaking up for Chinese dissidents who have been jailed or sentenced by Beijing because as China’s international influence continues to grow, they can pose threats to the whole world.

“Over the last few years, some countries led by the US have become aware of the threat from China, and they have adopted a more sober and pragmatic view towards China,” he said, adding that countries that continue to do business with China need to realize that they are helping to safeguard the regime. “I hope Guo’s case can help the world realize this.”

Zhou added that with Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi and Guo Feixiong all being given heavy jail sentences in recent weeks, China’s civil society is facing unprecedented challenges. “The power of China’s state apparatus and the sophistication of Beijing’s advanced technology can make it hard for people that are surveilled by authorities to gather together,” he said.

“However, history also shows that any brutal regime can’t be sustainable. No matter how hard the Chinese government cracks down on dissidents, many people in China will still try to search for freedom,” he concluded.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s website.

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William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.