The trial of one of China’s most prominent lawyers began on Monday in a courtroom ringed by police, illustrating the dramatic fall in tolerance of rights activists since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012.
Pu Zhiqiang, 50, faces charges of inciting ethnic hatred and disrupting public order, amid broader policies by the ruling Communist party to reassert control over civil society.
Mr Pu’s trial coincides with the detention of dozens of other lawyers and journalists amid moves to limit activities of non-profit organisations. Labour activists are highlighting an “unprecedented” crackdown on worker rights groups in southern Guangdong province.
Police, accompanied by plainclothes officers with yellow smiley faces on their jackets, shoved or threatened journalists outside the courtroom, while a handful of supporters chanted “Find him innocent!” A woman named Pan Xingli said she was attending to show support for Mr Pu and his embrace of rule of law: “Without that, China has no hope and no future.”
According to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, 25 staff from four labour non-governmental organisations have been detained during the sweep. Of these, at least four face formal charges for disturbing public order including Zeng Feiyang, who runs a well-known labour NGO in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong.
“There have been individual detentions or arrests in the past, but never on such a large scale,” said one person who advises workers involved in industrial actions and asked not to be named.
Mr Pu and Mr Zeng could not be more unalike. Mr Pu is a giant of a man with a booming voice, whose previous clients include Ai Weiwei, the globally famous Chinese artist. Mr Zeng speaks softly and works primarily with small groups of workers whose disputes rarely make international news.
Both have operated for years in areas considered relatively “safe” for activism. As the party sought to modernise China’s judicial system, albeit within strict limits, there was recognition that defence lawyers had a role to play even in what were otherwise show trials.
Mr Pu embraced this opening, establishing himself as a forceful advocate. He and other like-minded rights lawyers are often referred to as the sike dang, or diehard faction, for their aggressive style. Another famous legal activist, Xu Zhiyong, was imprisoned in January 2014 for his efforts to advance rule of law and end discriminatory treatment of migrant workers.
Mr Pu’s troubles began in May 2014, when he was detained after attending a private memorial for the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. As a student he took part in the pro-democracy protests that preceded the bloodshed and has attended private memorials without incident.
He had been held incommunicado ever since, prevented from seeing his wife or child for more than 18 months. Another 25 rights lawyers remain in detention across China after being picked up by police this summer.
Amnesty International says Mr Pu faces up to eight years in prison. According to his indictment, the charges are based on seven acerbic social media posts in which he criticised, among other things, the government’s handling of ethnic tensions in the largely Muslim region of Xinjiang. Mr Pu spoke briefly in court on Monday, according to his lawyer, saying he was willing to apologise for such posts if the language was vulgar.
He is likely to join Xu and Uighur academic Ilham Tohti to become one of the highest profile political prisoners convicted during Mr Xi’s administration.
If formally indicted, Mr Zeng faces a lesser maximum penalty of five years but will find it difficult to retain the best possible legal defence team. One of China’s best-known labour lawyers, Duan Yi, has been barred from helping him and was recently prevented from flying to the UK to give a lecture, worker rights activists told the Financial Times. Mr Duan declined to comment.China-lawyer-trial-begins-amid-crackdown-on-labour-rights-group