By Chang Ping, published: January 20, 2015
On January 11, the Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) spent his fiftieth birthday behind bars. No one knows what was going through the mind of this famous and very vocal lawyer and writer. However, many lawyers, legal scholars and journalists wished him a happy birthday on the Chinese Internet; one message was re-broadcast 2,300 times and drew 500 comments. It amounted to a mass protest, Chinese style.
Some well-known lawyers and legal scholars did not sidestep their anger about the government’s crackdown on human rights lawyers. He Weifang (贺卫方), a law professor at Peking University, wrote: “The government is righting legal abuses with one hand and creating more with the other. There can be no greater folly or moral rot!”
This brings to mind the impassioned open letter by that brave scholar with a strong sense of ethics during the height of the princeling Bo Xilai’s power. Professor He Weifang attacked the grave legal abuses perpetrated under Bo around the Li Zhuang (李庄) case, including the revival of Maoist campaigns and crackdown on lawyers. Nor did he let some of his peers in the region off the hook, demanding that “scholars take a clear and firm critical stand and boycott” “interference with judicial independence, procedural violations, and acts that curb citizen rights and freedom.”
When Li Zhuang, a Beijing lawyer who defended a man accused of mafia crimes, found himself picked up, indicted and jailed by the Chongqing government on Bo Xilai’s watch, shock rippled through China’s legal world. Consequently, Bo’s downfall found many lawyers and scholars jubilant. What they did not foresee is that, after Xi Jinping took over, rights lawyers and the media are to have an even worse time than before.
The case against Pu Zhiqiang, compared against Li Zhuang’s, is ordained by higher-ranking officials, and furnished with more preposterous charges. The eloquent Pu became known in part through his moving defenses of two famous activists: the irrepressible artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), and Tan Zuoren (谭作人), convicted of leaking “state secrets” for compiling the names of children killed by tofu-dregs public schools in a 2008 earthquake. Now, Pu’s eloquence has landed him in a prison cell. What is more, his defense lawyer Qu Zhenghong (屈振红) was also detained under trumped-up charges. A few months later, the same thing happened to Xia Lin (夏霖), the defense lawyer hired on behalf of the scholar Guo Yushan (郭玉闪). Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine who would dare to write an open letter to protest. Voicing discontent on the Internet in the guise of birthday wishes risks much already.
Pu’s case is a classic when it comes to the suppression of free speech. Three out of the four allegations listed in his arrest warrant are based only on the thirty-odd microblogs he published on his Sina account: Provocation of trouble, the fanning of ethnic hatred, and inciting separatism against the state. The one other crime of “illegally obtaining information about other citizens” refers to some investigations he carried out in collaboration with several newspapers, including Caijin, Southern Weekend (《南方周末》) and Beijing News (《新京报》). Clearly, this too is a matter of free speech and media freedom.
These days, China’s political prisoners are almost all convicted on what they say. They hardly have the chance to do anything beyond speaking up, such as building an organization, raising money or mobilizing people to act. They have only to voice some views, write some articles, or even just tweet a few microblogs, and the government slams them in the clink for years. However, to invoke four crimes, two of which carry exceptionally long sentences, against a lawyer fond of giving vent to his opinions, is an unprecedented absurdity.
Chen Youxi (陈有西), a well-known lawyer, said: “Even if I were to take things from the government’s point of view, I still have to be honest here: You guys picked up the wrong guy when you picked up Pu Zhiqiang. The immediate people who planned this arrest are not doing the government any favors. Let Pu go as soon as you can.” Whether as a matter of sincere opinion or tactics, the hidden message behind what he said is that the top leadership may well not have wanted this to happen, and it only happened because the frontline workhorses were out of control.
This assessment, however, undercounts too much the control the Communist Party leaders exercise over their own system, especially given the gloves-off style of Xi, who whipped the “tiger hunt” anti-corruption campaign into a sustained frenzy. Xi naturally does not need to know the details of every case. Rather, beyond their vaunted ability to concoct abuses and wrongful sentences, the public security workhorses are even more valued for being able to gauge, with precision, what their boss wants.
If Pu is convicted of the crimes he is being accused of, the shadow cast by his case over China’s legal and media world will be enduring, and will last a long time.
Ching Ping (长平) is a veteran Chinese journalist and commentator of current affairs. He lives in Germany now.
Tackling a Wall of Lies – Profile of Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese Human Rights Lawyer, Albertine Ren, September 14, 2014
China’s Empty Promise of Rule by Law, by Teng Biao, January 6, 2015
(Translated by Louisa Chang)