Human Rights Lawyer's Indictment Marks the Beginning of a ‘Weibo Inquisition’ in China

A number of protesters demanded the release of Pu Zhiqiang outside the Chinese government liaison office in Hong Kong on May 17, 2015. Photo from League of Socialist Democracy's Facebook.

A number of protesters demanded the release of Pu Zhiqiang outside the Chinese government liaison office in Hong Kong on May 17, 2015. Photo from League of Socialist Democracy's Facebook.

After a year in detention, prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was finally indicted on charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking a disturbance” on May 15.

Pu was arrested by Beijing police and originally charged with “provoking a disturbance” in May 2014 after he attended a seminar commemorating the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989. As a human rights lawyer, he has represented a number of citizens’ right activists and grassroots petitioners in court, including artist and activist Ai Weiwei in 2012.

Chinese authorities’ case against Pu is built upon some 30 messages that he wrote between 2011 and 2014 on microblogging site Weibo. The prosecutor's indictment claimed that Pu's online messages commenting on the Kunming train station attack had incited ethnic hatred. That attack on March 1, 2014, was reportedly organized by a group of separatists from Xinjiang province, where tensions between the Uyghur Muslim minority and Han Chinese have at times erupted in deady violence. Thirty-one people were killed and 141 injured at the train station at the eve of the opening of China's annual People's Congress.

Pu Zhiqiang's portrait from China Digital Times. His hands show the sign of

Pu Zhiqiang's portrait from China Digital Times

On the charge of “picking quarrels”, authorities allege Pu targeted Tian Zhenhui, the chief of propaganda department of Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute of Signal & Communication Ltd., which is a corporation under the Ministry of Railways; and Shen Jilan, a representative of the National People's Congress. Both Tian and Shen testified against Pu.

If convicted, Pu could face up to eight years in prison.

Pu's online message that directly commented on the Kunming attack was published on March 2, 2014. He wrote on Weibo:

昆明时间太血腥,凶手罪孽深重。说疆独制造恐怖,这回我信,但这是结果,不是原因。死伤极惨重,后果太不堪,你就给了我一句话,说疆独凶残你没责任,我不满意。天天说党的政策亚克西,维吾尔人心向党,就这么血肉横飞?法学会会长王乐泉,你镇抚西域十几年,那儿你最熟悉,告诉我:为什么?冲谁来的?

It is a bloody incident and the murderers have committed a grave sin. This time, I believe the Xinjiang separatists are terrorists. But this is the consequence, not the cause. So many were killed and injured, and given such an unbearable result, you concluded that you have no responsibility in the Xinjiang separatists’ cruel actions. I am not satisfied with such an answer. You keep saying that the party’s policies are yakshi [Uyghur expression for “happiness”] and the that Uyghurs support the party. Then how do you explain this horrible scene of flesh and blood splattered everywhere? Wang Lequan, as the head of the China Law Society, you governed the western region for more than a decade. You know best. Tell me why? Who are their targets?

In addition to this message, he made several comments on ethnic conflicts in Xinjiang and Tibet. In most of the cases, he urged for reflection on the Chinese Communist Party's ethnic policies.

Upon reading the indictment against Pu, Zhang Xuezhong, a well-known dissident and law expert, rebuked the prosecutors’ accusation:

浦志强先生以一名汉族人的身份,呼吁当局反思和改进现行政策,切实尊重维族同胞的平等权利和基本人权,这种行为根本就不是煽动民族仇恨。恰恰相反,浦的呼吁只会促进维汉两族之间的和解与团结,因为浦的言论,事实上是在向维族同胞传递一个积极的信号:维护维族同胞的平等权利和基本人权,不但是维族人自己关心的事情,而且也是汉族人关心的事情。

Pu Zhiqiang, as a Han Chinese, urged the authorities to reflect and improve policy because he respects the basic human rights for his Uyghur compatriots. An act of this nature is far from inciting ethnic hatred. On the contrary, his appeal will only help to resolve conflict and build solidarity between Han and Uyghurs. Pu's comments delivered a positive message to Uyghurs: the equity and human rights of Uyghurs is not only a concern among Uyghur people, but also Han people.

He further argued that the criminalization of Pu's online speech will trigger ethnic hatred:

浦志强的微博言论不可能煽动民族仇恨,但因此而对他进行刑事处罚,则无疑是在煽动民族仇恨。因为,当局若是一边放任少数汉人在网上对维族人喊打喊杀,一边又要迫害像浦志强这样的人权律师,那无疑是在向维族同胞传递一个不祥的信号:对于当局来说,汉族人哪怕只是以言论的方式,为维族人争取平等权利,都是必须严惩不贷的犯罪!

