ChinaFile

Pu Zhiqiang Speaks From Prison

ChinaFile My conversations with the imprisoned Chinese human rights defender.

On June 13, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau formally arrested prominent rights-defense lawyer Pu Zhiqiang on charges of picking quarrels and illegally obtaining personal information about a Chinese citizen. The formal arrest, announced via one of the bureau's verified social media accounts, came after Pu had been in detention for 37 days after attending a private commemoration of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. 

In addition to his career as a partner in a Beijing law firm, Pu has argued numerous cases related to free expression and civil rights on behalf of media organizations, journalists, and artists, including Ai Weiwei. He successfully defended the authors of an exposé on rural corruption in a defamation suit in 2004. Despite his increasingly public profile as a critic of political injustice in China and his background as a prominent student activist during the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, Pu had never before served time in jail.

On June 9, Pu's defense lawyer, 86-year-old Zhang Sizhi -- who has also defended prominent dissidents -- visited Pu in detention. What follows is an edited translation of Zhang's notes from that meeting, which were circulated online in China in mid-June. -Susan Jakes

At 5:30 p.m. on June 9, I had the good luck to be able to meet with Pu. While I was waiting to see him, there was some talk online about "visitations." The police officers in the facility couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. They said repeatedly that they had arranged for me to meet with Pu privately but that others would not be granted the same opportunity. Except for the official in charge of security, there seemed to be no surveillance measures in place (like cameras). Pu and I were able to talk undisturbed for a whole hour. He himself looked surprised as he walked into the room. We shook hands through the window and sat down to talk. His long hair was wet, probably from the shower.

Below are notes summing up some of the main points of our discussion. All phrases in quotes are Pu's own words.

"They bring me in for questioning practically every day. Sometimes the sessions last as long as 10 hours. My legs are getting swollen, probably from sitting on a bench without moving for so long." He said of these grueling interrogation sessions, "If this continues, my body's not up to it." The facility has been "quite good" about providing him medical attention. He is taking insulin and at one point was sent to the Aviation General Hospital to see a doctor. "The food in here's not the same as on the outside, of course, but I'm dealing with it. Sometimes a meal consists of nothing but a steamed bun."

The questioning sessions cover a wide range of topics. The "charges" (my word) against him are many and broad, but he enumerated them briefly and asked me to please not "share them with the public" at this point. During our discussion, he mentioned that his journals and his computer had been confiscated. He couldn't remember all the content clearly enough to describe it and said he would "corroborate it later."

"I expect that they will formally arrest me sometime in the next day or two, and at that point we'll begin legal proceedings," he said. "I worry that it'll be too physically taxing for you. I don't want to tire you out." He added that "[a certain person] would be a better fit to handle this case than [another person]." (I think it's prudent not to reveal names at the moment.) "You see ...," he said. I interrupted him, saying: Since you're not free to speak now, let's not worry about these things yet. We'll have time later. He didn't pursue this further, just added, "It'll be a lot of work. There'll be a lot of information to gather online. When the time comes, you should be prepared."

He said gravely, "If we lose, I probably can't be a lawyer after I get out, so what can I be?" He paused for a moment, as if lost in thought, perhaps waiting for me to offer my opinion. I didn't want to discourage him by talking about long-term options, so I said nothing, and after another moment he said, "I have a wish. I don't know if I'll get the chance to fulfill it." He paused again. "After this is over, I want to do a better job looking after my friends and family." "I miss my mother, I miss my parents-in-law. Do you know if they're well?" I apologized, saying I was extremely sorry that I hadn't thought of this and couldn't tell him any concrete details. But I told him that his wife had wanted me to pass on this message to him: "Whatever happens, keep calm, don't lose your head. Take care of your health. Remember that staying healthy is the most important thing. Afterwards, I'll do all I can to take care of you." He was visibly moved by this and said, "I understand. Please tell her to tell our son that I believe this experience will be good training for him in toughness. He'll learn a lot from it, and he'll be better for it in the future." I told him that his wife had said that their son was handling it well. "Don't worry," I told him.

When we were done discussing "housework," he asked, "How's Aunt [X]?" "She's well. She's worried for you. She asks about you practically every day." This topic clearly stirred up his emotions, and unable to restrain himself, he burst out, "Please say hello to my friends for me. I've caused everybody so much trouble." Then he took care to add, "Tell [X] to find another line of work. It's not the right time; nothing will come of it!" I was moved that even in his difficult straits he was so concerned about his family and friends.

