World·Q & A

How 7 tweets put 'Robin Hood'-style lawyer Pu Zhiqiang behind bars in China

When Chinese authorities put prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang on trial this week, there was a huge outcry from supporters and those who monitor human rights in the country. CBC News speaks with Perry Link, a distinguished professor of Chinese literature at University of California, Riverside, who has known Pu for many years.

Scholar says larger issue for regime is effort to quell online expression of critical views

Human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang works near his computer in Beijing on June 20, 2012. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

When Chinese authorities hauled lawyer Pu Zhiqiang into a Chinese court and put him on trial this week, there was a huge outcry from his supporters and those who monitor human rights in the country.

Pu had gone about his human rights work and evaded government reprisals for many years. His luck ran out in 2014 when he was detained while attending a seminar on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. 

After this week's political trial, he faces up to eight years in prison because of two charges based on seven social media posts in which he was critical of the Chinese government.

In 2006, Pu was featured in the CBC-TV documentary series China Rises.

He said then that as China transforms politically, "hopefully we can solve these conflicts through freedom of speech and a proper legal system."

"We need to resolve these issues before a bigger storm comes."

Pu Zhiqiang had gone about his human rights work and evaded government reprisals for many years. (Submitted by Yvonne Tong)

Pu has a loyal following both in China and abroad because of his long reputation for courage and decency, says Perry Link, a distinguished professor of Chinese literature at the University of California, Riverside. 

Link, who has known Pu for many years, has translated him and written about him several times in The New York Review of Books. He has also written widely on modern Chinese politics and literature.

He is best known for his translation of The Tiananmen Papers, the Chinese government's response to the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and for Charter 08, a manifesto signed in 2009 by Chinese intellectuals on the need for democratic reforms in their country . 

CBC News interviewed Link this week after news of Pu's sudden trial. The Chinese government concluded proceedings without revealing the verdict.

For people in the West unaware of this singular individual, what makes him stand out in your mind, as a critic of the Chinese government, as a maverick lawyer, as a man?

Perry Link: When he walks into a room — any room — his presence fills it. He is tall, handsome, deep-voiced, charismatic and a fountain of oral wit. At the same time, he is grounded in common sense and common decency; he likes to cut through jargon — political, academic or any other kind — and takes pleasure in puncturing what he sees as pretense or pomposity. Beneath that, he is just very, very smart. 

In courtrooms, he can out-argue his opposition and, in defending cases in which the government is repressing someone's free speech, can turn the tables so that the prosecution has to go on the defensive. China's courtrooms have no juries, but courtroom onlookers, charmed by Pu's wit, take his side and function as a jury for him. 

He has done this many times, leaving behind a long list of people who despise him for having embarrassed them, but an even longer list — hundreds of thousands — who admire his truth-telling and his Robin Hood sense of justice.   

Describe the kinds of cases Pu took on that likely made him unpopular with the regime.

Link: Pu did commercial law, but took human rights cases, especially free speech cases, pro bono.  The most famous of these was his defence of a husband-and-wife team of authors who in 2003 published a book called An Investigation of Chinese Peasants that laid bare corruption, including the over-taxation and bullying of farmers, by local officials in Anhui province. 

The local officials sued the authors for libel and Pu took their case. At trial, Pu's eloquence and clever interviewing of witnesses essentially turned the plaintiffs into defendants and it earned him lasting enmity among certain powerful people in Anhui. 

His other cases ranged from defending famous figures like the artist Ai Weiwei, charged with tax evasion after criticizing the central government, to little-known citizens like Tang Hui, who was sentenced to 18 months in a labour camp on charges of "seriously disturbing the social order and exerting a negative impact on society" because she publicly protested the lenient sentences that were handed down to men who raped her 11-year-old daughter.

Professor Perry Link, left, has known Pu Zhiqiang for several years. (Submitted by Yvonne Tong)

Pu has been vocal in his criticism of the Chinese government for many years. What did he do to cross the line this time round?

Link: The Communist Party of China draws no clear lines about what speech it will tolerate. Who gets punished, and how badly, depends not only on what one says but on many other factors: who one is; whom one is connected to; what people one has offended; who those people are connected to; how widespread the damage is seen to be, both to those people and to the prestige of the Communist Party; and more.  

Once the authorities have determined that someone has "crossed a line," a language game ensues over what written rule, if any, was violated. For years, Pu Zhiqiang was able to win these language games for other people because of his intimate grasp of the law. He could out-manoeuvre government prosecutors, and they, knowing this, were reluctant to take him on. 

This time around, though, in May 2014, someone — we don't know who — made the decision that enough is enough and ordered Pu's detention. He was held for many months before authorities made their first efforts to explain why they were holding him.

During the months of the investigation, it was clear from the reports of his friends and his colleagues whom the police were interviewing that the regime was trying to pin something really big on him, like treason or major financial corruption. Second best would be something really embarrassing, like sexual misconduct.

But apparently all these efforts yielded nothing and prosecutors had to settle for "stirring up trouble" and "inciting ethnic hatred" based on seven posts Pu had putting on weixin, the Chinese counterpart of Twitter.

The fact that the whole case — carrying charges punishable by up to eight years in prison — could be based on only seven tweets (down from 27 a few months ago) suggests to me that there likely was considerable debate inside the regime over whether and how to charge Pu. Someone must have been arguing about the costs in public opinion, both domestic and international, of getting it wrong.

The government has thrown a criminal case at him based on his tweets on politics and corruption. Is the case a sign that the government may be worried about dissent escalating via social media in China?

Link: Yes. The case is likely driven by the personal animosities of particular people whom Pu has offended. But the much larger issue, from the viewpoint of the regime as a whole, is to do something to quell the expression of critical views on the internet. Pu's seven incriminating tweets are cleverer than most, but not unusual in their sarcasm about politics and corruption. 

The internet today has plenty of such sarcasm. If the authorities want to curtail it broadly, who better to take down — to make an example of — than Pu Zhiqiang, the famous gladiator for free speech? If Pu receives a long prison term, the chilling effect on China's internet will be terrible.

Pu has said the Tiananmen demonstrations — in which he took part — and the massacre in June 1989 profoundly changed him politically. How?

Link: I don't think it changed his political values — he has always been a champion of fairness, truth-telling and the interests of underdogs — so much as sealed his determination to work for these values. For years, until police began barring him, he visited Tiananmen Square every June 4th. 

He has written a moving essay about the "riffraff" who died during the massacre. Much attention has gone to the elite students who died that night and to famous intellectuals who were driven into foreign exile. But most of the victims were ordinary people — "riffraff" in government documents — who were killed in the massacre or quietly executed later.

Anti-Beijing protesters, with a picture of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, protest outside the Chinese liaison office to demand Pu's release in Hong Kong on Dec. 15, 2015. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

China's human rights transgressions have been off the news agenda lately. How would you characterize the state of free speech and political expression there in recent years? Does Pu's trial indicate a new phase or just the ongoing quiet efforts to neutralize all critics using the courts?

Link: China's human rights conditions were poor under Hu Jintao, the paramount leader from 2002 to 2012, and in many ways have worsened under Xi Jinping. 

The group China Human Rights Defenders, which does careful research on the repression and persecution of lawyers, activists and petitioners, issues bulletins about every 10 days or two weeks reporting on new cases across China. You can view these at Pu's trial itself does not mark a new phase; it is an especially visible item within a systematic program that has been accelerating under Xi Jinping.

It is clear that Xi wants to be a strongman and to be seen, in a sense, as a second coming of Mao. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.