China Targets Moderate Democracy Activist

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Originally published by The Weekly Standard on July 2, 2014

In a 2007 article in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, “Let a Hundred Flowers Be Crushed,” the Chinese lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, told of being followed by security agents every year around the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre of democracy protesters. Pu responded by ushering the agents to a conference room at his law firm and screening The Lives of Others, the 2006 Oscar winning film about an East German Stasi agent who protects the playwright he is spying on.  “We need to face the secret police,” Pu told William Dobson, in Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Leaning Curve.  “Why not try to change them, if you have the chance to do that?”

Pu may have changed a few minds, but not enough to keep him from being arrested  on June 13 and charged with “creating a disturbance” and “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information.”

The catalyst for Pu’s arrest may have been his attendance at a small private discussion of the 25thanniversary of the 1989 crackdown, but the Communist party’s purpose for persecuting him reflects the shrinking, amorphous space for lawyers, activists, and independent journalists that once appeared to be at least possible under party rule.

His arrest is of course also a disaster for Pu personally. Despite his robust appearance – he is often described as “brawny” – Pu, 49, suffers from diabetes.  His lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, has reported  that interrogations for which Pu sits for as long as 10 hours have left his legs swollen.  This is no small concern considering the death of a human rights activist, Cao Shunli , on March 14, after months of being denied medical treatment while in custody. Zhang says Pu is worried about his young son, and other relatives, including his niece and personal lawyer, Qu Zhenhong, who has also been arrested. He also foresees the end of his legal career.

Until now, Pu had never been arrested, despite representing politically sensitive clients and signing Charter 08, a 2008 democracy declaration, for which the party targeted the writer Liu Xiaobo, ultimately convicting him on subversion charges. Pu has traveled abroad and been featured in mainstream magazines, including China Newsweek, a state-run magazine which recognized him for his work in promoting the rule of law, and Southern People Weekly.

The charges against Pu follow the sentencing of Xu Zhiyong  to 4 years in prison for his role in the New Citizens Movement, defined by China Human Rights Defenders as “a loose grouping of human rights defenders advocating for democratic and rule-of-law reforms, constitutionalism, human rights, and social justice.”  One of its goals is disclosure of Communist party officials’ assets, ironically at a time when General Secretary Xi Jinping claims to be making anti-corruption a priority.  That campaign appears instead to be a settling of scores with rivals for power.

Pu Zhiqiang and Xu Zhiyong are often referred to as moderates, meaning they try to advance rights using existing laws and to steer clear of explicitly challenging the party’s monopoly on power.  During a visit to Washington in April, the journalist Xiao Shu, was asked why in that case Xu was arrested.  “Never underestimate the power of moderation,” he replied.   The Communist party doesn’t intend to.

Here is the excerpt  about Pu Zhiqiang from Dobson’s book The Dictator’s Learning Curve.

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