Chen Shifu advocated for Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People in his big character posters.
In April 2002, a “big character poster” (dazibao) appeared on a bulletin board reserved for official public notices outside the government building in Zhaoshi Town, Longshan County, in western Hunan Province. Entitled “Letter of Protest,” the poster was written with a calligraphy brush on red paper and called on residents to oppose local government policies related to property demolition and eviction. Over the course of the next several months, other posters appeared and their rhetoric grew more radical.
After an August poster called on people to overthrow the Communist Party and re-establish rule by the Nationalist Party (Guomindang), local police launched a special investigation to find the author of the posters. Two weeks later they found their man, a 45-year-old coffin seller named Chen Shifu, and charged him with inciting subversion.
In the age of blogs and Weibo, it’s perhaps easy to underestimate the significance of a few sheets of paper posted in a public place. Big character posters, large-print manifestos posted strategically to attract the attention of passers-by, have a long history in China, but they became an established means of expressing challenges to authority during the Cultural Revolution (1966‒1976). In fact, for a while the right to express criticisms in this manner became deeply connected to the idea of free speech. A right to post big character posters was enshrined in the 1975 constitution as one of the “four big rights,” which were extolled as “new forms of carrying on socialist revolution created by the masses of the people.” This right was retained in the first post-Cultural Revolution constitution in 1978, but in the wake of the 1979 Democracy Wall movement, the newly consolidated party leadership under Deng Xiaoping decided that big character posters were a threat to the “normal” exercise of the people’s democratic rights, and the right was removed from the 1980 constitution.
Putting up “counterrevolutionary posters”—together with counterrevolutionary leaflets and letters—was classified as a crime of “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement” in the criminal law that took effect in 1980. Hundreds if not thousands of people were sentenced to prison for “the three types of cases” during the 1980s and 1990s before the crime of counterrevolution was removed from the criminal law in 1997.[*] After 1997 those detained for putting up posters, distributing leaflets, or sending letters calling for the overthrow of the Communist Party were charged with “inciting subversion.”
The political motivations behind the charge of inciting subversion are expressed clearly in the statement to the court (translated below) presented by Yang Qinghua, who served as public prosecutor in the trial of Chen Shifu. In his attempt to justify the charges against Chen, Yang takes us step by step through the alchemy by which nation, government, and ruling party are fused in China’s political culture, making any challenge to the Communist Party’s “core leadership” role a threat to state security. The prosecutor’s statement is suffused with political language, with which he makes clear that the law he enforces in this case is not so much state law as it is party law. His ultimate analysis of the roots of Chen’s crimes places blame on the defendant’s failure to adhere to the core political faiths that the party has gone to great lengths to instill in its citizens: that the 1949 revolution marked a distinct break between “old” and “new” Chinas, a sharp boundary between the poverty and weakness of the past and the promise of prosperity and strength for a people who had finally “stood up.”
Yang ridicules Chen for his linguistic inelegance and ignorance, yet Yang’s statement (which earned a provincial award for excellent prosecution statements) also suffers from errors, faulty logic, and sloppy legal citations. Yang misquotes China’s constitution, and in what the prosecution must have thought was one of its most damaging arguments, Yang exposes Chen’s inability to elucidate the “Three Principles of the People” that he advocated in his posters. Yang then reveals his own ignorance by identifying “democracy” rather than “nationalism” as the first component of Sun Yat-sen’s famous theory. The fact that, despite these flaws, Yang’s statement was deemed worthy of an award reinforces the suspicion that it was assessed not for its excellence in legal analysis or logic, but rather for its ideological correctness.
The outcome of Chen’s trial is currently unknown, but considering that prosecutors sought a maximum five-year sentence, he is believed to have been released no later than 2007.
* Counterrevolutionary correspondence is related to the three types of cases. Among law enforcement authorities, it principally referred to cases in which letters were sent with counterrevolutionary purposes to overseas correspondence addresses broadcast by radio stations of “Chiang clique agents,” according to a notice issued by the Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and Ministry of Public Security on December 26, 1979.⇑
Procuratorate Prosecution Statement: click to expand
Xiangxi Tujia & Miao Autonomous Prefecture People’s Procuratorate
Presiding Judge, Adjudication Officers, and Citizen Observers:
This morning, the First Criminal Division of the Xiangxi Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court held a hearing here to publicly try the inciting subversion case against defendant Chen Shifu. In accordance with Articles 153, , 165, and  of the Criminal Procedure Law of the PRC and Article 15 of the Organic Law of the Procuratorate of the PRC, I have been assigned by the Xiangxi Autonomous Prefecture People’s Procuratorate to represent it as prosecutor on behalf of the state and appear in court to support the prosecution, as well as to undertake legal supervision of the criminal process.
