ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Sending a tweet in China can have far-reaching consequences. A man living in the city of Chongqing used Twitter to make fun of a powerful politician, Bo Xilai, and one little missive got him sent without trial to a work camp.
But now that Bo has fallen from power, his wife is suspected of murder and his former police chief might be facing treason charges, the tweeter wants his day in court, as NPR's Lousa Lim reports.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: For Fang Hong, his ordeal started with a single tweet. It was seen by perhaps only 90 people, but that tweet changed Fang Hong's life forever, landing him in a labor camp for a year.
In April of last year, the retired forestry official posted a scatological tweet, mocking then-Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and his police chief Wang Lijun. That night, he deleted the tweet, on orders from the police. Despite that, more than 20 policemen came to arrest him.
Fang Hong believes he was an easy target for Bo Xilai.
FANG HONG: (Through translator) I'm from Chongqing, so firstly, it's easy to arrest me. Secondly, he didn't want any dissenting voices, especially officials. If you disagreed with him, he'd sack you. He was totally lawless. He wanted to impose red terror on the city.
LIM: There was no trial: Fang Hojng was sent to a re-education-through-labor center for a year. Inside the camp, he worked as much as 14 hours a day. Initially he made Christmas tree lights for export to Germany.
HONG: (Through translator) A skilled worker at the company welds 4,300 lights a day, but we welded 6,500 lights a day each. If you didn't finish, you weren't allowed to eat meat, buy cigarettes or sleep at night, and your sentence might be extended. We earned $1.25 a month.
LIM: Later he made wiring for laptop computers. He describes life inside the labor camp as riddled with corruption. Those with money paid the guards to get out of working. Prisoners saw police chief Wang Lijun was seen as presiding over a force that operated with impunity and had landed them in labor camp in the first case.
When news spread that Wang Lijun had fled to the U.S. consulate, there was jubilation.
HONG: (Through translator) I told them Wang was committing treason. Everyone was jumping for joy because Wang was so cruel.
LIM: Fang Hong's son, who tried to help him, was sentenced to 14 months in detention for abetting drug-taking, a charge Fang says is false. Fang himself was released in April. He's now lodged an appeal, which has been accepted by the courts. This was a surprise even to his lawyer. He's arguing there's no evidence he fabricated facts and disturbed public order, as charged.
Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang says this is a landmark case.
PU ZHIQIANG: (Through translator) This case touches upon the Internet, Twitter and the freedom of speech. It also takes in criticism of Bo Xilai. It also touches upon the system of re-education through labor. In the context of China's constitutional government, the significance of this tweet is huge.
LIM: The lawyer has set his aims high. He wants to end the system of re-education-through-labor. He argues it's a totalitarian tool with no constitutional basis. But he's pragmatic about his chances. Bo Xilai may have fallen from power, he says, but the big problem remains, that China's leaders and their factions answer to no one.
ZHIQIANG: (Through translator) We have no hawks here. We only have mad dogs. One big problem is that Chinese politicians have no principles. They don't need to be responsible for their political credibility. They can do this today and the opposite tomorrow.
LIM: This is a test case, the first known victim of Bo's rule whose case has been accepted by the courts. How it's handled could be a sign of whether the leadership will correct the excesses of the past. But, with hundreds of other victims waiting in the wings, the danger is the court system could be flooded with claims. Even if Fang Hong wins his case, his son still remains in police detention, another victim of Bo Xilai's vanity. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.