The following piece by well-known Southern Weekly columnist and former CMP fellow Yan Lieshan was posted to his Sina Blog on January 24, 2013, one week after human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang — who now remains in custody following his arrest in early May this year — was featured on the cover of Southern People Weekly. Yan’s blog piece, “How is it that Pu Zhiqiang hasn’t found himself ‘on the inside,” is an especially poignant reflection on Pu’s work and character, particularly now, following Pu’s formal arrest.
By Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山)
January 24, 2013
I have quietly observed human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) for a number of years, and I’ve often been concerned on his behalf. When will the day come, I’ve wondered, when he finds himself “on the inside”?
Pu Zhiqiang has made a career of sticking his neck out, championing clients accused of “defamation” for exercising their constitutional right to free expression. Time and again, he’s gone up against formidable plaintiffs, including local officials or government agencies. In a place like China, Mr. Pu’s business is an exceptionally dangerous one.
But still, even after taking on so many high-profile rights cases, Pu Zhiqiang remains stubbornly on the outside. Not only that, but he can kick up a stink, drawing national and even international attention to his work. Just think, by contrast, about lawyers like Li Zhuang (李庄), who for doing similar work have been forced to issue false confessions or have been stripped of their licenses. And here we have Pu Zhiqiang, this regular guy without big political connections, keeping his chin up and doing dangerous work.
How does he manage it?
To answer this question, I pored through all the media coverage of Pu Zhiqiang I could find. I read the cover story in the January 18, 2013, edition of Southern People Weekly from beginning to end, and I searched around on the internet, digging out a pretty thorough feature story on Mr. Pu that the Southern Metropolis Weekly did back in September 2012.
In the above-mentioned reports I believe I’ve found my reason. I think I now understand Mr. Pu pretty well. And I must say that I truly admire Pu Zhiqiang’s “wisdom.” I’ll come back in a bit to what I mean by that.
In one of his interviews, Pu Zhiqiang is quite upfront with the reporter: “I’m really fearful about something happening,” he says. “I just want to inch the space forward (for freedom and rule of law).”
Mr. Pu describes himself as someone always treading along the security line. How exactly does he do this? First of all, in acting on behalf of his clients, he relies on facts and reason. Second, his confidence and charisma, and deep sense of goodness, are things that come naturally to him, not products of money or success. Finally, the cases Pu Zhiqiang takes on — mostly freedom of expression cases — are not the most directly threatening [form of resistance to the leadership].
Pu Zhiqiang has said that working for the good of others demands a willingness to speak, a willingness to communicate and willingness to compromise. This is how he manages to get county leaders, city leaders, politics and law commissioners, propaganda leaders and all sorts of people to dispense with the view that he is an enemy that needs to be neutralized.
“Police officers ask me why I insist on accepting these loss-making cases, and I tell them it’s for the sake of fame,” [Pu Zhiqiang says in a tongue-in-cheek fashion]. “They ask me why I always go and talk to the media, and I tell them that’s just so I can hype up the story.” It’s responses like these that take the wind out of the sails of those who are ready to impugn his motives.
This tactic takes real confidence. It’s a very different approach from the more confrontational tone of others, and it’s one that works against the backdrop of Chinese culture, history and politics.
China has two thousand years of history in which moral proselytizing plays a strong part, and this means a surplus of hypocrisy that in turn fosters in people the nasty habit of always, and fiercely, questioning the underlying motives of others. We assume nothing legitimate can be done for fame or financial gain. And for the past half century, we’ve been educated in the need to “fight selfishness and repudiate revisionism” (斗私批修), to “act selflessly for the greater good” (大公无私). We’ve been forced to sing pseudo-pieties until we’re blue in the face. So ingrained is the habit that even now, with a market economy that tacitly accepts self-interest, many people can’t break the habit.
So when Pu Zhiqiang responds without hesitation to ready-made attempts to impugn his motives, quipping that fame and hype are what he is after, he leaves his doubters totally stupefied.
