A high-powered defence team has been assembled for the Chinese billionaire Sun Dawu,who was detained along with several members of his family and other senior managers from his company last November on charges of taking illegal deposits and disturbing public order.
A total of 30 people, including Sun, were taken into custody by police from Gaobeidian city in Hebei province over a land dispute and other disagreements between Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group and a local state farm.
His legal term has warned that the authorities could “destroy and take over” the business using laws targeting “criminal gangs” as a result of the dispute.
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According to two open letters published by Sun’s family members and the defence team over the weekend, Sun and six senior executives from the business are being held under residential surveillance, five have been granted bail, and 18 are in detention centers in the Baoding area.
The arrest of Sun and the investigation into his business has heightened concerns about the protections available to private entrepreneurs, which many business leaders have warned are fragile despite repeated promises from the authorities to protect the private sector.
The defence team includes Beijing rights lawyer Zhang Lei, prominent defence lawyer Wang Wanqiong and Chi Susheng, a former delegate to the national legislature.
The family has also hired the former policeman Zheng Chengyue, who is best known for his 10-year battle to overturn the conviction of a man who was wrongfully convicted for rape and murder, as an adviser.
Another legal adviser, former prosecutor Yang Bin, said that while police have made it difficult for them to speak to their clients, they would apply for bail since the arrest and detention of Sun and other senior managers has brought the Dawu Group to the brink of collapse.
Yang said she was worried that Sun and his managers would be prosecuted under anti-gang laws, which carry long jail sentences and would allow the authorities to confiscate their property.
Yang added that if this happens, “then the Dawu Group – a well-managed private enterprise – will be destroyed and taken over by the government”.
Yang said she feared that the authorities were targeting Sun and the others because of the conflict with the state farm and the family’s influence.
Calls to Gaobeidian police were not answered on Monday.
Speaking to the media for the first time since the arrests, Zhou Hongyun, the wife of Sun’s brother Sun Zhihua, said police had convinced her to stay silent to ensure the group was released early, but she was now worried she had been hoodwinked.
“They’ve lied to me. Things that happened in the past few months indicate that my family is likely to face heavy sentences,” Zhou said. “This is totally unacceptable and I will do my best to defend them.”
In an open letter that was also signed by Yan Yuxiang – the wife of another one of the businessman’s brothers, Sun Dehua – Zhou said they had felt “frightened and helpless” since the arrests in November.
“We knew nothing about their [alleged] crimes,” they wrote. “But four months have passed … and we have decided that we must stand up and face our responsibility,” they added.
Sun Dawu founded the Dawu Group in the 1980s and it has grown to become a major agricultural producer in Hebei, with interests in animal husbandry, feed processing and chemical fertilisers. Sun has also established schools and hospitals linked to the company, and even branched out into tourism.
Yang said it was well-known that Sun Dawu had wanted to play his part in modernising China’s countryside and it was unimaginable that he and his company were being treated as criminals.
“It would not be further from the truth to call them criminals,” Yang said. “Private entrepreneurs like Sun have contributed much to society but they are so vulnerable.”