Property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, who was detained and expelled from the ruling Chinese Communist Party after penning an article highly critical of general secretary Xi Jinping, was planning to plead not guilty at his trial on Friday, sources told RFA.
Ren opted to defend himself at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, where he faced charges of bribery and abuse of power.
"He didn't request a defense attorney, but defended himself," a family member of another dissident told RFA on Friday, adding that there weren't many places available to family members to sit in the gallery during the trial.
"Ninety-nine percent of the small number of places for family members were taken up by officials from the court, prosecution, and other departments," the family member said.
Veteran political journalist Gao Yu confirmed the report.
"Ren Zhiqiang had no lawyers, and he has declared he will conduct his own defense," Gao said.
She said a prison term for the former boss of the Beijing Huayuan property group was a foregone conclusion.
"I think we are looking at 5-10 years, or maybe even more," Gao said.
Sources told RFA Ren Zhiqiang has refused to "confess" or plead guilty to the charges against him since the start of the investigation.
A person who witnessed the trial said Ren appeared to be in good spirits during the proceedings, which lasted through the morning and afternoon.
The prosecution made its case in the morning session, detailing its evidence, much of which was based on company accounts and documents, the source said.
The trial was adjourned at 3.00 p.m.
Police checkpoints, tight security
Security was tight outside the court building, with police setting up a cordon and checkpoints in the streets outside from around 6.00 a.m., eyewitnesses said.
Only those with special invitations were allowed inside the building, one eyewitness said via social media.
A Beijing resident surnamed Wang said Ren's trial occupied a similar level of concern among the Communist Party leadership as that of Nobel peace laureate and political dissident Liu Xiaobo.
"You couldn't get anywhere near [the court]," Wang said. "There was a lot of attention to Ren's case from foreign embassy and consular staff, who normally follow the cases of dissidents in China."
Chongqing-based journalist Zhang Ying said there was a strong police presence on the streets outside the court.
"They fortified the gate of the No. 2 Intermediate Court, and nobody could get near it," Zhang told RFA. "There were a large number of police, both plainclothes and uniformed."
"Ren Zhiqiang's trial has attracted a lot of public attention inside China, because he is a princeling who dared to oppose [Xi]," Zhang said. "He's obviously a man of conscience."
Zhang said Ren is unlikely to get off lightly for his open show of opposition to Xi, who is currently serving an indefinite term in office.
Sources said European, U.S., Australian, and Japanese diplomats had all been denied access to the court.
Expelled from the party
The Xicheng district branch of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's disciplinary arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in Beijing, said in July that it had expelled Ren from the party and handed over the case materials to the municipal prosecutor's office for prosecution.
Ren was expelled for "violations of party discipline and the law," and had "brought country and party into disrepute," exhibited disloyalty to the party, and behaved in a dishonest manner, resisting investigation, it said.
"Ren ... used his power for personal gain, wining and dining on public funds in violation of regulations," the CCDI said. He had also caused "major losses" to state coffers, it said, adding that at least some of Ren's assets were being confiscated.
Ren, 69, was probed by the CCDI after writing an open letter about Xi's responses to the coronavirus epidemic, the Sino-U.S. trade war and the Taiwan elections.
Sources have said investigators handled the letter, which took the form of a long and highly critical essay, as an instance of "internal strife" within the ruling party.
Act of defiance
Xi was reportedly furious at the letter, saying Ren was "incorrigible," and designated Ren's letter an "act of defiance against me."
The letter attributed to Ren doesn't mention Xi by name, but criticizes his policies, including the president's insistence that the media are part of the same family as the ruling party, and must always represent its interests.
"When the media have the same name as the party, it's the people who are left out," the letter said. "The coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan has shown us just how true that is."
The article, titled "The lives of the people are ruined by the virus and a seriously sick system," doesn't mention President Xi by name, but it takes aim at decisions made under his direct command, including the decision to go ahead with a mass Lunar New Year banquet for thousands of people that resulted in a huge cluster of COVID-19 cases in the weeks that followed.
Xi has ordered China's media to follow the party line, focus on "positive reporting," and "speak the party's will and protect the party's authority and unity."
Ren was berated by state media in 2016 for causing chaos and for failing to stand up for the party, and for "pursuing Western constitutionalism."
Reported by Qiao Long and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.