Chen Pingfu, a laid-off teacher turned street musician from Lanzhou, Gansu Province, was always something of an unlikely dissident. But when Chen began posting online about the injustices he suffered and saw around him, he was accused of “inciting subversion of state power” – the same charge that earned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo eleven years in prison.
Austin Ramzy has been following Chen’s story for TIME since the ex-teacher was first arrested (his excellent profile of Chen written at the time of his original arrest can be found here):
Prosecutors cited 34 out of the more than 300 articles he had written as evidence of inciting subversion. The charge against him drew widespread criticism within China, with one story posted on the website of Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV drawing more than 120,000 comments largely from mainland readers in support of Chen. Popular Chinese microblogs like Sina Weibo allowed relatively free discussion of Chen’s saga. A handful of domestic media wrote about Chen, including the local Gansu Legal News, the official organ of the provincial political and legal commission. Such coverage is unusual for a state security case in China, particularly before a verdict has been announced.
The extra attention paid to Chen’s case seems to have saved him from the same fate as Liu Xiaobo. Prosecutors announced on Friday that they were withdrawing the charges against Chen.
Liu Junyang, a supporter of Chen’s who wrote frequently about the case on his Sina Weibo microblog, says he hopes the outcome will give the public more freedom to criticize the government. “Two or three years ago, the result would be different,” Liu says. “Then it was normal to sentence someone like Chen to eight or nine years in prison. Without weibo, without the media, you wouldn’t have even heard about the case.”
Precedent means next to nothing in China’s codified quasi-civil legal system, and without effective rule of law, even if China was a common law system, decisions which the Party found unfavourable could easily be ignored. Nevertheless, a win is a win.