The World’s Toughest Job

Try being a human rights lawyer in China.

Pu Zhiqiang (center), the lawyer for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei
Pu Zhiqiang (center), the lawyer for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei

Photograph by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images.

This article is excerpted from William J. Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.

It wasn’t safe for Pu Zhiqiang to go home. Or, to be more precise, he could go home, but once there he might not be able to leave again. Over the previous 48 hours, Chinese authorities had detained more than a dozen lawyers and activists. More than 80 dissidents had been put under house arrest. Two lawyers simply disappeared. Pu, a well-known free speech attorney, was among the so-called “rights lawyers” who might be swept up in any regime crackdown. (He had been detained a few months earlier, shortly before the Chinese scholar and dissident Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize.) Pu wasn’t sure why he had not been targeted yet. But he had a guess: He had been away on a business trip for a week. He simply hadn’t been home. When I reached him, he was still in Shanghai and planning to return to Beijing in a few days time. He gave the name of a teahouse near his apartment where we could meet. I was supposed to meet him there on a Saturday evening. Just to be safe, he would land at Beijing Capital International Airport and go directly to the teahouse. Otherwise, our meeting might never happen. As Pu told me, “Some leader will tell the secret police: ‘No, Mr. Pu cannot meet [anyone] tomorrow.’ ”

I had arrived in China 10 days after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Journalists and television crews were still walking the streets that led to Tahrir Square, capturing first-person accounts of how the Egyptian people had risen up and forced an end to a dictator’s rule. The revolution that had begun in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt was now ricocheting across the Middle East and North Africa. Each day there were new reports of popular rebellions cropping up in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Jordan, Iran, and elsewhere.

In China, there had been little more than a whisper. A few days earlier, an anonymous call for a Chinese Jasmine revolution—a reference to the popular rebellion that had begun in Tunisia—had spread over social media sites and the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. It had not gone any farther. The Arab world’s revolutions had not inspired marches, rallies, or protests against the Chinese Communist Party. Still, despite being far removed from the epicenter of those protests, Beijing was on edge. The sheer fact that a growing wave of people thousands of miles away were rising up to challenge authoritarian regimes made the Chinese leadership nervous. In a special meeting the day after Mubarak was toppled, China’s senior leaders discussed the need to tighten control of all media and online discussion of the events in the Middle East. Any mention of “jasmines” was scrubbed from websites, chat rooms, and discussion boards. A week later, Hu brought together top party leaders for a special “study session” in which he reminded them of the need to maintain the country’s stability in the face of rising social demands.

I saw evidence of the regime’s anxiety as soon as I checked into my hotel room. I turned on CNN International as I unpacked my suitcase, listening as the anchor interviewed an analyst on the rebellions that were erupting in Libya and elsewhere. As soon as the anchor asked how China’s leaders might be interpreting events, my television’s screen went dark. Roughly a minute later, the TV screen came back, just in time for me to see the anchor thank her guest for his analysis. The regime did not mind if CNN reported on events in the Arab world, but they did not want anyone speculating about what those events could mean for China.

It was clear what this crackdown could mean for Pu. Scores of lawyers and activists—people he considered colleagues, people he admired—had already been detained, and he fully expected he could be next. The wide scope of the arrests had surprised people inside and outside of China, and suggested that the regime was looking to redefine the red lines of what was permissible. In the weeks that followed, the government would round up even more people, including prominent dissidents like the artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei. But, despite the risks, Pu was determined we meet. At 9 p.m., Pu walked into the teahouse in the Fengtai district, about 30 minutes from downtown Beijing, on the city’s fourth ring road. He strode across the room and greeted me with a firm handshake.

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. His phones are tapped, so they heard every word. And they are never very far away. In Shanghai, Pu’s minders stayed in the same hotel as he did, and they flew back to Beijing on the same plane. 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.”

The parking lot outside the teahouse was pitch black. Whether they were watching us from outside, we had no way of knowing. Pu didn’t think so, but he couldn’t be sure. Either way, one of China’s top free speech attorneys wanted to talk, and he wasn’t going to be told otherwise.

Across authoritarian regimes, lawyers, activists, and political organizations have proven adept at using the regimes’ own rules against it. In China, rights attorneys like Pu Zhiqiang have taken up the cases of the society’s most defenseless and forced the regime to defend itself on exposed ground. Chinese officials may still violate the law, but the fact that they attempt to appear to be working within the confines of legal procedure offers weaknesses for others to exploit. The Russian government may regularly ignore its own legal code, but its desire to maintain close ties to European countries has opened it up to the rulings of international courts like the European Court of Human Rights. Political organizers and protesters understand that authoritarian regimes often base themselves on legal fictions. But by acting as if these legal fictions are genuine, they can stymie a regime’s efforts to run roughshod over its citizenry. Even if the regime is seemingly all-powerful, its own laws—and the hypocrisy of flouting them—can constrain its ability to act, and thereby embolden others to challenge the regime. None of these lawyers or activists have any illusions about the corruption of the courts or the integrity of the political systems they seek to change. But, nevertheless, they work patiently, brick by brick, to expose legal inconsistencies and deceits, creating minor victories that ripple throughout the system. Yevgenia Chirikova, one of Russia’s most outspoken and effective environmental activists, explained it to me this way. In her view, win or lose, almost any result could be used to her advantage in an authoritarian system. “Sometimes the losses produce the bigger impressions on society. I would accept almost any outcome because they would be equally good for me,” she told me. “We will show that our government lies.”

