Authorities in the southwestern province of Sichuan are moving try a former professor at a ruling Chinese Communist Party school for "subversion of state power," after he called for President Xi Jinping's resignation, his lawyer said.
Zi Su was taken away from his home in Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu on April 28 after he posted an open letter online calling on Xi to step down as head of the party in favor of Hu Deping, son of late ousted Premier Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
He was initially held on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," but the charge has now been changed to the more serious "subversion of state power," paving the way for his trial at the Chengdu Intermediate People's Court, his defense lawyer Ran Tong told RFA.
"The prosecutor said it was subversion, but I haven't yet seen the indictment," Ran said. "Actually, I felt that the prosecutor himself felt that the whole thing was very tenuous."
Ran said the defense would argue that Zi, as a member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, should enjoy the right to voice his opinion, as laid down in the party's constitution.
He said he planned to cite the words of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who said that a revolutionary political party should always be able to hear the voices of the people.
"But all they want to hear is how great they are, and how well everyone's doing," Ran said. "They turn a deaf ear to any kind of discontent."
Zi's sister Zi Ping told RFA on Thursday that her brother, 62, is in poor health and suffers from low blood sugar.
She said the case has already been delayed by more than a month, during which time Zi has remained in the Chengdu No. 2 Detention Center.
"They were originally going to send it to the prosecution on Dec. 13 or 14, but it was postponed by more than two weeks," Zi Ping said. "The lawyer told me it was finally sent to the court on Dec. 28."
"So it seems that there will be a trial ... but it looks as if it will be a show trial on a trumped-up charge," she said.
Spirit of patriotism
A friend of Zi's surnamed Luo said the charges are likely linked to two open letters penned by his friend containing suggestions, and written in a spirit of patriotism.
"Zi Su is a very straightforward person, and a Communist Party member," Luo said. "I think that he genuinely sees things from the party's point of view."
"[His suggestions] were objective, in the spirit of seeking truth from facts. All he did was make some suggestions to the President, which I don't think amounts to a criminal act," he said. "They are trampling on the law."
Li Shuangde, a constitutional scholar based in Sichuan, agreed, but said a not guilty verdict was highly unlikely.
"If they admit that Zi Su committed no crime, then he would be eligible for compensation from the government ... so they will definitely find him guilty," Li said.
In one of Zi's letters, he hits out at a "personality cult" around President Xi, likening the president's leadership to that of late supreme leader Mao Zedong.
"He serves as the head of a dozen groups or committees, which goes against the democratic constitutional orientation of reforms to the political system, and he has launched an unbridled attack on human rights lawyers and democracy activists, as well as increasingly clamped down on online free speech," the letter, posted on the Weiquanwang rights website, said.
"His anticorruption campaign has been waged under a one-party dictatorship ... and he has made use of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to ... carry out selective anticorruption work," it said.
"But his biggest mistake of all has been to institute the "seven taboos," comprehensively restoring the ideology of the Mao era, which was openly opposed by Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and other party leaders who advocated reform," Zi wrote.
"Many people inside and outside the party believe that Xi Jinping is unsuitable to continue in the post of general secretary," he said. "I suggest ... that Hu Deping takes over. Those who agree can add their signatures to my proposal."
Within hours of posting the letter, Zi had been taken away, posting a photo on Sunday to WeChat to let people know he was safe, sources close to him told RFA at the time.
"Subversion of state power" carries a minimum jail term of 10 years in cases where the person is judged to have played a leading role.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.