Chinese Agriculture Mogul Sun Dawu Could Face 25 Years in Jail: Lawyers
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is taking a harder line with powerful private corporations and their wealthy founders.
Authorities in China are pushing for a jail term of 25 years for outspoken billionaire Sun Dawu, who is currently detained on suspicion of a slew of charges including "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge often used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Sun, who founded an agriculture business in the northern city of Baoding, once presided over a company of some 9,000 employees, who were housed in a purpose-built town and offered schools, free health care, and sports facilities.
He was detained in April 2021 alongside 20 Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group employees, some of whom are members of his family. Company assets have been seized by local officials.
Sun, 67, currently faces eight criminal charges including "illegal mining" and "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
Sun's lawyers say the decision to crack down on Sun and the Dawu group was likely made by high-ranking government officials in the northern province of Hebei.
His defense team are currently in a pretrial meeting with prosecutors from the Gaobeidian People's Court in Hebei, who said they will be pushing for a 25-year jail term for Sun.
His eldest son and Dawu Group chairman Sun Meng has been advised to plead guilty in return for a 16-year sentence, or face a 20-year jail term.
Sun's brother Sun Zhihua was advised to plead guilty in return for an 11-year sentence, or face a 14-year jail term, lawyers told RFA.
"The plan is for the pretrial meeting to go on for five days, with every defendant involved," a member of the defense team who asked to remain anonymous said.
"The judiciary and the local government are very keen to expedite this case."
Threats of long prison terms
Dawu Group lawyer Zheng Chengyue said Sun's family members have been dragged in by the authorities in a bid to obtain a guilty plea from him.
"They will get lighter jail terms if they confess and plead guilty, and heavier sentences if they don't; that's the deal," Zheng said.
"Officials want to get the case to trial as soon as possible ... although they have yet to issue a trial date," he said. "Sun's two sons, their wives, and two younger brothers are all in detention."
A defense team attorney surnamed Chen said the crackdown on Sun's business empire had been ordered by a high-ranking provincial leader in Hebei, under the patronage of a high-ranking official in Beijing, meaning that heavier sentences are far more likely.
"During the investigation phase of this case, the third-level public prosecutors at provincial level in Hebei were already intervening," Chen said.
"We are not entirely sure if this was ordered in Beijing, but the speed with which posts about the case have been deleted and social media accounts shut down suggest some involvement from Beijing," he said.
Calls to the Gaobeidian People's Court and to the Hebei Provincial People's High Court rang unanswered during office hours on May 17.
Several Dawu Group employees contacted by RFA on the same day declined to comment, indicating strong official pressure not to talk to the media.
Outspoken political journalist Gao Yu, who is acquainted with Sun, said the case seemed to be related to a physical altercation, but that the authorities have ensured that the charges also settle some older accounts with Sun.
"This is mostly about a land dispute between the Dawu Group and this state-owned farm," Gao said. "This should be a regular police matter, but it looks as if the authorities are bringing up some issues from the past that they had previously let slide."
An FAQ released in April by Sun's legal team said his detention had come after a land dispute with Xushui State Farm in Hebei's Langwuzhuang village, during which some buildings belonging to the Dawu Group had been demolished.
Most of the charges against Sun and his fellow executives are linked to the clashes that ensued.
Pressure to sell
The CCP has stepped up pressure in recent months on Jack Ma's Alibaba group to sell off its media assets including the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper, according to media reports in March 2021.
Officials have been in talks with the company since last year, amid an ongoing clampdown on Alibaba founder Jack Ma's power and influence that saw Beijing pull the plug on a planned U.S.$35 billion initial public offering (IPO) of shares in his financial affiliate Ant Group.
Central government investigators set up camp in Alibaba headquarters in November 2020, according to industry sources, and its operations are under review by multiple state agencies.
The Wall Street Journal has also reported that the government is asking Alibaba to offload a number of media assets, including online news sites, newspapers, television production companies, social media, and advertising businesses.
While Ma was initially lionized by state media as a loyal entrepreneur and billionaire, his huge wealth and power are increasingly being seen as a threat to CCP rule, analysts say.
His criticism of financial regulation in China and Alibaba's lightning-fast censorship of content referencing a scandal surrounding one of the company's executives are seen by many in Beijing as a threat to CCP authority.
CCP general secretary Xi Jinping unveiled plans in October 2020 to move China to a state-controlled, "circular" economy based on domestic demand, and away from the export-based model that has fueled rapid growth since 1979, when late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in four decades of market-based economic policy.
Analysts have said there is a widespread expectation that Xi will move to change the current system of property ownership.
Reported by Xiaoshan Huang, Chingman and Jia Ao for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.