David Wertime

Chinese Man Imprisoned For Online Speech Reportedly Released

Ren Jianyu, a 25-year-old man imprisoned in 2011 for an online speech crime, has been released. According to Sina News and to the Global Times’ Sina Weibo microblogging account, Ren was formally released from Chongqing labor prison on 4 o’clock Monday afternoon, Beijing time. This follows Ren Jianyu’s appeal of his sentence to number 3 intermediate People’s Court in the municipality of Chongqing. Global Times has said that Ren’s lawyer expects the Chongqing court to issue an official ruling Tuesday afternoon.

Ren Jianyu may have happier days ahead.As Tea Leaf Nation wrote on October 13, 2012, “Ren was sentenced to two years’ of ‘re-education through labor’ for attempted ‘overthrow of the government’ after re-posting comments critical of Chongqing authorities on QQ, a social media platform.” Ren’s crime, in other words, was nothing more than using the Internet to re-post the words of others, which he did openly and under his real name.

Fortunately for Ren, he had thousands of impassioned web users in his corner, who seemed aware that Ren’s case would have repercussions for their own ability to use social media. In October, thousands tweeted their support for Ren and outrage at his treatment. What most stirred online ire was not simply Ren’s imprisonment., but the evidence against him. When Ren’s case was initially tried, authorities introduced as evidence a T-Shirt, found in Ren’s home at the time of his arrest, with the words “Freedom or Death” printed in Chinese.

At the time Ren’s case was pending, however, some netizens worried that the public might lose interest, providing an opening for official inaction and delay. These concerns seemed especially well founded when the Chonqing court asked for more time to consider the case given its potential “social impact.” With China’s sensitive leadership transition now in the past, it is possible that authorities have now gained clearance to set Ren free.

Ren also has his lawyer to thank. Pu Zhiqiang (@哈儿浦志强有戏) is well known for taking cases involving press freedom, and Pu was aggressive not only in bringing Ren’s case to trial, but in using social media to enlist public sympathy. Pu recently told the Global Times, “Ren Jianyu’s case has a certain amount of resonance and social influence. Our nation’s laws protect the right to free speech, but Ren was imprisoned for a speech crime. His  receiving ‘re-education through labor’ was extremely unreasonable.”

The original T-shirt that helped send Ren Jianyu to labor prison. (Via Weibo)

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.