For authoritarians seeking the legitimacy that only the law can offer, the law—even their own twisted version of it—can leave them appearing naked and utterly illegitimate. Ultimately, it may come down to no more than that.

Stubborn Blood

Pu Zhiqiang credits two fathers for making him who he is today—“the father who gave me life, and the father who raised me.” Growing up in a rural village in Hebei province, Pu’s family was of modest means, but relatively well off compared to most of their neighbors. He described his biological father as honest and of “stubborn blood.” “I’m stubborn too, and I have this persistent character that even if I think things stand in the way, I will not change my attitude,” Pu told me as we waited for our tea. He was raised by his uncle, who was an entrepreneur and businessman before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Although he had supported the revolution, Pu’s uncle was persecuted by the Communists after they came to power. It was a bitter lesson he passed on to his nephew. “He would tell me, ‘The Communist party doesn’t keep their promises. They don’t have morals.”   

Pu and his siblings were quick studies. Of the six people in their village who made it to college, three of them came from the Pu family. Pu was particularly bright. On the college entrance examinations, he had the highest score from the county, and was ranked in the top 100 for the whole province. (Nearly 2 million students stood for the exams nationally that year.) On those scores, Pu was accepted into Nankai University, one of China’s most prestigious universities, where he studied history and classical Chinese. Once there, he attracted the interest of the Communist Youth League, which was eager to recruit promising young students. One of Pu’s professors approached him and asked him if he wanted to join the Communist Party. If he did, the professor could help. “I told him, ‘Give me a week to think about it.” Seven days later Pu came back with his answer. He told his professor, “I will never join this Party.” He was 19 at the time. He understood the costs of making such a decision, as well as the benefits he was forgoing by not joining. Membership in the party would potentially offer privileges, and it would certainly be good for his career. But he hadn’t forgotten his uncle’s lesson: The party couldn’t be trusted. In Pu’s opinion, even as a young history student, the Communist party’s chief skill was its ability to fabricate history. “They make people and things disappear according to their needs,” he told me. He felt strongly enough to make the decision that he did. And, once he did, his “persistent character” ensured he never looked back. As he put it, “I closed my door when I was 19.”

He may have closed a door, but he had not paid his biggest price until several years later, in 1989. As a graduate student at the China University of Politics and Law, Pu organized his fellow classmates and led the first group of students from his university to Tiananmen Square. He participated in the hunger strike in the square, and he remained there until June 4, when Chinese soldiers opened fire on the protesters and sent the students running for their lives. In the aftermath of the massacre, Pu refused to cooperate with authorities or recant his role in the protests. In fact, far from recanting, he honored the students who died that night by returning to the square on the anniversary. In the scramble to dodge the soldiers’ bullets, Pu had made a promise. “I promised myself that if I make it out alive tonight, I’ll come back every year,” he told me. For the past three years, he has been detained by police, who keep the square under tight security as the anniversary approaches.

But his refusal to help the party cleanse this stain on its history by recanting is what has caused him the most trouble. Pu had planned on becoming a professor, but when he graduated, no one would hire the star pupil. “If you refuse to admit things, you cannot be a teacher,” he explained. “I’ve been paying the price over the years.”  

Pu struggled to find work after graduation. He drifted from one dead-end job to the next. With an elderly mother and a young family to care for, he felt the pressure of providing for others, but he didn’t want a job that required him to compromise on his beliefs. “I didn’t want to change my mind about what the Communist Party had done in 1989,” says Pu. One of his former teachers recommended he try becoming an attorney. Pu studied the law in his spare time and passed the bar in 1995.

The law was the perfect refuge. Pu could take on commercial work that helped him provide for his family, but he saw a higher purpose in the law. He believed that if he took the right cases he could challenge the very party whose methods he detested. Pu told me how he had been deeply influenced by two things he read: the Chinese dissident Hu Ping’s essays on free speech and the U.S. Supreme Court decision, New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark case for freedom of the press. The man with the “stubborn blood,” who refused the party’s invitation and then refused to help cover up its crimes, would work to help others hold onto their beliefs and speak their minds. “We hoped to change the system on June 4, 1989,” Pu told me. “I used to think that I could turn the sky and the ground around. [Now] I think maybe I can do one or two things that matter in my lifetime.”

