Pu Zhiqiang: How to Handle the Police

At Slate, William J. Dobson profiles renowned rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, a veteran of June 4th, Charter 08 signatory and friend of Liu Xiaobo, and defender of figures such as Ai Weiwei and Tan Zuoren. The profile is taken from Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.

Pu has a powerful presence. With a crew cut and a strong jaw, this rights lawyer is large, and solidly built. His shoulders and limbs seemed to occupy his entire side of the booth. With a cigarette and a wry grin, he speaks in short declarative bursts, with more of a growl than a voice. Of course, the secret police know we are meeting, he told me straight away …. Knowing that they had listened in on the phone call, Pu informed them of our meeting a day earlier, although he tried to allay their concerns. “I told them we set this appointment a long time ago, that it has nothing to do with the thing you care about, the jasmines,” says Pu. “If you try to stop me from meeting someone, that’s illegal. You can do your job, but you cannot stop me from doing what I’m doing. If you disagree, detain me, take me away.”

I had never met Pu, so I was surprised to hear how brazenly he addressed the security officers who tailed him everywhere. What did they say?, I asked. “They didn’t say anything,” Pu replied, taking a long drag on his cigarette. “I told them without asking them. I meet my friends with their permission? Bullshit.”

[…] What struck me most as Pu talked into the night about how he worked the seams of his country’s authoritarian system was the way he dealt with the people he knew best: the secret police dispatched to monitor his every move. His tactic, as much as anything, seemed to be to humanize them. They may be on opposite ends of a fundamental disagreement—whether the rule of the Chinese Communist Party is legitimate or not—but that did not erase his interest in dealing with them as people. When I raised this with him, his brawny frame rose in its seat. “I respect them, I respect them. I constantly tell them what the procedures are,” Pu replied, stubbing out his fourth cigarette to emphasize the point. “If you come to my office and you want to detain me, OK, then there’s a procedure to go through. You need a certificate to do that. They can’t provide it, so the result is we have dinner, we drink, we talk with each other. We need to face the secret police. Why not try to change them, if you have the chance to do that?”

This approach of Pu’s, similar to Ai Weiwei’s, is illustrated by his tweeted account of his three-day detention in October 2010, after the announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize. Pu concludes by saying of his interrogator (from CDT’s translation):

Actually [Dong Yansheng, the local Deputy Director in the Domestic Security Department] is not a bad man. He is from the background of criminal police and good at what he does, and basically kind to his buddies and even enemies like me. It is not easy to be in the domestic security police force. He is just in the role of a police officer, so he and I always clash. Once he overcomes his own mental block, I believe we eventually will be friends.