The Latest Target In China’s Crackdown On Entrepreneurs Is An Outspoken

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Billionaire Sun Dawu built an agriculture empire just outside Beijing. Now his conglomerate, Dawu Group, is slipping out of his control.

Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images


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Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Billionaire Sun Dawu built an agriculture empire just outside Beijing. Now his conglomerate, Dawu Group, is slipping out of his control.

Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

BAODING, HEBEI, CHINA — Billionaire Sun Dawu built an agriculture empire just outside Beijing. To accommodate approximately 9,000 employees and their families, he created a self-contained company town replete with free hospitals, schools and a sports stadium, all named after himself.

Now his conglomerate, the Dawu Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Group, is slipping out of his control, as he faces trial next week over what appear to be politically motivated charges.

In late April, local authorities arrested Sun and 20 employees — many of them his own family members — after a minor property dispute turned violent. They already had been in detention for half a year over a common administrative issue, for which Sun now faces eight criminal charges, including illegal mining and “seeking quarrels and provoking trouble.” He denies them all.

Over the years, the 67-year-old farmer turned tycoon has defiantly befriended and supported Chinese political dissidents. Now he may become one himself.

His businesses are temporarily in government hands.

A truck outside Dawu animal feed subsidiary, in Hebei province.

Emily Feng/NPR


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A truck outside Dawu animal feed subsidiary, in Hebei province.

Emily Feng/NPR

“Every [Dawu] subsidiary has a different local government team that has taken over management,” an employee at the company’s main office just outside the city of Baoding told NPR in November. The employee declined to be named because they were not authorized to talk publicly.

Sun’s arrest and the seizure of his businesses are the latest in a string of crackdowns against private firms. His case is being closely watched in China’s commercial and legal circles as a test for how far legal protections extend in commercial disputes — in this case, over land rights.

“The Dawu Group has yet to move out of the danger zone,” Wu Danhong, a Beijing-based corporate lawyer and legal commentator, wrote on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform. “There is the continued likelihood of increasing Sun’s criminal charges to include ‘gang-like activity,’ because only with this charge can the state confiscate all of his assets.” A three-year campaign to eliminate organized crime has already imprisoned tens of thousands of smaller entrepreneurs and their alleged political allies.

Over the last four years, Beijing has been reining in some of the country’s biggest private companies for being too powerful or their leaders being outspoken about state policy. Since 2018, authorities have jailed the executive of a major insurance firm, executed the former head of a powerful financial management company and forced several real estate conglomerates to sell off flashy foreign assets and pay down debts.

“Political power ultimately controls the economy,” says Cai Xia, a former professor at the country’s top Communist Party academy who now lives in exile in the United States. “If Chinese entrepreneurs want to succeed, they have to depend on the system built by the [Chinese Communist Party].”

More recently, property tycoon and prominent government critic Ren Zhiqiang was given an 18-year prison sentence on corruption charges in September. Two months later, financial regulators canceled financial technology company Ant Group’s much-anticipated public offering.

Last month, authorities slapped a record fine on Ant Group’s sister company, the e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba. Three weeks later, regulators also called in 13 internet companies, demanding tighter financial management.

Sun, a self-fashioned agrarian utopian with a deep commitment to social justice, appears to be one of the latest targets. In 1984, he founded the Dawu Group from his hometown in rural Hebei province, selling animal feed and fertilizers and using the revenues to fund his particular vision of rural development.

“It is hard to uniformly redistribute the wealth of the society/But it is possible to make equal commoners and aristocrats,” Sun wrote in a poem engraved on a stone slab near his company headquarters.

“It is hard to uniformly redistribute the wealth of the society/But it is possible to make equal commoners and aristocrats,” Sun wrote in a poem engraved on a stone slab near his company headquarters.

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“It is hard to uniformly redistribute the wealth of the society/But it is possible to make equal commoners and aristocrats,” Sun wrote in a poem engraved on a stone slab near his company headquarters.

Emily Feng/NPR

In Chinese media interviews, Sun has frequently quoted Plato’s concept of the philosopher king: a benevolent autocrat who lives a simple life and rules his subjects with kindness. He often hosted prominent human rights lawyers and financed their legal costs when they came under political fire, including for Xu Zhiyong, a proponent of constitutional law reform who was arrested again last February after months on the run.

Top political leaders in Beijing have sought Sun out for more than a decade, asking his advice on raising rural incomes. Sun, who continued working as a farmer even while running a major company, advocated for lower agricultural taxes and easier access to credit. He opposed mass urbanization and supported grassroots efforts by farmers to improve their villages.

“The essential problem in rural China is the restriction and deprivation of peasant labor by power and capital,” Sun said in a 2007 speech to students at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University.

Dawu Middle School, with the Sun Dawu quote “seek knowledge, seek what is real, seek the truth” on top

Emily Feng/NPR


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