One of the earliest free speech cases Pu took on was the defense of China Reform magazine. In an article titled “Who Is Splitting the Fat?,” a journalist named Liu Ping reported on how a Chinese real estate development company’s business dealings had resulted in massive losses that led to workers being laid off. Liu based his reporting on official documents, as well as the corporation’s own filings. Outside of China, it would be a fairly unremarkable story. Nevertheless, in what is a familiar tactic, the company sued the magazine for libel, seeking more than $700,000 in damages, a sum that would have effectively shuttered the publication. After hearing Pu’s defense of Liu and his reporting, the Guangzhou court ruled that journalists could not be held liable for news stories that were based on credible sources. One of Pu’s first defamation cases became a milestone for Chinese free speech protections.

Pu quickly took on more. He defended newspapers, magazines, and writers whose work offended powerful party bosses. Pu had begun to make a name for himself as one of China’s leading free speech attorneys. He was not always successful, indeed not usually. Sometimes the best outcome was to prevent there from being any outcome at all. For example, there was the case of Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao. The husband-and-wife team had written a best-selling book that detailed the tyranny and abuse meted out by a local party official in Fuyang, a city in the hardscrabble eastern province of Anhui. Zhang Xide, the official exposed in Chen and Wu’s book, sued the authors for defamation of character. Typically, defendants like Chen and Wu would stand no chance. When a party official is sitting in the plaintiff’s chair, it is hardly a surprise that judges, who are themselves party members, rule in favor of their political masters. But Pu made that outcome next to impossible. In his cross-examinations, Pu aggressively attacked the prosecution’s witnesses, putting the spotlight on the corrupt practices that had marked Zhang’s rule. Even more effectively, Pu called a string of witnesses, most of them poor peasants, who recounted story after story of Zhang’s corruption, abuse, and draconian enforcement of the one-child policy. Each witness’s testimony added further evidence of the claims made in Chen and Wu’s book. As Philip Pan, a Washington Post reporter who attended the trial, wrote, the court faced a terrible choice: “It could ignore the evidence [Pu] presented in open court about Zhang’s transgressions and rule against the authors, risking a backlash that could further erode the party’s legitimacy. Or it could reject Zhang’s lawsuit and send a powerful message to the public about the law as a weapon against the party.”

Confronted with such a dilemma, the court chose a different tack: It issued no decision at all. When Pu and I met, it had been more than six years since those legal proceedings had ended. And still there had been no verdict. For a free speech attorney in China, that counts as a win.

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?”

Has he succeeded? It’s almost impossible to know. When they are pressed and Pu corners his security minders with the force of his argument, they admit they agree with some of what he says, but then they fall back on familiar excuses: We have no choice. If we weren’t working for the state’s security apparatus, what would we be doing, he recounts. Pu tells them that they are selling themselves short, that they have options above and beyond those presented by the state. And then he leaves them something to ponder. “I tell them, ‘China is going through a transformation. We’re about the same age. Twenty years from now, what will you tell your children you were doing during the transformative years?” says Pu.

Like most things, it’s an argument Pu thinks he can win, if only because the other side doesn’t have a persuasive case. “The people that I meet, they have no sense of pride in what they’re doing,” he tells me. “The ideology and the legitimacy of the Party has already disappeared. It’s naked interests. The slogans, they don’t work anymore. They need to buy people, they need to pay them for them to do anything.” They may be threatened or coerced or they may be bribed, but either way the costs of running the regime are rising.

Near the end of our hours together, I asked Pu how he thought the revolutions stretching across North Africa and the Middle East were affecting China’s leadership. “They are getting more afraid and there are less choices for them. They have this need to maintain stability, and the regime, Hu and Wen, appears to be less confident than when they took power.” The most immediate evidence of that insecurity was the lengths that Pu and I had to go to even to meet on this evening. Again, Pu drew conclusions from the faces of the regime he knew best. “They are very cautious, they’re nervous, very nervous,” he told me, speaking of the security detail following him around. “Many of them have accompanied me to dinner just because of these [revolutions in the Middle East].” He would tell them they are wasting their time. Pu isn’t a protest organizer, and he isn’t rallying people to take to the streets. If the regime has enemies, it’s because it creates them, he says. “You make so many enemies and you don’t have the guts to face your enemies,” he told them. “You should find ways to prove that you are different from Gaddafi.” I asked them how his friends in the secret police replied. “They agreed with that,” he said.

It was now well past midnight. We walked out of the teahouse, down the street, and toward Yihai Garden, the compound of apartments where Pu lives. It was already Sunday, and the second anonymous call for a Chinese “Jasmine Revolution” had gone out, asking people to assemble in nearly two dozen sites across China later that day. Neither one of us expected much would come from it, but it was significant that the online call had been made at all. For Pu, the bigger question was whether the government would restrict his movements through some form of house arrest. “A lot of things have happened to other people and I hope I don’t make trouble for myself, but I am not afraid of trouble,” he told me. Pu said there was only one thing certain about tomorrow. “He will come,” referring to a member of the secret police. As I got in a cab and drove away, I saw Pu walk through the gates of his apartment’s compound. He nodded to the security guard on duty as he entered.

Adapted from The Dictator’s Learning Curve by William J. Dobson Copyright © 2012 by William J. Dobson. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House.