In the court investigation phase of the trial just now, the court’s investigation of the defendant’s testimony in court and questioning by the prosecutor, the reading of relevant witness statements, expert opinions, the record of the crime-scene investigation, and the presentation of relevant documentary evidence sufficiently demonstrates the correctness of our procuratorate’s decision to charge defendant Chen Shifu with the crime of inciting subversion and that the evidence is sufficient and reliable. In order to further expose criminality, castigate evil, uphold justice, and promote legal institutions, the prosecution will set out the following several arguments for the court’s consideration as it decides upon conviction and sentencing for the defendant:
I. Defendant Chen Shifu’s actions constitute the crime of inciting subversion.
According to Article 105(2) of the Criminal Law of the PRC: the offense of “inciting subversion of state power” means to engage in incitement by spreading rumors or slanders or any other means to subvert state power or overthrow the socialist system. Before convicting under this offense, we must clarify two concepts:
- What is the nature of our country’s state power?
- Article 1 of the Constitution of the PRC states: “The People's Republic of China is a socialist state under the people's democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants.” The Constitution also states [The following language is not found in the Constitution–Trans.] that the Communist Party of China (CPC) is the core of leadership of China’s socialist revolution and socialist construction effort and the core of leadership of China’s state power of people’s democratic dictatorship. From the above constitutional provisions, we can see that leadership over the state by China’s working class is realized through CPC rule. Overthrow of the CPC is equivalent to overthrowing the leadership of the working class and tantamount to subverting state power, and is thereby a rejection of the socialist system.
- Inciting subversion is a behavioral offense, which means that a crime is constituted so long as the perpetrator engages in behavior that incites subversion of state power—regardless of whether or not that behavior results in actual harm or whether others believe [the incitement] or commit acts of incitement.
In conclusion, knowing the nature of China’s state power and understanding that the crime of inciting subversion is a behavioral offense, let us again review the case and analyze the actions and subjective intent of defendant Chen Shifu: The prosecution charges that defendant Chen Shifu incited subversion of state power (i.e., the leadership of the CPC) by posting “big character posters.” To show why we say this, the prosecutor will read an excerpt from defendant Chen Shifu’s third “big character poster” (i.e., “Call to Arms”): “I call on all ordinary people and celebrities in China to rise up and overthrow the Communist Party; to retake our national government and govern China properly. Everyone can begin by posting ‘big character posters’ all over or directly participating in anti-Communist organizations. . . .” From this excerpt, we can see clearly that the defendant subjectively had a clear intention to overthrow the CPC and subvert state power and that he objectively engaged in corresponding behavior (posting ‘big character posters’). So, whether one looks at subjective or objective criteria, [his actions] satisfy the main constituent criteria for the crime of inciting subversion. The prosecution’s decision to prosecute defendant Chen Shifu on this charge is correct. However, ever since he was taken into custody—including in court today—defendant Chen Shifu has claimed in his defense that he only wanted to make comments and did not really want to overthrow the Communist Party. The prosecution believes that this is only sophistry on the defendant’s part in an effort to mitigate his criminal liability. Think about it: Does it make sense to overthrow a state’s ruling party first and then make comments? The prosecution believes that no ruling party in any country in the world would accept this way of making “commentary.” The collegiate panel should not give any credence to this sort of ridiculous defense argument.
II. The evidence supporting the criminal charges against defendant Chen Shifu was collected legally and is objective and mutually correlative.
During the just-concluded court investigation phase, the prosecution put forth a large amount of evidence supporting the criminal charges against the defendant. Below, the prosecution will summarize [that evidence] as follows:
- Defendant Chen Shifu fully confessed to using a brush to write the three big character posters “Letter of Protest,” “On the Current Political Situation,” and “Call to Arms,” and what he has said about the paper, ink, and adhesive used; the locations of posting; and the contents is all corroborated by the testimony of witnesses Chen Xiaohua, Yao Jinxiang, Wu Caixu, Xiang Famao, Peng Bin, Zhang Furong, and Li Wancai.
- The testimony of Zhou Minglong, Wang Boyu, Li Wenzhi, Chen Shiyun, Fan Guihua, and Wu Dan, confirming that they personally saw the big character posters and some of the contents, is completely consistent with the confession of defendant Chen Shifu.
