Elizabeth Dalziel/AP Images
Pu Zhiqiang, speaking to the press under close watch by plainclothes policemen, not pictured, at his office in Beijing, June 1, 2009
In late January, Chinese authorities announced that they are considering formal charges against Pu Zhiqiang, one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, who has been in detention since last May. Pu’s friends fear that even a life sentence is possible. The crime? “Picking fights and causing trouble,” and other related offenses, on his microblog. Even amid a growing wave of repression under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the outlandish nature of these pending charges stands out. Pu’s short, Twitter-like posts to his Weibo account are unusual for their cleverness, but do not really stand out by the standards of the Chinese Internet. After the authorities’ list of allegedly criminal posts was leaked, comments like this appeared: “What’s so new? We’ve been talking like this for years” and “If these are crimes, can the prisons hold a few million more?”
If the case results in a criminal conviction and a lengthy prison term, the effects on China’s Internet will be devastating. The casual sarcasm that has been the coin of its realm will suddenly become perilous, and self-censorship will become even more pervasive than it already is. Such an outcome, though, would be quite in line with the general chill on dissent that Xi Jinping has brought to China during the last two years. It also makes sense that the regime would choose Pu Zhiqiang as its example to show everyone, emphatically, what not to do on the Internet, because the fifty-year-old lawyer is one of China’s most celebrated crusaders for legal rights. If he can be silenced, no one is safe.
Tall, handsome, with a sonorous voice, Pu Zhiqiang would have been a natural politician in a different political system. Taking on the hardest cases, he has defended dissident writers and the artist Ai Weiwei, but also simple ordinary folk who have exposed corrupt officials and government oppression. He has represented Tibetans, Uighurs, and even other rights lawyers. And he’s been unafraid to confront “big tigers” like former national security chief Zhou Yongkang, whom Pu denounced in 2013 as a “traitor to the Chinese people.”
Pu’s renown has grown all the more for his unusual way with words. Whether in court or online, he is adept at mixing classical erudition and street vernacular. Twitter was made for him, but Twitter is banned in China. He used Weibo, China’s domestic platform for microblogging, where his posts attracted tens of thousands of followers, to the irritation of Chinese authorities. (Whenever his following got too large, his Weibo account would be cancelled; he would then open a new account, building followers until the same thing happened again.)
Still, until last spring, Pu had managed to stay out of jail. There are two reasons for this. One is that the better known a person is, the larger is the price in public opinion that the regime must pay for persecuting him or her. (Ai Weiwei is perhaps the most prominent such example.) The other reason is that Pu has always stayed within the letter of the law. Officials at several levels have been extremely angry at Pu at one time or another, but they are leery about coming after him with the law he knows so well. And it doesn’t look good to oppose what Pu Zhiqiang stands for.
In early May 2014, however, Pu and at least four others were detained for meeting at the home of his friend Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, to mark the upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. All were later released, except Pu. As he negotiated with his captors about access to his lawyers, and about whether and how he could take his medications to control blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes, government prosecutors began searching for evidence against him. They went to his home and to his law firm, seizing computers, files, and notebooks. They summoned people from across China for closed-door interviews. They seemed to be hunting especially for signs of treason, sexual misconduct, or corruption.
After months of research and interrogation, Chinese prosecutors apparently gave up on sex, money, and treason and settled instead for twenty-eight Weibo posts by Pu that could serve as evidence for four crimes: “picking fights and causing trouble,” “inciting ethnic hatred,” “inciting separatism,” and “leaking personal information.” On January 27, the list of allegedly incriminating posts was leaked to the Internet.
In their language—the word-play and stiletto wit—the posts are vintage Pu. In one, he borrows the ancient warrior Lü Bu (d. 199 CE) to poke fun at Huang Qifan, a recent mayor of Chongqing. Both men were sycophants who presented different faces in every direction and consequently lacked selves of their own. Pu, pretending sympathy for people who would like to express embarrassment but cannot, posts: “With no face of any kind, how can you have a red one?”
The government’s list is not well edited. Without explanation, posts 1 and 13 are nearly identical. In no case is a post specifically tied to any of the four criminal charges that ostensibly are being illustrated; one must guess at the relevance of each, as well as at the context. Post 16, for example, lambastes “a scholar” for “stupidity.” Which scholar? On what issue? Nothing is said about that. It seems fairly clear that personal conflicts, not legal issues, are at stake in several of the posts.