By Albertine Ren, published: September 14, 2014
It’s been three months since Pu Zhiqiang’s formal arrest on June 13. An extension of investigation period expired on September 13 without indictment or change of detention status, a blatant disregard for criminal procedure prescribed by the Chinese law. Such is the judicial randomness in China. — The editor
He favors navy suits and towers over everyone else at 6’2”. Farmers fall on their knees when they see him, hoping he can save their land or their child. Certainly, with a Mount Rushmore chin and the looks of leading men from a Communist propaganda film, he could have been custom-ordered from some fortune-teller manual on how to spot successful guys. The effect only falls apart when he smiles, dimpling in a way many consider unbecoming to traditional notions of masculinity.
Pu Zhiqiang is a lawyer in China and at the cutting edge of his fledgling profession. Back in the 1950’s, China did away with lawyers altogether to usher in the proletarian dictatorship. How far this set things back with regard to rule of law becomes clear in startling ways. In 2012, after a mother was sent to a labor camp for seeking the death penalty on some men who raped and prostituted her eleven-year-old daughter, Pu agreed to take her case, despite the powerful customers who favored the labor camp system. For example, the princeling Bo Xilai, fallen rival to President Xi Jinping, used it to his liking when he was mayor of Chongqing from 2007 to 2012. People who posted criticism of government policies and abuses on the Internet were thrown in for-profit gulags to churn out stuffed animals for MacDonald’s. Such cases usually go nowhere, since the courts are rigged and the press gagged.
In an environment where lawyers are expected to be hood ornaments, Pu steered the hairbreadth curves with a combination of luck and cool-headed calculation. He took on landmark cases without being branded a dissident, managing a good distance between himself and the edge of the cliff over which human rights activists teeter. Unlike disbarred or tortured human rights lawyers such as Tang Jitian (唐吉田) and Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), he was left free to practice. High-yield cases of low political sensitivity featuring multimillionaire businessmen tortured for skipping bribes would flock to him. They helped him round out his story when the secret police came knocking, questioning his involvement in other high-profile human rights cases.
“I always tell them it’s to get famous. If I say it’s because I believe in a just legal system, they’d tell me to shove my drivel, they know I’m in it for me. So I always tell them from the get-go I do these cases to get famous,” Pu told a fashion magazine, Trends, in 2012. Or he would play up the profit motive: “I’d tell the pandas (aka the secret police) I’m borderline bankrupt, and I don’t have it in me to let this big fat sweet deal go.” His levity is telling. The hidden reserves, within Chinese society, of idealism and yearning for a more just society go a considerable way to explain his booming business. Precisely because the authorities are vigilant for any untoward sign of altruism, it becomes the surest way to overcome mutual suspicion and dread and bring people together.
Backbone and street creds notwithstanding, Pu often found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. In response to one anonymous cell call of the “Luca Brasi is sleeping with the fishes” variety, Pu sent an airy tweet to his tens of thousands of fans on social media: “You’re welcome to come for a thigh or an arm off of Yours Truly, I am on standby.” Unscrupulous government officials whom it was not always easy to tell apart from the mafia represented another source of worry. In February 2012, for example, finding that the court authorities in a Henan town may be concocting a scheme to accuse him of “tampering with witnesses,” Pu again appealed to social media. Still, everything is relative: next to colleagues beaten up for going to court and, in Gao’s case, given up at times for dead, the dashing and thriving Pu appeared as rare as the endangered species on the choice menu of the Chinese elite.
In 2013, to much public elation, the mother who championed her daughter’s rape and prostitution case won a court judgment of $430 for her pain and distress. Bo Xilai’s disgrace had left a lot of his followers embittered, and the government moved to close down the labor camps, hoping to address public anger and to stoke hope for meaningful reform. A leash-weary media pounced, making Pu a star by covering the other freedom of speech cases he took on for labor camp victims. Never mind that the mission and business model of the labor camps were being quietly handed over to “legal education centers”, “Drug Rehabs” or arbitrary criminal or administrative detention (a law called “Community Correction Law” (《社区矫正法》) has been in the making and probably will be promulgated soon); Pu could accept the laurels with an easy conscience. In all likelihood, he would have gotten famous earlier were it not for the censors.