- The corroborating documentary evidence of the three big character posters, “Letter of Protest,” “On the Current Political Situation,” and “Call to Arms,” in the case file.
- The public security authority’s record of on-scene investigation and relevant photographs, which are on file, and the conclusions of the Longshan County Public Security Bureau’s handwriting analysis determining that the three big character posters were all written by Chen Shifu himself, about all of which defendant Chen Shifu has not raised any objections.
- Documents on file such as the crime report, record of case solution, and record of defendant Chen Shifu’s apprehension.
The evidence above is not mutually contradictory and forms a complete chain of evidence. The only exclusive conclusion that can be drawn from this evidence is that defendant Chen Shifu used the posting of big character posters to incite subversion of state power.
III. Refutation of some of defendant Chen Shifu’s mistaken views
In questioning the defendant and examining the investigation file, the prosecution has discovered that defendant Chen Shifu’s thinking is very confused and that his views are full of holes. There are numerous poorly constructed sentences and mistaken characters in the big character posters he wrote. (Based on the prosecution’s rough tally, there are more than 25 mistaken characters and seven poorly constructed sentences in his “Call to Arms,” an “essay” of fewer than 300 characters.) Some of his views display certain confusions, of which the prosecution will examine two in particular in order to set the record straight:
- First is the idea that the “freedom of expression” enjoyed by citizens can conceal his criminal activity. During the prosecution’s questioning and even here in today’s courtroom, the defendant continued to say that citizens enjoy the right to “freedom of expression.” There’s no mistake, “freedom of expression” is a fundamental right granted to citizens by the Constitution. But the prosecution is obligated to point out that “freedom of expression” must be established within the framework of law, instead of overriding the law. Moreover, the prosecution wants to explain very carefully that our country and our ruling party has never been afraid of comments from the masses. On the contrary, we welcome very much the oversight of the broad popular masses. Had the defendant expressed his comments and suggestions through lawful channels such as the system of letters and visits or petitioning or made complaints to a people’s congress deputy, he wouldn’t be standing here today in the defendant’s docket. On the contrary, he would receive the law’s protection. Unfortunately, however, Chen Shifu chose the unlawful manner of “posting big character posters” and made vicious attacks and slanders against the government and our party. This is something the law cannot allow. I wonder whether defendant Chen Shifu now realizes this as he sits in the defendant’s docket.
- Only the “Three Principles of the People” and the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) can properly govern China. This is something that the defendant has said many times; but, ironically, when asked by the prosecution what the “Three Principles of the People” were, the defendant could not answer. Just think, how can a person who doesn’t even know what the “Three Principles of the People” are know whether they can properly govern China? This in and of itself is a joke. One cannot deny that during the old era of democratic revolution, Sun Yat-sen’s idea of the “Three Principles of the People” being “Democracy, People’s Rights, and People’s Livelihood” [The first principle is “nationalism” (minzu) not “democracy” (minzhu)—Trans.] was certainly a progressive idea during its time. Today, however, when China has already entered the socialist era, it is clearly out of step with the times to talk about the “Three Principles of the People.” These days, only Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important idea of “Three Represents” can guide China on the path towards being a strong nation with wealthy citizens. The more than 20 years since reform and opening have proved this point, and I believe that future history will also prove this point. As for whether or not the Nationalist Party can properly govern China, anyone who understands even a little bit of modern history knows that from the 1911 Revolution until the founding of New China [in 1949], China was under control of the Nationalists for several decades. But what they brought the Chinese people was endless war and chaos, hardship and destitution, bullying by foreign powers, and selling out the nation in search of personal glory. As someone born after  who grew up as a citizen of New China, defendant Chen Shifu never had any experience of the old China under Nationalist rule, so how can he know if the Nationalists governed well? Actually, you don’t have to go very far; if you had looked at the great differences between old and new China with regard to your own Zhaoshi Town or asked the old people around you, you wouldn’t have made such a basic error. The prosecution also wants to take this opportunity to mention to the defendant: the “ruling party” in Taiwan is the Democratic Progressive Party, not the Nationalist Party. Just think, the Guomindang cannot even govern the several dozen million people of Taiwan Province; how could they lead the more than one billion people of the mainland towards relative prosperity? Isn’t the defendant taking too much for granted?