The unfortunate fact is that in China today, with an independent judiciary far from the reality, having a name that can draw media attention sometimes helps curtail government intrusion and yield less arbitrary verdicts. This is essentially why Pu Zhiqiang has used the media to “hype” his cases.
In China, any additional measure of transparency raises the chances of a more just outcome. Obviously, court cases should not be decided in the press, but without the involvement of the media, unfortunately, there is less hope of justice. We’re fond of talking about our unique “national characteristics” (国情), and here is one shining example.
Pu Zhiqiang has described himself as “understanding politics and tactics, but being muddleheaded about the law.” There is some self-deprecation in those words. But there is also a genuine admission of his own limitations. Mr. Pu, after all, studied history as an undergraduate. He earned his master’s degree in the classics. As for the law, he was mostly a self-taught student, and he took the bar exam on his own. This is sufficient for Pu Zhiqiang. He has no interest in being a theoretician of the law. To practice the law is enough.
So I think Mr. Pu’s “understanding of politics and tactics” is something he should be truly proud of.
Let me just give you a couple of examples that illustrate the point:
In October 2010, Pu Zhiqiang represented Feng Yongming (冯永明), the CEO of Yichun’s Guangming Furniture, who had been charged with embezzlement. The day the trial opened, Feng realized that an investigator who had beaten him during questioning was present in the courtroom. He stripped off his shirt, showing off his scars and bruises. Pu Zhiqiang shouted toward the gallery where the investigator sat. “Stand up!” he demanded. “This questioning through torture was your doing!” Pu strode over toward the gallery, ready to ferret the man out, but he was surrounded by a group of bailiffs while the investigator in question rushed from the courtroom. The courtroom was complete chaos until the judge was finally forced to adjourn. In that instance, right and wrong were completely self-evident to everyone present.
On May 27, 2011, when a case stemming from the taxi strikes in the city of Xianning opened, Zhou Bin (周彬), one of the defendants represented by Pu Zhiqiang and Si Weijiang (斯伟江), was charged with the crime of “disturbing public order” for helping a taxi driver prepare his petitioning papers and post them on the internet. When Pu Zhiqiang realized that the public prosecutor hadn’t even bothered to bring along the petition papers in question, he turned on him with fire: “You represent the state in bringing this case [against my client], but you don’t even bring a copy of the papers! How can you be so negligent?” By seizing on this detail, Mr. Pu exposed just how half-hearted the prosecution had been in its preparation. And this in turn revealed an indifferent attitude toward the rights of citizens, which meant that right from the start of the case the prosecutor lost the high ground both morally and politically.
People have talked about there being a certain “aura” to Pu Zhiqiang in the courtroom. Part of this is his overwhelming sense of righteousness, his deep sympathy for the weak and disadvantaged. He truly wants to win back a shred of justice and dignity for citizens who have been trodden upon. But another part of it, I think, is his use of politics and tactics, his way of subduing the enemy without a fight, which Sun Zi called the supreme art of war.
I have great admiration for Pu Zhiqiang. But why did I begin by saying I admire his “wisdom”?
“Wisdom,” or zhihui (智慧), is a word with Buddhist connotations. Wisdom is where Buddhism places its greatest emphasis. Buddhism is not concerned with morality so much as “consciousness” (觉悟), and “consciousness” means awareness, the ability to penetrate through human nature and the universe, to comprehend and transcend life and death. Buddhism talks, therefore, about the “root of intelligence,” about the intelligence that surpasses mere intelligence. This intelligence is about conviction and comprehension, but also about compassion.
Pu Zhiqiang’s wisdom is based on a conviction or belief in fairness and justice, an adherence to conscience. Further, it has a great sympathy for the weak, combined with insight into the weaknesses of human nature and compassion for all human beings. This sort of solicitude for others isn’t just a strategy to reduce confrontation; it comes from the heart. And the sum total of this wisdom is something far greater than mere intelligence.