Flying Splinters

Liu Futang expressed a sense of foreboding just before his recent arrest by posting a microblog entry that began, “If one day I’m invited out for tea, please don’t worry about me.”

“Drink tea” is a euphemism in China for an unwanted interrogation by government authorities, such as secret police and propaganda officers.

Liu stands accused of publishing, selling, and giving away five books he wrote about environmental protection in Hainan province. With each step he violated business laws, said prosecutors who also indicted the publishing house executives and employees he worked with.

Liu Futang

The ailing sixty-three-year-old Liu, once known as a tireless advocate of environmental protection, has been tried and now sits in a Haikou city prison awaiting a verdict.

He spent more than twenty years working for a provincial government forestry agency, earning the local media nickname “green warrior” for his ecological defense. Yet he was often denounced in government circles as “traitor” and “jinx.”

Liu pleaded not guilty to prosecution charges that he pocketed 78,090 yuan by selling environmental books and broke the law by distributing the material.

Liu said he got the money from friends and acquaintances who wanted to help cover his publishing expenses. He said distributing environmental books to government officials could never be a profitable.

Prosecutors were willing to acknowledge the value of Liu’s work. He “indeed made a great contribution to the environment of Hainan,” said one prosecutor at the trial.

A wide interpretation of what constitutes illegal publishing and publication-related business resulted in criminal charges against several well-known activists in the recent past. Author Xie Chaoping was charged for illegal business activities after publishing his book The Great Relocation, although public pressure and ridicule prompted officials in the city of Weinan, Shaanxi province, to later drop the charges.

“Even while the memory of Xie Chaoping’s case remains fresh in our minds, here comes charges against Liu Futang,” said Zhan Jiang, media professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, who thinks the rules for what constitutes an “illegal business” in China are far too broad.

And although the prosecution has called Liu’s case purely about economic crimes, although many think it was his environmental campaigning that turned authorities against him.

No wonder a friend of Liu said the case’s ultimate outcome “is going to come down to what higher authorities want.”

Making Sparks

Liu started working in the Hainan province forest fire prevention bureau in 1988, the year the province was born. Four years later, he was promoted to bureau director, a post he held until retiring in 2007.

At the bureau, Liu became a deforestation expert and not afraid to challenge paper and logging companies that hurt the environment. A campaign launched against Asia Pulp & Paper Co. Ltd. lasted more than ten years, during which the company was charged with destroying swaths of virgin forest and planting fast-growing trees for paper pulp.

After retiring, Liu became more active. Working from a small flat subsidized by the government, he pushed for better environmental monitoring, even while the island’s rate of development grew exponentially.

In 2010, the central government branded Hainan an “international tourism destination.” Meanwhile Liu expanded his interested into environmental areas beyond deforestation, said a friend, and uncovered a host of problems.

Liu opened a microblogging account under the name, “Hainan Liu Futang” at the behest of friends in 2011. He painstakingly wrote entries by hand with character-recognition software.

Authorities shut down the account last May, and in July local police seized Liu in a hospital where he was receiving treatment for diabetes. He was taken away and charged with illegal business crimes.

As his trial October 11, Liu reportedly burst into tears three times. When the judge asked if he was guilty, Liu again started crying.

Dangerous Roadblock

Liu is charged with violating state publishing, printing and book issuance laws by printing altogether 18,000 books, for which he allegedly netted 464,000 yuan and earned 78,090 yuan in illicit profits.

“The circumstances are particularly egregious,” stated the indictment.

But an environmental protection activist who read Liu’s books said everything he wrote “had been openly reported on…. It was all already public knowledge.”

Liu’s family members and those in environmental protection circles say it was an incident in the village of Yinggehai that Liu described in his book Hainan Tears that crossed an invisible line of propriety and angered government authorities.

In April, the Hainan government had approved the controversial construction of a power plant two kilometers from the town of Foluo, which is in a forest. Residents took to the streets in protest.

Liu was in Beijing at the time, accepting an award for environmental reporting from chinadialogue, an environmental NGO. Making his way back to Hainan after the ceremony, Liu updated his microblog with news of the Yinggehai situation to his estimated 16,000 followers.

But later his two microblog accounts were blocked and in June some eighty-two entries were deleted.

Unfazed, Liu tried to speed the printing schedule for Hainan Tears II, which included selected posts from his microblog and a now-famous petition signed by Yinggehai citizens.

“The government first dug through his past, primarily scouring the projects he had approved before retiring to see if he had left loopholes, but they couldn’t find anything incriminating,” a friend of Liu’s said.

The Yinggehai incident, however, was not the first time Liu had taken a bold stand against local authorities. At the awards ceremony in Beijing, he was honored for having exposed widespread deforestation around the Meiwan scenic area near the city of Wanning. And he won acclaim for intervening in June 2011 when Huarun Real Estate started clearing a forest of precious mangrove trees for a development.

The deputy editor of chinadialogue’s Beijing office, Liu Jianqiang, said Liu’s case bears striking resemblance to that of Wu Lihong, known as “the defender of Lake Tai” who has been charged with extortion.

“The victim is often the one who speaks the truth,” Liu said.