When we'd finished talking, he bowed to me from the other side of the window, and I bowed back. I was overcome with emotion. The following gives my overall impression of Pu's situation, as a collective answer to all the questions from concerned friends:

First, psychological state. I would sum it up as: very resolute, but not unshaken. It's worth emphasizing that nobody being subjected for the first time to the inhumane environment of a prison can be expected to be a model of pure inner strength. It's hard not to fret about the past and worry about one's loved ones. If I were in prison, it would be the same way for me. Whenever Pu's family and friends came up in conversation, his eyes started brimming with tears. His tenderness is perhaps a finer quality than stoicism would be. By "not unshaken," I mean only, of course, given the circumstances.

Second, physical condition. I judge it to be declining. It would be best if he were released on bail for medical treatment. Our previous application was rejected, but for extremely abstract reasons -- the notice contained nothing but generalities and not a single concrete argument. It's time to raise this question again.

Third, his grasp of the details of his case and of his own prospects are for the most part in line with reality. Mentally and emotionally, he's well prepared.

Fourth, as far as the details of the case go: Recent developments have been very unfavorable to my client. The investigation has been quite merciless, and although I expected some of this, I still underestimated it.

The claim that "the detainee may be released after another three or four days" is pure nonsense. And as far as "a maximum two- or three-year sentence" goes, that's a fantasy.

Considering all the charges that are being leveled against him, I'd say prospects are grim.

As a friend, I think it's best to prepare myself psychologically and to be ready to meet whatever contingencies arise.

On a more personal note:

As Pu's lawyer, I welcome any critiques or criticism of my work as described above. I may make errors of judgment, such as being convinced that "questioning" was just an excuse for refusing to allow Pu to meet with his lawyer. On May 18, I told a reporter that Pu's case was an ordinary one and that I would handle it with the same approach as I would any other case. At that point, I was trying to limit the discussion to the charge of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," since Pu's actions on May 3 clearly had nothing to do with "picking quarrels." There have been major developments since then, and now it's clear that Pu's case is not an ordinary one, and we should not regard it as such. This situation requires us to put our heads together, to pool our energies.

It is perfectly normal for fellow practitioners of a profession to have differences of opinion. This is a good thing. There's nothing wrong with having different ideas, different methods, different styles, differing judgments. But we can't let such differences keep us from cooperating. Our goal is the same, and everything else is open for discussion. Let's not forget the valuable lessons we learned from the Li Qinghong case in Guizhou. We can't afford to be muddled or indecisive in this crucial case; we need to sparkle, we need to show the world, through our strength and our brilliance, that Chinese lawyers are a force to be reckoned with.

May justice be served, and may the rule of law prevail!

Zhang Sizhi
June 11, 2014

Translated by Austin Woerner, with Yan Cong and Susan Jakes.

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

ChinaFile

'We Want to Flourish'

ChinaFile Watch what happens when a young Egyptian woman and a young Chinese woman discuss free speech.

When Shen Yitong left her home in China to study French at Cairo University in 2008, she didn't know that she would come to think of Egypt as a second home, or that she would see revolution come upon the country so suddenly. Her parents came from peasant backgrounds and they devoted everything to supporting her education, including moving from a smaller city in northern Jilin Province to the capital city, Changchun, in 2004. 

I met Shen while in Cairo for an arts festival in the spring of 2013. The toppling of then-President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 reverberated through the small Chinese expat community there, whose members number in the thousands. Outsiders to the factional disputes, Chinese expat fates are still intertwined with their outcomes -- in part because they live in Egypt, but also because they are Chinese citizens, for whom the tradeoff between political freedoms and the uncertainty of regime change has immediate resonance. 

I filmed Shen during January and February; she has since left Cairo to start a Master's degree in Paris. This short film, produced for ChinaFile, focuses on a conversation Shen has with a close Egyptian friend, Asma El Nagar. El Nagar works for a Chinese company in Egypt after having studied Mandarin at Cairo University. The two friends laugh over a meal of Lanzhou noodles and converse in rapid-fire, relaxed Mandarin with occasional Arabic mixed in. 

As their conversation turns to current events, the two friends draw parallels between the Rabaa Square massacre and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Neither is a historian, political commentator, expert, or activist, and this film does not aim to portray them as authorities. In fact, before coming to Cairo, Shen, like many of her peers at home, had never heard of the events that transpired in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. There are of course many strong distinctions between the August 2013 Rabaa Square massacre and the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters. What they do have in common is they are both examples of overwhelming state violence against civilians. In both Egypt and China, these events are marked by an inability to freely discuss or even commemorate them without fear of retribution.

Alison Klayman for ChinaFIle