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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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


-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 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.

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