IV. The ideological origins and social consequences of defendant Chen Shifu’s crimes and their lessons to us
Before analyzing why the defendant committed his crime, the prosecution first wishes to discuss three things: 1. After the defendant committed his crimes, the public security authority searched his residence in accordance with the law. They found not a single book promoting our party’s policies but discovered several reactionary books such as Biography of Chiang Kai-shek; 2. The defendant confessed to public security and procuratorate authorities on multiple occasions that when he was working as a migrant laborer in Fujian he often listened to Taiwan radio broadcasts to the mainland when he was bored; 3. During the process of relocating the marketplace, the defendant went to create a scene at the township government and other bodies because of the gap between the compensation payment and the expected [expenses].
From the above three matters, it is actually very easy to explain the origins of the defendant’s crimes. He neglected his studies for a long time and stopped reforming his own worldview. Because he frequently listened to hostile radio broadcasts, he gradually developed dissatisfaction with current reality and a hatred for the party and government. The moment his own interests were affected, he immediately went to stand on the side of opposing the party, opposing socialism, and opposing the people. After the Chen Shifu case occurred, it created a big impact in Zhaoshi as well as the surrounding townships. In several middle and primary schools in Zhaoshi Town it was necessary to disrupt the normal curriculum to hold several days of political-thought classes for the students in order to set the record straight. During those several days, Zhaoshi was filled with discussion of the “big character poster” incident. No sooner had the special case team arrived in Zhaoshi than a dozen or so old party members set out on their own initiative to find the team leader. These old comrades with 20 or 30 years of party membership all expressed the same desire: the case must be solved quickly and the perpetrator taken into custody because criminals who spread such heresies and disrupt people’s thinking must be severely punished. I think the words of these dozen or so old party members represent the thinking of Zhaoshi’s masses, who number more than 100,000 people. Now the case has been solved and the defendant will receive law’s sanction, but the prosecution still feels a sense of unease. How could a case like this occur in a place with such a glorious revolutionary tradition as Zhaoshi? How can we eliminate these kinds of cases once and for all? The prosecution wants to use this case to share the following lessons:
- We cannot do as some local governments and pursue only economic development but must also develop spiritual civilization—both must be “grasped firmly with both hands.” Lately, there have been deviations in the ideology guiding the work of the heads of some local governments (of course, only a small minority). It’s as if it’s only important to pursue economics and nothing else is important. Actually, this kind of thinking is dangerous. If we sacrifice the construction of spiritual civilization in pursuit of economic development, I think this kind of prosperity will certainly not last long. Problems such as this case might even emerge.
- The character of some of our law enforcement personnel needs to improve. The defendant in this case, as well as many other members of the public, all complained to us about simple work methods and rough attitudes of some local law enforcement personnel. Perhaps to the [law enforcement officers] themselves this is only a matter of work details, but in the eyes of the popular masses these law enforcement personnel represent the image of the party and the government. If the behavior of an extreme few damages the image of the party and the government or even gives those with ulterior motives an opportunity, this does more harm than good.
- We still have a long way to go in our legal education work for the masses, especially for the masses in “old, minority, remote, and poor” [Here, “old” refers to old revolutionary base areas where CPC activity had been strong prior to 1949—Trans.] regions such as ours. On this point, the prosecution only wants to say one thing: The prerequisite and foundation for our ability to “rule the nation in accordance with the law” is to have the masses know and obey the law.
V. The defendant ought to be held criminally responsible.
According to Article 105(1) of the Criminal Law [The following is not actually a direct quote, the correct citations are Article 105(2) and Article 113—Trans.]: “Whoever incites subversion of state power shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not more than five years, criminal detention, public surveillance or deprivation of political rights and may have their property confiscated.” Reviewing this case, defendant Chen Shifu has no grounds for lenience or mitigation, and we hope that the collegiate panel will render a lawful and fair verdict based on the magnitude of the defendant’s crimes, the social impact, and the defendant’s attitude towards confessing guilt. This concludes the prosecution’s statement.
Prosecutor: Yang Qinghua
April 18, 2003
(Note: This prosecution statement was awarded first prize in a provincial competition of prosecution statements.)
Click on icon to expand
我国《刑法》第105 条第1款规定"犯煽动颠覆国家政权罪的，处5 年以下有期徒刑、拘役、管制或者剥夺政治权利，并可并处没收财产"。结合本案来看，被告人陈世富没有任何从轻、减轻情节，希望合议庭根据被告人的罪责大小、社会影响、认罪态度等对其作出合法而公正的判决，公诉意见发表完毕。