An activist in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin stood trial on Wednesday for subversion after he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with satirical nicknames for President Xi Jinping, including "Xitler."
Kwon Pyong, an ethnic Korean whose name in Mandarin is Quan Ping, stood trial at the Yanbian Intermediate People's Court on Wednesday, charged with "incitement to subvert state power," his lawyers told RFA.
But Kwon's defense team was "fired" by his parents just before the trial, after the authorities had tried to have his lawyers disqualified using bureaucratic means, former defense lawyer Zhang Lei said.
Zhang, who was fired along with fellow defense lawyer Liang Xiaojun, said few details of the trial are publicly available, now that his lawyers have been prevented from entering the courtroom.
"Back when we went to fill out forms at the court, they were already saying that we needed a letter of introduction from the bureau of justice where our law firms are located," Zhang said. "Without it, we wouldn't be recognized as [Kwon's] instructed lawyers."
"Then ... on Monday evening, we got a call from the Yanbian Intermediate People's Court telling us that our client's parents had confirmed that they weren't hiring either myself or Liang," Zhang said.
"That's why we don't know what went on during the trial," he said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Yanbian Intermediate People's Court on Wednesday confirmed that the trial had started.
"This trial just opened here today, but until the facts of the case are clearly established, and there is a clear verdict ... I will have to stick to our unified policy [and not give media interviews]," the official said.
80 social media posts
Kwon Pyong's mother, Li Lianhua, also declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Wednesday.
"Please don't call me again, OK?" she said, before hanging up the phone.
However, a reliable source told RFA that that the indictment against him is largely based on some 80 posts he made to Facebook and Twitter between 2014 and 2016.
These posts "used words, images and video to insult and slander this country's government and the socialist system," the indictment said.
Calls to the prosecution officers who wrote the indictment were unsuccessful during office hours on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Zhang said the court's request for a letter of introduction was illegal in the first place, and that Kwon Pyong's parents were likely placed under huge pressure by the authorities.
"They are just using this as an excuse; it's a very clear breach of the law," he said. "They have been working on Kwon Pyong's parents to get them to fire us."
Liang agreed. "The authorities are definitely breaking the law by preventing us from attending the trial," he said.
Kwon, 28, a graduate of Iowa State University, has previously spoken out online in support of dozens of detained Chinese human rights lawyers, as well as Guangzhou-based rights activist Guo Feixiong.
Parents under threat
He was detained on Sept. 30 after posting selfies wearing a T-shirt with several satirical nicknames for President Xi, including "Xitler," and "Baozi Xi" in a reference to the president's widely publicized visit to a regular restaurant to eat baozi, or steamed pork buns, with local people.
Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Sui Muqing said he wasn't surprised that Kwon's parents had fired the two lawyers.
"I don't think this is unusual," Sui said. "Kwon's parents are business people, so they must have received all manner of threats from the authorities."
"Anyone who does business in China, or who has any money and doesn't do what the government says can see all of their money disappear in an instant," he said.
China's powerful state security police has the power to freeze the bank accounts of anyone considered a threat to "national security," which would include anyone linked to a subversion case.
"The aim of the Yanbian authorities has been to ensure that there are no human rights lawyers acting for the defense," Sui said.
An online activist who gave only his surname Gong said satirical comments about China's leaders should be covered by freedom of expression.
"Kwon Pyong's T-shirt was a form of performance art, and would never be regarded as a crime in a Western democracy," Gong said.
"In [those] countries, it's normal to criticize your leaders, and to poke fun at public servants; it happens all the time in a normal country, and nothing bad happens," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.