By Yang Fan, Radio Free Asia
A court in the Chinese capital on Tuesday handed a 12-month jail term to a documentary filmmaker after he made a film about constitutional government.
Shen Yongping was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for “running an illegal business” by Beijing’s Chaoyang District People’s Court after the country’s powerful media censors declared his film “an illegal publication.”
Shen’s film, “A Hundred Years of Constitutionalism,” tells the history of attempts to establish constitutional rule in modern China, many of which were thwarted by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in spite of promises by Mao Zedong to implement democracy after he took power.
According to a copy of the charge sheet posted online, the government’s Bureau of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which administers tight control over media and publications, said 4,000 copies of the film found at Shen’s apartment were illegal publications.
Shen had made the film in the face of continual official interference and harassment, his lawyer said.
The filmmaker, who was initially detained in April, had no plans to make money from the documentary, which was completed a few months before China celebrated its first national Constitution Day.
Instead, he had been handing out DVDs free of charge, and had planned to post the documentary online as a free download, his lawyer Zhang Xuezhong told RFA.
“The charge is ridiculous, and has been cooked up out of nothing,” Zhang said. “He never made this film to try to make money; it was an act in the public interest.”
“He just wanted to strengthen people’s view of the Constitution, and he used an art form to depict the past 100 years of Chinese people’s struggle for governance by the Constitution.”
“I think that this judgment is wrong, because for illegal business to have taken place, there has to have been some profit from commercial activity,” Zhang added.
“Shen actually lost a lot of money on this film.”
Zhang said Shen has refused to accept the verdict and judgment against him.
“He says he is not guilty,” he said. “When the court asked him if he plans to appeal, he said he would consider it after speaking with his lawyers, and then decide.”
“My feeling is that he should appeal, though,” Zhang said.
Last month, a meeting of China’s central committee declared that the rule of law would be its main theme.
On Dec. 4, dozens of prominent rights lawyers penned an open letter calling on the government to uphold the rights and freedoms enshrined in the country’s constitution.
According to the Constitution: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of protest and of demonstration.”
But activists who use the document to claim such rights are often harassed, detained, or jailed on public order charges by the authorities.
Beijing-based netizen Xiang Li said Shen’s jailing is another example of the criminalization of speech by the authorities.
“We have been following Shen Yongping’s case closely, because it is very normal to make a documentary,” Xiang said. “This has nothing to do with so-called illegal business activities.”
“I think the government just didn’t like what he made, so they found an excuse to punish him, and sent him to jail for a year,” he said. “This is very worrying.”
Other films censored
The Chinese Communist Party routinely clamps down on the country’s independent filmmakers and festivals, rounding up film students who try to attend independent film summer schools and festivals.
In January, authorities in the eastern province of Jiangsu deleted a hard-hitting online documentary about the harsh realities of forced eviction, filmed and produced by a group of evictees whose complaints through official channels led nowhere.
The documentary, titled “Let the Images Fly,” a reference to the title of a well-known movie “Let the Bullets Fly,” includes interviews with people evicted suddenly and violently from their homes by demolition gangs after they refused to sign a compensation deal with the local government.
Earlier that month, independent Chinese filmmaker Liu Yimu was ordered by authorities in the central province of Hunan to halt production of his documentary, “These Changsha People.”
Interviewees in that film included forced evictees, petitioners, independent labor leader Zhang Jingsheng, a student follower of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, and veterans rights activists, including retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers.
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