A court in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong has ordered a retrial of a social media user it sentenced to two years' imprisonment after he called President Xi Jinping by a forbidden nickname in an online chat session.
Wang Jiangfeng, who reportedly referred to the head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party as "Steamed Bun Xi" in a group message to the smartphone apps WeChat and QQ, was sentenced by the Zhaoyuan People's Court on April 12 after being found guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
Wang was found guilty of using WeChat and QQ chat groups to "insult, humiliate and disrespect current and former national leaders," the original court judgement said.
But the court on April 21 ordered a retrial, citing "errors" in the evidence against him, his wife and lawyer told RFA this week.
"On April 13 [the day after the sentencing hearing], they told the lawyer that the head of the Zhaoyuan District People's Court had discovered some errors in the original judgement," Wang's wife Sun Wenjuan told RFA in a recent interview.
"They then withdrew the judgement and began the process of ordering a retrial," she said. "They issued the order for a retrial on April 21."
Sun said she has no idea of the implications for her husband yet.
"Will he get a heavier sentence? A lighter sentence? Will he be acquitted? None of this is clear," she said, adding that she is hopeful of his release, however.
"My feeling is that an acquittal is pretty unlikely, but that they may decide to produce the same result," she said, in a reference to the practice of sentencing time already served.
"That would be the best possible outcome."
Wang's defense lawyer Li Yongheng said that a heavier sentence would be highly unusual within China's judicial system.
"A heavier sentence looks very unlikely because the head of the court has already ordered a retrial," Li told RFA. "But as his lawyer I can't answer your question about whether he will get a sentence reduction or not."
He said he believes his client should never have been jailed in the first place.
"I didn't think that the sort of things he wrote were worthy of a criminal punishment, and I thought he definitely shouldn't do jail time," Li said. "I still hold that view."
Social media posts
Wang, 47, had made posts to social media that caused "negative thoughts about the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party, the socialist system and the people's democratic dictatorship, causing psychological confusion and public disorder of a serious nature and of a particularly egregious kind, seriously disrupting public order," according to the original court judgement.
His defense team argued that while Wang's posts were inappropriate, they didn't constitute action in a public place, because they had been sent to a limited "friends circle" within WeChat.
But the court cited guidelines from China's Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate ordering courts to treat online insults as "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and that an online space was the exact equivalent of a public space like a city street.
The retrial order said that the case was "eligible for a retrial" under China's Criminal Procedure laws, however.
An official who answered the phone at the Zhaoyuan District People's Court declined to comment on the case when contacted by RFA on Thursday.
"Steamed Bun Xi" has been a banned word on China's tightly controlled internet since the president ordered the buns during a visit to a Beijing restaurant in December 2013, prompting petitioners to gather outside toting a placard that read "President Xi, I'd like to eat baozi" in a bid to get their grievances against the communist party heard.
The incident sparked an online meme in which Xi was referred to jokingly as Steamed Bun Xi, in a pun on the name of a legendary Song dynasty official who fought corruption. Censors later banned the meme, deleting social media posts that contained references to it.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.