The World’s Toughest Job
Try being a human rights lawyer in China.
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.
William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter.