Rumbling earthmovers carve out a seaside golf course among fallen palm trees on a Chinese island, after authorities silenced the man who spoke out against destroying the tropical forest.
Vast swathes of Hainan in the South China Sea have been cleared — a quarter of its woodlands in the last decade according to environmentalists Greenpeace — for golf courses and exclusive hotels in an attempt to create a tourist paradise.
Liu Futang (劉福堂), a former forestry official disgusted by the destruction, campaigned against damaging developments for years.
The People’s Daily, China’s most circulated newspaper and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mouthpiece, even lauded him on its front page as an “environmental warrior” after he stopped a mining firm cutting down swathes of palms about 2km from the golf course site in Wanning.
However, Liu now stands as a symbol of Chinese suppression of environmentalist critics after he was tried for publishing books on the subject, jailed, convicted and released on condition he does not speak to the media.
His activist career was terminated after his support on Sina Weibo — a Twitter-like platform boasting more than 500 million users — for the villagers of Yinggehai against a coal-fired power station took on overtly political tones.
“To protect Hainan’s almost destroyed environment ... we need to let officials feel the people’s leather shoes pressing against their bodies, and let them feel the power of the people,” he wrote.
His social networking account was deleted. Months later, prosecutors in Hainan’s capital, Haikou, where Liu was being treated for diabetes and high blood pressure, ordered his arrest.
Prosecutors accused him of illegally self-publishing books on Hainan’s environmental problems and making 78,000 yuan (US$13,000) from doing so — charges his defense dismissed as absurd.
“If I had wanted to make money, I would never have published the books,” Liu told the court, at one point breaking into tears, according to an account of the trial confirmed by lawyer Zhou Ze (周澤), who was present, but said he was not allowed to represent him.
“Liu’s publications were not a commercial exercise, he did not pursue profit ... and gave away most of his books for free,” said Zhou, who is well known in China for his work on human rights cases. “According to Chinese law, Liu should be free to print his books.”
Eventually, after being held in custody for months, Liu — whose titles include The Green Dream and Hainan Tears — was given a three-year suspended sentence in December last year and released, but authorities have silenced him.
“The local security bureau has made him promise not to speak to the media,” Zhou said. “It’s clearly an illegal violation of his rights.”
Neither the security bureau nor the court responded to fax and telephone inquiries.
Hainan CCP secretary Luo Baoming (羅保銘) said last year that environmental protection “has always been a priority in the government’s work,” the state-run China Daily reported.
However, in Yinggehai, a poverty-stricken town with unpaved roads, locals said officials had beaten and arrested protesters against the plant in October last year.
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