For one thing, he was Tan Zuoren’s (谭作人) lawyer. The environmentalist and panda advocate had, through a private investigation, concluded that the public schools which collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing thousands of school children, were shoddily built. The government prosecuted Tan for revealing state secrets, a bit of an exaggeration in a country where leaders routinely publicly make anti-corruption their priority. Pu put up a good fight. “A lot of the time he reminds you of a lazy cat,” Pu’s friend, legal scholar Xiao Han (萧瀚) writes, “but in court he becomes someone else.” Bristling with witticisms and backing the other side into the glaring holes in their argument which they never bother fixing for the kangaroo court, Pu would mount vigorous appeals to the goodness inherent in human nature. Such speeches are apparently so incendiary that the public is barred from finding out about them, or the defendant and his alleged crime.
Under these circumstances, to stay hopeful is not easy, but Pu makes good sport of it. Xiao again: “…he can’t help this mischievous and therefore boyish look, and sometimes he’d put on a counterfeit cynicism. Sad to say, he never got it right.” Sometimes he likes to brag and pat himself on the shoulder. Some of this may be due to the fact he was the baby of the family with four older siblings. His uncle and aunt, a childless couple, adopted him when he was three months old. Pu wrote, “my wet nurse was a sheep. People were too ignorant about complex chemical processes back then, so no melamine for me; all Mom did was boil the milk and add sugar. I got pretty chunky on it.” (Pu was taking a jab at the food safety scandals.) There is something of the well-loved child in his playful posturing, and much else besides. When he said he writes better than a best-selling author, Yu Qiuyu (余秋雨), for instance, it was a backhanded comment on Yu’s groveling call for blind patriotism equating the Communist Party with China. Seemingly self-indulgent jibes mask trenchant social and political commentary.
He does this best in his writing. He mixes high and low styles with flair, the same way he performs his high-wire acts as an activist. Mindful of censorship, his elliptical humor throws into sharp relief the physical violence he and his colleagues face, where abductions by the secret police become “involuntary vacations”:
I was taken on vacation a few days ago. I got brazen and asked for some due process: “Summon, detention, arrest – take your pick. Just hand me a piece of paper to make it look legal. Forget about taking me to some resort, you can toss me in the clink, feed me dried corn and torture me to force a confession however you like.” They were brazen back and tried throwing me off, “Nah, what d’you need that piece of paper for? After the time is up we’ll get you home right on the dot, now wouldn’t that be nice?” “Without that piece of paper, we’re looking at an abduction here. If you don’t have the guts to bump off the hostages you take, what the hell are you bungling fools doing hauling me around?
Coming back to Beijing in the dead of night, and here I was thinking I knew everything there was to know about bitter cold. Struck me homeless petitioners with poor health might not make it, and thought about Zhang Kai looking them up at night and calling for donations of warm clothing. Just heard that right in the middle of the same chilly night three carloads of thugs went in hot pursuit of our lawyer Zhang. I can’t wrap my mind around it – who in the world did Zhang offend by reaching out to help the petitioners? So Hollywood no longer needs to put up the investment, vet locations and throw up a studio when they run through Chinese streets shooting “The Godfather,” is that it?
Playfulness, in stark contrast to what they are up against, sustains many human rights activists. Pu and Ai Weiwei, the rebel artist whose name rhymes with love in Chinese and who is affectionately known as Cupid in a favorite spoof among his supporters, spent a memorable Valentine’s dinner together:
<Over dinner> Ai asked me how do you keep your blood sugar under control. I said shots. And doesn’t your belly end up pocked with needle marks? Let’s take a look. My guards were down and I pulled up my shirt. One flash and I heard the camera click. I thought oh hell, there goes a chunk of my personality rights. RT@aiww: Check out the smooth belly of our lawyer Pu. (http://www.mobypicture.com/user/aiww/view/8725042)
Pu’s command of classical Chinese learning defies expectations, all the more so given the seventy years of CCP rule that has robbed the language of memory and beauty. He juggles forgotten literary allusions and, with a chiseled and venerable street slang, writes and talks as if Communism never happened, even as he dissects the absurdities of the Communist system.
