Famous citizens’ right activist Wu Gan was arrested on May 19 for protesting outside a court in Jianxi province, where lawyers had gathered to demand documents from an old case that they wished to reopen. On May 27, Wu was transferred to Fujian for criminal detention and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” as well as defamation.
His arrest and detention — and subsequent state media coverage smearing Wu's character — have sparked fears of a coming crackdown on citizens’ rights activists in China.
Despite having no strong ties to specific citizens’ groups or online platforms, Wu has become a well-known figure in human rights circles in China since 2009. The 42-year-old goes by the nickname “Butcher”. Speaking with the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog, Wu's lawyer, Ge Wenxiu, explained that the name is intended to mock state officials’ use of vulgarity with a sarcastic suggestion that he wants to “slay” for them their corruption and misconduct.
Over the past few days, state-controlled media have covered Wu's arrest with ample bias against his case. On May 25, China Central Television (CCTV) used footage from a security camera outside of Jiangxi People's High Court as evidence of Wu's disorderly conduct. Three days later, communist party newspaper People's Daily depicted Wu as an irresponsible divorcee, troublemaker and scammer whose father and brother were also criminals. The report quoted an anonymous acquaintance of Wu, alleging that his social activism was motivated by personal interest.
Wu was part of the first group of netizens to contest the controversial police investigation of Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed and killed a government official after he attempted to force her to have sex with him. Wu even traveled from Beijing to Hubei to visit Deng and persuade her family to seek help from Beijing lawyers to file an appeal. Eventually, Deng was convicted of “excessive self-defense” but exempt from criminal punishment due to her psychological status. The case was considered a huge success for online activism in China.
Since then, Wu has continued to help ordinary people defend their rights. Recently, he became involved in the case of the fatal shooting by police of a man at Qing'an train station. He formed a citizen investigation team and demanded that railway police release station surveillance camera footage to the public.
As Wu Gan has helped many petitioning for their rights to be upheld, a number of people spoke out in support of him on different social media platforms. Given that Chinese Twitter-like Weibo is heavily censored, some published their messages on Twitter. Badiucao, a political cartoonist, expressed his support with his drawing:
— 巴丢草 (@badiucao) May 25, 2015
Comic on “Butcher on CCTV”: Butcher has one foot stepping into #Qing'an shooting incident, with the Party immediately grabbing his other foot: it not only arrested him, but displayed him on TV. “Super vulgar butcher” [Wu Gan's social media screen name] is butchered by the glorious butcher. The China dream is more than ridiculous. This drawing is to express my support for Mr. Butcher.
Many users were outraged by the media's distortion of Wu's private life. Liushui argued that news outlets’ smears were part of a coordinated propaganda effort:
— 刘水 (@liushui1989) May 28, 2015
This is the first time I see the authorities making use of various state powers including CCTV, Xinhua and China Daily [these three media outlets are under the control of different authorities: the communist party, the government and propaganda officials] to fabricate a story to attack grassroots rights activist “Butcher Wu Gan”. Even [political prisoner] Liu Xiaobo did not enjoy this kind of treatment back then. Authoritarian states often use the media to punish people in ways that the law may not. They turn white into black and blacken justice. Civil rights action is a means to improve society. We should have more people like Wu Gan.
Wen Yunchao, a Chinese dissident based in the US, believed that national security authorities were involved:
— 北风（温云超, Yunchao Wen） (@wenyunchao) May 28, 2015
Judging from Butcher's criminal detention, the quick and coordinated report from Xinhua, People's Daily and CCTV, and the cross-provincial coordination between Jiangxi province and Fujian province in handing over Wu Gan for criminal detention, only the State Security Committee can mobilize both the judicial and propaganda authorities at the same time. Something fishy is definitely going on here. Such a crackdown aims to terrify and dissolve the hardcore citizens’ rights activists. The propaganda finger-pointing at an individual with an attempt to eliminate the target is similar to the anti-terrorist [snipers], [such crackdown] is outraging.
Twitter user Beidaijin believed that this latest clampdown would not end with a single case:
— 贝带劲 (@beidaijin) May 28, 2015
The fact that the party-state has mobilized the three media organs means that their target is not restricted to Butcher. It is just the opening scene and more spectacles will follow. Butcher is a part / a symbol of the kind of “movement” [that the authorities want to crack down on], he serves as a prelude and there will be more targets singled out.
Some users defended Wu's integrity:
— 上官乱 (@shangguanluan) May 28, 2015
Xinhua tried so hard to smear Butcher in order to crack down on the hardcore rights defenders. They described the civil rights defenders as a “crowd” who cause trouble. Well, Butcher likes to follow the hot issues. I have met him several times since 2009. Every time he was involved in a civil rights action. He is very nosy. He asked me about the situation of Chen Yunfei's family [Chen was arrested in early May under the charge of “inciting subversion” and “provoking troubles”]. He wanted to donate and help out his family.
— 小悲 (@Zodiac4698) May 28, 2015
Now wicked people have taken control and good people are in jail. I used to be an early Weibo user and have abandoned the platform. Butcher has been speaking out for the victims. He was kicked off Sina Weibo because of Xu Chunhe [the victim of the Qing'an police shooting]. Now he is arrested. I witnessed what he has done in the past few years. Wu is such a righteous guy who has a strong will and can make loud voice!