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.”