Sun Dawu, a rural tycoon and outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party, was sentenced to 18 years in prison Wednesday, the latest in a string of harsh punishments meted out by China against business leaders.
The 67-year-old Mr. Sun had been detained in November after a land dispute between his company, Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group, and a neighboring state-owned farm. Prosecuted in a trial closed to the public along wide a group of 19 family members and employees, Mr. Sun was convicted of a range of crimes, including organizing people to attack state agencies, obstructing public affairs and provoking quarrels, among others.
Long a thorn in the side of Beijing, Mr. Sun was a frequent and loud critic of Chinese government policies, from its early handling of Covid 19 to local government cover-ups over a 2019 outbreak of African swine fever that killed thousands of his pigs. He was also a businessman who cultivated an image of generosity. As his agricultural empire grew he created a town around his holdings and provided services, like hospital care, to employees.
The harsh sentence comes amid broader efforts by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, to muzzle outspoken business leaders and bring the private sector to heel. Under Mr. Xi, a growing number of tycoons have been punished and a barrage of new rules have laid low corporate Goliaths in the technology and education industries. Stocks for some of China’s best known companies, like Tencent and Didi, have sagged, while an antimonopoly investigation into Alibaba led to a $2.8 billion fine.
Mr. Sun’s 18-year sentence matched those given in recent years to two other businessmen. In 2018, Wu Xiaohui, a Chinese tycoon who rose to prominence after he bought the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for defrauding investors. Last year, retired real-estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang was given an 18-year prison term after he called Mr. Xi a clown in an essay.
“If this were wartime, I would have been sacrificed a long time ago,” Mr. Sun said in a statement. “With my character, I can’t give others a flattering smile. I can’t do it. That has doomed my destiny,” he said.
Mr. Sun and several family members described brutal police treatment during monthslong interrogation that forced what they said were false confessions. One son said that he was strapped to a chair for 30 hours until his limbs swelled painfully, while Mr. Sun’s brother described being left with an untreated hernia.
“My treatment produced misery beyond words, and life was worse than death,” said Mr. Sun, describing how he did not see the sun for more than three months during the detention.
Mr. Sun also asked the court in the rural county of Gaobeidian, southwest of Beijing, to acquit the executives at his company who stood trial alongside him, saying that all faults were his own. In its verdict, the court said only that the employees and his company would be punished, without providing details.
Mr. Sun’s lawyers said in a statement that the other 19 defendants received sentences ranging from one to 12 years in prison. The eagerness and speed with which the court handled the complex case, often pushing the trial past 12 hours a day for 14 consecutive days, “showed this was not a normal trial,” the lawyers added.
While Mr. Sun was best known for his unstinting criticisms of China’s government, he was also renowned for his business acumen. A veteran of the People’s Liberation Army, Mr. Sun worked at China’s state-owned Agricultural Bank of China before striking out on his own. Starting with 50 pigs and 1,000 chickens, he and his family built a business that came to employ thousands of people.
Mr. Sun also cultivated the image of a civic-minded entrepreneur. As his business grew, he built a town, Dawu City, that provided services to his growing number of employees and eventually included a 1,000-bed hospital. In the early 2000s, Mr. Sun took his ideas on the road to some of China’s top universities, speaking out on behalf of farmers and entrepreneurs.
The speeches nettled officials and brought him unwanted attention. In 2003 he was arrested on accusations of illegal fund-raising. A cast of academics, lawyers and journalists successfully campaigned for his release.
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That brush with the law, which earned him fame, is in sharp contrast to this week’s trial. This time, Mr. Sun faced charges in a different kind of China.
Under Mr. Xi, a series of crackdowns on civil society has thinned out the ranks of liberal-minded lawyers and independent journalists. Xu Zhiyong, one of three lawyers who represented Mr. Sun in 2003 and a prominent activist, was detained last year after he urged Mr. Xi to resign, writing to Mr. Xi that “you’re just not smart enough.”
At the time, Mr. Sun spoke up for Mr. Xu. This time, there were few left to speak up for Mr. Sun, who argued repeatedly of the need to push back against power grabs and political bullying.
“When confronted with terror, what could ordinary people like us do?” Mr. Sun said in a 2015 speech. “Open our eyes in fear and shriek.”
The fate of Mr. Sun’s business remains unclear. His oldest son and company chairman, Sun Meng, said through his lawyer that the government appeared to be pushing for a takeover.
“An official came and said that Dawu Group needed someone to operate it and recommended several companies to me to take over the group, “ he said. “I said those companies were not even in the same industry; how could they take over Dawu?”
Among Mr. Sun’s supporters was Nobel Peace laureate and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo, who died in detention in China in 2017. Mr. Liu once said that Mr. Sun posed a “tremendous challenge” to the Chinese system because he possessed both courage and resources.
“The government,” Mr. Liu wrote, “will definitely go after him with murky laws.”