Pu Zhiqiang's words on Weibo will not incite ethnic hatred. But his criminalization will. If the authorities indulge a minority of Han Chinese making hate speech toward Uyghurs online, while on the other hand prosecuting a human rights lawyer like Pu Zhiqiang, it delivers a message to the Uyghur people: if any Han Chinese advocate for Uyghur people's equal rights, the authorities will criminalize and punish such an act.

In terms of the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking a disturbance”, Zhang pointed out that the two so-called victims were public figures and should face public criticism.

Shen Jilan, born in 1929, has been a representative of the National People's Congress since 1954 and is considered by many netizens to be a rubber stamp of the communist party as she has never voted “no” in Congress throughout her 12 terms of service; some of those votes have seemed contradictory given her past record.

Pu Zhiqiang's comment on Shen was made on January 31, 2013:

除了运气和血统,申纪兰当代表,毛新宇当委员,靠装傻和真傻。这说明人大政协啥也不是,人想如鱼得水,要么装傻,要么真傻。我不奢望毛委员聪明,只好祈求申老太:活着轻于鸿毛,死去重于泰山,您一死了之该多好啊!您都84了,当60年代表,终于到坎儿上了,趁机马革裹尸,讹人大追封个烈女,如何?

In addition to luck and bloodline, the fact that Shen Jilan could become a representative [of the National People Congress, NPC] and Mao Xinyu could become a committee member [of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, CPCCC], depends on the ability to act stupid and the genuine attribution of stupidity. It shows that NPC and CPCCC are nothing. If you want to become a fish in the water, just act stupid or be stupid. I don't expect committee member Mao to become smart, and can only put my hope in old lady Shen: Life is as light as a feather and death is as heavy as a mountain. Your death will be great. You are 84 years old and have been representative for 60 years. Once you lie down, you will be covered with beautiful words and honored as a heroine. What do you think?

As for Tian Zhenhui, the propaganda chief at the National Railway Research and Design Institute, Pu did not mention her name in his post on July 29, 2011 when he commented on a press conference regarding the deadly Wenzhou Train collision. The press conference was hosted by Tian and was assumed to address the signal system problem that directly led to the train collision. In the 20 minute press conference, Tian refused to answer some 20 questions, saying that it was technical and asked the reporters to search for the answer online. Many netizens called the occasion “the most insincere press conference in history”. Pu was among Weiboers making fun of the conference.

Zhang concluded:

浦志强的二十余条涉案微博,只是一些批评政府政策和公共人物(甚至是国家工作人员)的言论。发表此类言论,纯属行使公民基本权利的正当行为。这些言论如果真要作为证据,最多只能证明两件事:(1)浦志强先生是完全无罪的;(2)北京警方和检方对他的指控纯属言论迫害。

The two dozen messages that incriminate Pu Zhiqiang are criticism of government policy and public figures (including civil servants). Such speech is a basic right of citizens. If the comments are to serve as evidence, they can prove two things: 1. Pu Zhiqiang is not guilty; 2. Beijing police and the prosecutors’ accusations are pure persecution of speech.

On Twitter, @yuxianxian pointed out that even if Pu did insult Shen and Tian, it should be a civil defamation case rather than a criminal one:

This is strange. If Pu Zhiqiang insulted Shen Jilan and Tian Zhenhui, the indictment should come from them rather than the court. It is similar to the case of Sullivan suing The New York Times, how could it turn into a case between the police of the Montgomery city and The New York Times?

All online comments concerning Pu Zhiqiang's prosecution are deleted by China's web censors within seconds. News and analysis website China Digital Times backed up a few, such as:

强行关闭微博显得政府言论不自由,所以就给你治言罪,让你以后不敢说话,也就达到了网络严管的目的。
按照检察院的说法。我看网上有微博的人都是有犯罪嫌疑。

-The shutting down of Weibo would make the government look bad on freedom of expression. Hence, it criminalizes individuals for their speech so that you are afraid to speak their mind. This is also part of the heavy-handed policy on Internet control.
– According to the Procuratorate's argument, all Weibo users are criminal suspects.

The official persecution of intellectuals for their writings, known as the “literary inquisition“, has a long history in China. Pu Zhiqiang's case marks a new era: the Weibo inquisition. News site Paopao.net reposted a popular online comment:

Copy from Weibo: Pu Zhiqiang's case gives birth to a new term: “Weibo inquisition”. It is an evolution of “literary inquisition” and will be recorded in history.

12 comments

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »

Guidelines

  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.


Support our work defending online freedom of expression around the world.

justice+matters

Learn why our work is important »

Donate now

Close