Zheng, a former professor, was a regular contributor to overseas news websites, including the U.S.-based Epoch Times, which is affiliated with the banned religious movement Falun Gong. He wrote a series of editorials that directly criticized the Communist Party and its control of the media.
Because of police warnings, Zheng’s family remained silent about his detention in Yingkou, Liaoning province, until state media reported that he had been arrested on suspicion of inciting subversion. Zheng was initially tried by the Yingkou Intermediate People’s Court on April 26, 2005. No verdict was announced and, on July 21, he was tried again on the same charges. As in the April 26 trial, proceedings lasted just three hours. Though officially “open” to the public, the courtroom was closed to all observers except close family members and government officials. Zheng’s supporters and a journalist were prevented from entering, according to a local source.
Prosecutors cited dozens of articles written by the journalist and listed the titles of several essays in which he called for political reform, increased capitalism in China, and an end to the practice of imprisoning writers. On September 20, 2005, the court sentenced Zheng to seven years in prison, to be followed by three years’ deprivation of political rights.
Sources familiar with the case believe that Zheng’s harsh sentence may be linked to Chinese leaders’ objections to the Epoch Times series “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” which called the Chinese Communist Party an “evil cult” with a “history of killings” and predicted its demise.
Zheng is diabetic, and his health declined after his imprisonment. After his first appeal was rejected, he intended to pursue an appeal in a higher court, but his defense lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, was himself imprisoned in August 2006. Zheng’s family was unable to find another lawyer willing to take the case.
In summer 2008, prison authorities at Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning informed Zheng’s family that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage and received urgent treatment in prison. However, no lawyer would agree to represent Zheng in an appeal for medical parole, according to Zheng Xiaochun, the journalist’s brother, who spoke with CPJ by telephone.