But words do sometimes fail Pu. In 2009, after the court handed down a five-year sentence against Tan Zuoren, Pu excused himself. Standing in the hallway outside the men’s room, Tan’s wife heard him bawl like a child.
Ai Weiwei, the iconoclast artist who, like Pu, got labeled as a dissident when he tried to uphold promises the Party claims to own, is another erstwhile client. When Ai disappeared into detention in 2011, Pu contributed to the advocacy campaign by penning a “Missing Person” notice whose humor is lined with the vehemence of having always to skirt around a Kafkaesque wall of lies. Even such a veiled gesture can be interpreted as a political act of defiance, and Pu probably edged a step closer to prison when he made this note public:
Looking for Ai Weiwei, who was last seen at Beijing Capital Airport on April 3, 2011. He’s more than half-way to a hundred and still don’t know a thing about the way of the world. Six-feet tall and more than two-hundred pounds, he sautes melon seeds and collects junk, strips in documentaries, and insults his motherland and calls his own Dad a dick (ed: Ai’s father was a national icon for patriotic poetry). He is nutty occasionally or else is acting like it…Anyone who catches him alive should dig a hole and bury him then and there – you’ll be eligible for a lottery to get a “Defender of the Republic” medal.
The last sentence is a nod towards the fact that activists who were detained and abused during this period reported that they were threatened with live burial.
What goes around, comes around. At long last, Pu’s balancing act broke down. He was a student leader during Tienanmen, the mass movement for peaceful political change in 1989, which, like the massacre that quashed it, remains a taboo. On May 5, 2014, the police picked up Pu, two days after he went to a friend’s house for a commemorative meeting on the massacre. “I’ve had a Tiananmen complex this entire time,” he told his lawyer. “I don’t mind paying the price. I regret nothing.” One gets the impression he has survivor’s guilt.
It is ironic that officials are putting away one of their ablest champions. After all, those who lose out in the Party power struggles find their rights stuffed in the meat grinder, including those in the top leadership. In a documentary, Pu aired some creative hair-raising tortures officials suffered. “Please tell everyone how terrifying this extralegal system against government officials is,” he tweeted, “I need your help.” As another suicide epidemic (Chinese) hit higher-level bureaucrats, almost all of whom the Party declared posthumously depressed, Pu tweeted: “Even if someone broke the law left and right and went after a lot of innocent people, I still wouldn’t want to see him caught up in the teeth of the machine. So what if he is a SOB? Not only do we have to make sure bad things don’t drag out for them, we’ve got to do what’s right by them.” It would seem that the system has an inveterate preference for arbitrary power at the expense, potentially, of everyone in it.
Everything has come full circle. Pu had this to say about getting rid of labor camps: “We can call it a big step forward in the rule of law, provided that ‘picking quarrels and causing trouble’ doesn’t become the next handy substitute.” The government seemed indeed to have tried its hand at pinning this one on him. Now Pu’s lawyer believes they may be moving on to other possibilities, interviewing witnesses thousands of miles away and ransacking Pu’s computers for. They reportedly put a hundred secret cops on his case. Where there is a will, there is a way. According to Pu’s lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, pressure from the Party is likely to dictate the outcome of Pu Zhiqiang’s case.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Pu, but everything about him and what he has done feels all too familiar. As I wind up this piece, the government is putting the finishing touches on another wave of roundups, nimbly switching off between a handful of similar crimes for the best and brightest in Chinese civil society, accusing them of undermining the state and society they work so hard at protecting. It is a great pity, for Pu and the state of things in China, that he is not around to tell us what he thinks of this latest but not the least irony.
Tencent microblogs http://t.qq.com/puzhiqianglawyer/
Author’s interviews with two of Pu’s friends.
Albertine Ren is a human rights advocate living in the U. S. with deep knowledge of the subject.