The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang

By Mo Zhixu, published: December 21, 2015

“Pu Zhiqiang has many facets to his character. He is a rights lawyer, an Internet opinion leader, and a dissident, in the broader sense of the word. His commitments and pursuits over the past 26 years help to explain how Pu has come to be so influential.”


Protesters outside the court on Dec. 14.

Protesters outside the court on Dec. 14.


On December 14, 2015, renowned human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) was tried by the Beijing Number Two People’s Court on charges of “provoking a serious disturbance” and “inciting ethnic hatred.” This case has been watched closely ever since Pu was first detained in May 2014.

On the day of the trial hearing, diplomats from the United States, the European Union, and other foreign governments went to read statements outside the courthouse. Many international media outlets were also on scene to conduct interviews and tape reports. Both the diplomats and the reporters were roughed up. A large group of Pu Zhiqiang supporters also gathered outside the courthouse, shouting “Pu Zhiqiang is innocent!” A total of 17 people were taken away from the scene. Now, a few days later, we know that Zhang Zhan (张占), Wang Su’e (王素娥), Qu Hongxia (渠红霞), and Ran Chongbi (冉崇碧) have all been placed under criminal detention. The others were released after being detained for a few hours or are being held at the Majialou “relief and assistance center,” where petitioners are often detained.

Pu Zhiqiang is a well-known human rights lawyer in the mainland. As a graduate student at China University of Political Science and Law, he took active part in the 1989 student movement and was one of 13 students from his university to take part in the first wave of hunger strikes in Tiananmen Square. Pu was also one of the last students to leave the square on June 4th.

Over the next 25 years, Pu Zhiqiang remained committed to commemorating the events of 1989 in his own way, which included going to Tiananmen Square each June 4th to pay homage to the dead. On the 15th anniversary in 2004, Pu Zhiqiang played a part in issuing the “Statement of the ’89 Generation on the June 4th Issue.” In 2008, Pu was also among the first group of 303 Chinese to sign Charter ’08. In addition, Pu Zhiqiang long maintained close and friendly relations with dissidents and liberals such as Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Zhang Zuhua (张祖桦), Zhang Xianyang (张显扬), Jiang Ping (江平), and Zhang Sizhi (张思之). He was active in the pan-liberal camp and could even, in a broad sense, be considered a dissident.

Pu Zhiqiang (the tallest) in 1989. Su Muqing (front center in blue jacket) is among the rights lawyers disappeared on July 10th, 2015.

Pu Zhiqiang (the tallest) in 1989. Su Muqing (front center in blue jacket) is among the rights lawyers disappeared on July 10th, 2015.

Pu Zhiqiang also became widely known for his public role as a human rights lawyer. Influenced by Hu Ping’s essay “On Freedom of Expression,” Pu became almost religious in his commitment to free expression. Very early after he became a lawyer he started getting involved in litigation related to freedom of expression, such as defending literary critic Xiao Xialin (肖夏林) in the lawsuit brought against him by author Yu Qiuyu (余秋雨) or representing the authors of the book An Investigation of Chinese Peasants, Chen Guidi (陈桂棣) and Wu Chuntao (吴春桃), in the defamation lawsuit brought against them by Zhang Xide (张西德), the former party secretary of Linquan County, Anhui.

Back in 2005, Pu Zhiqiang was featured alongside Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Teng Biao (滕彪) and others chosen by Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan) as “Persons of the Year” for their membership in the emerging “rights defense movement.” More recently, Pu has represented Tan Zuolin (谭作人), Ai Weiwei (艾未未), a series of individuals sent to re-education through labor in Chongqing, and the Hunan “petitioning mother” Tang Hui (唐慧), also sent to re-education through labor.

Relying on new social media platforms such as Twitter and Weibo and his use of other media such as the commercialized press, Pu Zhiqiang gained widespread public fame. In addition to being the subject of widely circulated features by several media outlets, he was also honored as “Influential Chinese Rule of Law Personality for 2013” by China Newsweek. He was seen as one of the leaders of the contemporary legal rights defense and the most influential of China’s human rights lawyers.

