- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

BEIJING — In a landmark ruling yesterday, a Chinese court sentenced a businessman to three years in prison for organizing illegal protests after authorities seized oil wells owned by thousands of private investors.

The ruling by the Intermediate People’s Court in Jingbian county in the northwestern province of Shaanxi undermines a government pledge to protect private property seized after the 1949 communist revolution. The issue has re-emerged since the late 1970s when China began economic reforms.

Feng Bingxian, 59, was convicted of disturbing social order by organizing illegal protests by several hundred disgruntled private oil investors in April and May, family members said.

“It’s a miscarriage of justice. He will definitely appeal,” said Mr. Feng’s wife, Qu Jianping.

Jingbian county’s chief judge and prosecutor were both members of a government task force that seized the private oil wells, she said.

Security was tight with the front gate locked, Mr. Feng’s son said, adding that he was not informed of the sentencing and had to force his way inside the court.

Court officials reached by telephone declined to comment.

Mr. Feng, a former official who went into private business and invested in 13 oil wells in northern Shaanxi, appeared in court wearing an orange prison uniform. He looked frail but calm, and he smiled when he saw his family, his wife said.

Mr. Feng pleaded not guilty during a one-day trial last month, arguing that the protests were peaceful and that officials took him to lunch and promised further dialogue.

About 6,000 small investors, including many local farmers and former officials, bought the wells with the blessing of the government in the late 1990s, pouring in about $867 million as demand for energy soared.

Mr. Feng, who was caught by police in July after evading arrest for two months, invested about $1.2 million in the wells.

In an about-face after the private investors struck oil, the provincial government seized the wells in 2003 and paid what investors said was paltry compensation.

Protests in China are becoming common — 74,000 in 2004 compared with 58,000 in 2003 — despite the Communist Party’s obsession with maintaining stability. The demonstrations have been sparked by public anger over several issues from pollution and corruption to a growing gap between rich and poor.

In December, police opened fire on residents of Dongzhou village in the southern province of Guangdong protesting a lack of compensation for land appropriated for a new power plant. The government said three villagers were killed.

China gave a clear nod to the private sector in March by enshrining in its constitution theories that effectively opened the doors of the Communist Party to private entrepreneurs, who were vilified in the ideologically strict era of Mao Zedong as “capitalist running dogs.”

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