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.
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.”