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Pu Zhiqiang: a classic, tragic victim of China's crackdown

Serious concerns for this prominent layer, detained since May

Pu Zhiqiang: a classic, tragic victim of China's crackdown

A guard in Tiananmen Square (picture: robert paul van beet /

Michael Sainsbury with Zhang Yufei

June 13, 2014

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For anyone who cares about human rights in China, the ongoing detention and mistreatment of outspoken lawyer Pu Zhiqiang is a fresh low for Xi Jinping and his Communist Party. It now looks likely to result in trumped up criminal charges that could see Pu locked up for many years.

Pu gained fame a few years back as the lawyer for nose-thumbing artist Ai Wei Wei during his own detention on tax evasion charges.

Like many weiquan, or rights lawyers, he has maintained a strong commercial practice; a strategy that kept him out of trouble - until recently.

Pu was detained by Chinese authorities on May 6 in a crackdown on activists and dissidents, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Pu’s lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, published an open letter on June 11, detailing a conversation with Pu and the torture that his client, a diabetic, has been receiving at the hands of China's reviled secret police.

Zhang said he was unexpectedly allowed to meet with Pu late on the afternoon of June 9, and they spent an hour together “without interference.”

He reported that Pu has been interrogated almost every day while in custody, sometimes for over 10 hours at a time.

Pu is a big man, six foot tall and stocky, and a heavy smoker. He complained to Zhang that his legs are swelling, and said he is afraid his body may not cope with the illegal torture he is enduring.

“I was given medicine, including insulin, and went to a hospital once,” he told Zhang, adding that his food rations are meagre. “Sometimes I only eat one steamed bread bun a day.” 

Pu went on to talk about his family and how much he missed them. He asked Zhang to tell his son, “my experience will be a good example to him, he will learn a lot from it, and it will help make him a man.”

Pu also asked Zhang to tell one of his fellow crusading lawyers “to change to another job, don’t do what we are doing now, it is not the right time. Nothing can be done.”

Zhang later wrote: “If I were in his position, I wouldn’t be so considerate to others as he is. Pu’s health is clearly deteriorating and he warned that he was not expecting a good outcome.

“The development of the case is in a very unfavorable direction to him. I didn’t expect the authorities to put in such effort.”

Legal sources in Beijing say hundreds of police have been involved in Pu’s investigation, traveling thousands of kilometers and interrogating dozens of Chinese journalists.

“Even a two or three year sentence seems unlikely now,” wrote Zhang. “How terrifying it will be if he is charged and punished for several crimes.”

Pu’s case is among the most prominent legal events in China, after his fellow lawyer and rights advocate Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years jail in February. It now appears that Xi Jinping is picking off his most eloquent, respected and relentless critics one by one.

The question arises: will Xi’s regime truly go along the road of reform, as he claims, or will the pessimists’ prediction of a return to the bad old days of Maoism come true?      

Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongcun was a moderate reformer, purged twice by Mao. Xi himself was sent to the countryside as a teen to work in the fields. It seems he has learned rather different lessons from this than many of his promoters expected.

For the last word, let’s go to veteran journalist and Party critic Gao Yu, herself a victim of detention in April this year for comments she made at a seminar in the US last October:

“Let’s first establish where China is today,” she says. “Since Xi Jinping took over, why has the entire academic community felt so let down? Why have nearly all of them broken off from him? It is because Xi Jinping is the bitter fruit of Mao Zedong’s 30 years of communism and Deng Xiaoping’s 30 years of crony capitalism.

“Why do so many people feel that all their hope for him was in vain? How come no one saw Xi Jinping for who he really is?”

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