As Pu Zhiqiang took part in more and more human rights cases in recent years, his influence only continued to grow. As this was happening, Pu Zhiqiang never tried to hide his past history on the Internet or social media. From time to time, he would post an image of a march, hunger strike, or demonstration from 1989. Features published by the commercial media, such as the Southern People’s Weekly cover story “Pu Zhiqiang, Salt of the Earth” (《中坚浦志强》) might try to gloss over this history, but there were clear indications pointing to that year and more and more people came to know about the connection between Pu’s participation in the student movement and his later determination. You could say that, in the way he acted and expressed himself and through his own personal charisma and efforts, Pu Zhiqiang managed to bring that period of history back into the mainstream.

After June 4th, the authorities tried to use economic development and the fading effect of time to eliminate the problem of June 4th once and for all. To this end, they carried out 26 years of continuous pressure and attempts to isolate the incident from the public. This is why the authorities could not tolerate Pu Zhiqiang’s rising influence, and, to a great degree, it explains why they would go to ridiculous lengths to use a mere seven Weibo posts to charge Pu with two crimes. In fact, the very thing that ultimately led to Pu Zhiqiang’s arrest was a gathering of a dozen or so people in a private home to hold a seminar on the 25th anniversary of June 4th in Beijing.

Students on hunger strike in 1989.

Students on hunger strike in 1989.

Besides June 4th, the authorities have long been on guard against human rights lawyers. On July 31, 2012, the overseas edition of People’s Daily published an article by Yuan Peng (袁鹏), director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations [a think tank of the Ministry of National Security], who lumped together rights-defense lawyers, underground religious activity, dissidents, Internet leaders, and vulnerable groups like petitioners into a kind of “New Black Five Categories.” In the eyes of the authorities, rights-defense lawyers are direct participants in rights defense cases, and they also play a pivotal role by disseminating information about these cases and explaining their significance. It’s thanks to rights lawyers that individual cases can take on broader legal and political significance, and only lawyers are able to span different groups, such as petitioners, followers of underground religious groups, dissidents, and Internet leaders.

Of the 14 rights defenders who were, along with Pu Zhiqiang, selected as the Asia Weekly “Persons of the Year” in 2005, Zheng Enchong (郑恩宠), Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), and Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) have all since spent time in prison. Others have experienced different degrees of repression or been forced into exile.

In the social media age, there gradually emerged a group of rights lawyers, including Pu Zhiqiang, who were sometimes known as “die-hard” lawyers. They frequently took on sensitive or controversial cases, such as the forced eviction case in Pingdu City, Shandong. Using new modes of communication and new online space for action, a new rights defense protest model began to appear, one that allowed sharing of costs in the public interest, the merging of online- and offline action, collective action across geographic boundaries, and positive expressions of protest.

For example, there was the attention surrounding the unnatural death of the father of democracy activist Xue Mingkai (薛明凯) in Qufu, Shandong; the effort to investigate the black jail at Jiansanjiang; the protests outside Zhengzhou’s Number Three Detention Center; and the attention focused outside the trial of Fan Mugen (范木根) in Suzhou. All of these cases involved legal defense carried out by die-hard lawyers who used social media and instant messaging software to disseminate information, giving them a much stronger capacity for mobilization, publicity, and sustainability. This posed a considerable challenge to the authorities’ model of rigid stability.

Even if Pu Zhiqiang did not directly take part in all of these cases, influential human rights lawyers like Pu, Si Weijiang (斯伟江), and others early on became seen as a threat. The large-scale crackdown on rights lawyers and related activists finally got fully underway on July 9, 2015. In this campaign of repression, 12 lawyers and more than a dozen others have been placed under criminal detention or residential surveillance, with more than 250 other lawyers having been temporarily detained, forced to take part in “meetings” with police, or summoned for questioning. In this sense, Pu Zhiqiang’s arrest a year earlier can be considered a harbinger or rehearsal of this crackdown.

