Pu Zhiqiang, Plainclothes, & Human Rights Diplomacy

Pu Zhiqiang, Plainclothes, & Human Rights Diplomacy

Leading rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang stood trial in Beijing on Monday, charged with inciting ethnic hatred and picking quarrels on the basis of seven Weibo posts. Outside the courthouse, police and men in plain clothes aggressively confronted protesters and journalists, forcefully preventing diplomats from the U.S. and E.U. from reading statements. At China Real Time, Josh Chin described the scene:

Security was bound to be tight outside the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, where Mr. Pu was fighting charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels” in the capital’s biggest political trial in two years. But the aggression directed by police and plainclothes thugs against diplomats, journalists and the lawyer’s supporters was unusually brassy — in keeping with the Chinese government’s increasingly defiant stance on questions of human rights.

[…] Asked to show identification as he shoved a China Real Time reporter, one tall man wearing a coat with a Chinese flag patch described himself as a “ordinary person, defending China’s streets.” Another man piped in, shouting, “Beijing doesn’t welcome you,” in a reversal of the theme song from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

[…] Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei pushed back against suggestions that reporters and foreign diplomats were mistreated, saying it’s their responsibility to cooperate with authorities.

[…] A few dozen supporters of Mr. Pu showed up outside the courthouse in polluted and wet conditions Monday morning. The group included Jiang Jiawen, a petitioner from northeastern China’s Liaoning province who said he had spent time in the labor-camp system Mr. Pu helped dismantle. “No one did more the get rid of re-education through labor,” Mr. Jiang said. “He’s one of the most important fighters for justice in China.” [Source]

Read more on the case and confrontations from Fairfax Media’s Philip Wen and The Guardian’s Tom Phillips, who were both tweeting from the scene.

The Associated Press’ Christopher Bodeen examined the deployment of plainclothed security personnel at sensitive trials and the house arrests of figures such as Liu Xia and Chen Guangcheng.

“The plainclothes police are the ones the Communist Party uses when they know what they’re doing has no basis in law,” said independent environmental activist Wu Lihong, who lives under a form of house arrest that becomes especially strict during sensitive political occasions.

The use of such agents dovetails with the party’s desire to pay lip service to the rule by law while quashing all opposition, controlling the public discourse and sentencing critics to lengthy prison terms for hazily defined national security crimes.

[…] The smiley face stickers [worn by those outside Pu’s trial] were presumably meant to identify the plainclothes officers to their uniformed colleagues and other security agents. Similarly, plainclothes agents wore green stickers last year to identify themselves while breaking up protests outside the Beijing courthouse where clean government advocate Xu Zhiyong was tried on charges of gathering a crowd to disturb public order.

[…] “For the authorities, it looks like disastrous public relations, but maybe they just don’t care,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “They can always claim that (the officers) were ordinary citizens and there’s very little anyone can do.” [Source]

Two years ago, Pu himself reported a large group of abusive men, who were “very familiar with the presence of the police and were organized,” outside a trial in Jiangxi.

Some have interpreted the events outside the courthouse as a sign of Beijing’s increasingly vigorous rejection of outside criticism. The state-run Global Times had previously issued an editorial insisting that “China’s judiciary will not accept the West setting the tone for Pu’s case.” Despite lingering concerns about the recent medical parole for imprisoned journalist Gao Yu, on the other hand, her case has been described as evidence that pressure from abroad can still have an effect. On Tuesday, University of California scholar Perry Link suggested to CBC that the case’s global visibility may already have played a part in softening Pu’s prosecution:

The fact that the whole case — carrying charges punishable by up to eight years in prison — could be based on only seven tweets (down from 27 a few months ago) suggests to me that there likely was considerable debate inside the regime over whether and how to charge Pu. Someone must have been arguing about the costs in public opinion, both domestic and international, of getting it wrong. [Source]

At the governmental level at least, few countries now seem inclined to exert pressure. At The Washington Post, Simon Denyer scrutinized the diplomatic presence outside the courthouse, and the handful of critical statements issued on the U.N.’s Human Rights Day last Thursday.

Of the countries we surveyed, only three issued statements last Thursday containing criticism of China’s human rights record.

They were the United States, Canada and Germany.

[…] Human Rights Watch had called on ambassadors to attend Pu’s trial, but in the end none came. To be fair, diplomats from Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom were all spotted there, along with deputy political counselor Dan Biers from the U.S. Embassy.

[…] At Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson had this to say:

“We believe it remains critically important for embassies in China to seize any opportunity to talk about human rights, and international human rights day is a key moment in the calendar. The statements from Canada, Germany, and the U.S. are welcome contributions: they explicitly express concerns about negative trends like the crackdown on lawyers and civil society, they offer recommendations about what Beijing should do, and, arguably most important, they recognize specific individuals being persecuted for their peaceful activism.

“The U.K.’s statement does none of this: instead, it appears a contorted effort to say something on human rights day, but only something the Chinese government would like to hear. That statement caps a year of extraordinary human rights capitulation from the U.K. on China. [Source]

The British government is intent on building a “golden relationship” with China, and gave Xi Jinping an unwaveringly warm welcome when he visited in October. Rights advocacy appears to play little part in this vision. London police now face an official complaint about their allegedly biased and over-reaching handling of protesters during the visit.

Regarding the altercations on Monday, Richardson told China Real Time that “while it was an important gesture of support to send diplomats, that they were not ambassadors means the courts, the police and their thugs will probably pay a fairly low price for their Sopranos-esque conduct inside and outside the court.”

In the U.S., meanwhile, the trial attracted criticism from the government’s Congressional-Executive Commission on China, including one possible contender in next year’s presidential election.

“Even by China’s standards, the spectacle both inside and outside the court surrounding the trial of Pu Zhiqiang … was a mockery of justice and rule of law,” Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio said.

[…] “While a verdict has not yet been announced, we can say with certainty that today marks a new low point in Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’, which is by virtually every measure a nightmare for China’s dissidents, lawyers, journalists, and millions of others, Pu foremost among them.”

Chris Smith, a Republican congressman who is the committee’s chair, accused Xi, who took power in 2012, of waging “an extraordinary assault on rights defenders and civil society”.

“Holding sham trials to convict rights defenders does nothing to demonstrate the Communist party’s strength or enhance its international prestige. Whatever the verdict may be, this trial is an indictment of the Chinese legal system and not Pu Zhiqiang,” he said, calling on Washington to bar the judges, prosecutors and security officials involved in Pu’s trial from travelling to the US. [Source]


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