More than anything, though, Pu Zhiqiang’s case is closely connected to the subject that concerned him most—freedom of expression. In the days before and after his trial for “provoking a serious disturbance” and “inciting ethnic hatred,” this was the focus of the media inside and outside China, as well as the public at large.

Pu’s case is widely seen as a test of the limits of free expression in today’s China. As China has gradually expanded the influence of market forces, the space for free expression in China’s commercial media and Internet has become closely linked to the liberal tendencies of the emergent social stratum commonly called the middle class. A kind of pro-liberal discourse has spread more widely and gained greater influence. This is especially true on the new microblogging platforms, where this discourse gets amplified and disseminated. It is there, too, where we find the emergence of liberal intellectuals, journalists, rights defenders, NGO activists, and entrepreneurs who are brought together through this shared discourse. There’s a spanning of geographic boundaries and a tendency for online action to turn into offline action.

浦志强_This kind of expression and its corresponding social potential concerned the authorities, who quickly took repressive measures, ranging from deleting the online accounts of popular Internet opinion leaders to rolling out a list of “seven unmentionable” subjects to the 2013 campaign to “cleanse” the Internet.

As both a lawyer and opinion-maker, Pu Zhiqiang became a quite active figure on the new social media platforms. He was an active participant in many cases and also a frequent contributor to the liberal discourse. His self-description on his microblog account as a “Formosan lawyer and godfather outside the system” was somewhat self-mocking, but it was not an exaggeration. Pu’s personal accounts were deleted dozens of times only to be “reincarnated.”

The offense of “provoking a serious disturbance” being used against him relies on the “Interpretation on Several Questions Related to the Application of Law in Handling Criminal Cases Involving Provoking a Serious Disturbance,” issued by the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate on July 5, 2013, as part of the authorities’ campaign to “cleanse” the Internet. For this reason, the attack against Pu Zhiqiang can be seen as an extension of that earlier campaign, both an effort to wipe out the huge influence that Pu once enjoyed and part of the overall attack on liberal discourse in China.

Pu Zhiqiang has many facets to his character. He is a rights lawyer, an Internet opinion leader, and a dissident, in the broader sense of the word. His commitments and pursuits over the past 26 years help to explain how Pu has come to be so influential. At the same time, they show how this idealist who has never forgotten his original intentions and this human rights defender who uses his role as a legal professional to fight for freedom of expression and justice must inevitably become an enemy of the regime.

The attack on Pu Zhiqiang is part of the wider repression of the memory of June 4th, rights defense lawyering, and the universal liberal discourse. Today, several days after the trial, we are still waiting for the verdict. [Mo’s article was first published on December 19]. Some are hoping for or imagining some sort of miracle. They simply cannot accept that such an upright person could be treated so cruelly and charged with such groundless crimes. This mindset makes them want to hope for a miracle and refuse to give up their illusions. They want to see a “touchstone,” a “watershed,” a “turning point,” a “milestone.”

At the moment, the question of Pu Zhiqiang’s fate is nothing less than a huge test of the public psyche. But faced with the strength of the market neo-totalitarian regime, Pu Zhiqiang’s fate was probably predestined long ago. I believe, however, that the history we’ve been waiting for him to usher in still lies ahead of us.


Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.


Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:

Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China

Fear of Losing Control: Why China Is Implementing an Internet Security Law


Chinese original 《莫之许:浦志强命中注定的荣耀与苦难, translated by China Change.



8 responses to “The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang”

  1. […] China Change, Mo Zhixu profiles Pu to describe the influential lawyer’s accomplishments and sacrifices over …—and why authorities came to view him as a […]

  2. Sangay says:

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  3. […] Xu has gone to the street and raised protest signs to demand the release of the Feminist Five, Pu Zhiqiang and other human rights activists. She has also formed close relations with petitioners, serving as […]

  4. […] The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang […]

  5. […] The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang […]

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