By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal
In a Beijing apartment in May, about 20 people met to discuss the Tiananmen protests in June 1989 and the determination by the government and the Communist party to suppress discussion of that tragedy. One man at the meeting, Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer and one of China’s best-known “rights defenders” (weiquan), was arrested and now awaits trial for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” a crime with no clear definition.
His case dramatically illustrates the contradiction between attempts to increase legality in an authoritarian regime and that regime’s overwhelming anxiety about maintaining social stability. The vagueness of the “crime” of “picking quarrels” – authorities didn’t say who Pu allegedly picked a quarrel with, or about what — allows police unlimited discretion to detain and arrest offenders for almost any action.
Pu isn’t the only one to be arrested over the troubling charge of quarrel-picking. In another recent example of repression of potentially punishable conduct, anticorruption activists were sentenced to six and a half years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” after they photographed themselves holding a banner that called for release of detained members of the New Citizens Movement, a civic group that advocates for greater public transparency. The charges against them included “using a cult to undermine law” because they had sent messages online calling attention to the trial of a member of the Falun Gong movement. A third defendant received a three-year sentence for “picking quarrels.”
On the day after the three were sentenced, the daughter of one defendant was notified by police that she had to surrender her passport because she, too, was “provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”
Chinese legal authorities last year announced some definition of circumstances under which “picking quarrels” could be punished. The Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a joint legal interpretation that said deciding whether “causing a commotion at a public venue” is punishable depends, among other factors, on “the scope and degree to which the forum was impacted.” But as Chinese law expert Jeremy Daum noted, although the interpretation “significantly clarified when this charge is supported, it doesn’t seem to have slowed police.”
The larger significance of these and similar criminal prosecutions is the shadow that they cast over public expression of views deemed to be offensive, especially because they coincide with campaigns to limit public debate by lawyers and journalists.
The All China Lawyer’s Association, for example, issued a draft set of “Disciplinary Rules” that has not been made public but has been circulated online. The proposed rules “would punish members who go online to make ‘aggressive or inappropriate’ comments about cases, attempt to use public opinion to influence the outcome of a case or attack the country’s legal system.”
This underscores the strong desire to limit public comment unwelcome to authorities. Article 29 of the Disciplinary Rules says it is punishable to express “radical or improper comments on a case or public matter through the Internet, other media or in a public forum that are reasonably considered to be an impediment of judicial fairness.” Some opposition to these new rules by legal scholars and lawyers has already been reported. There are new rules for journalists, too, recently announced by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Although they aren’t public yet either, the new rules reportedly prohibit journalists and news bureaus from “critical reporting without authorization from their employer.” According to China Law Translate, the new rules on lawyers and journalists “makes explicit that dissent and debate are not considered suitable for the public sphere” and is “a threat to their professional identity.”
The new rules appear to restrict the speech of journalists even more than ordinary citizens, despite the fact that some operate blogs that may be critical of government policies but go unpunished. It is no wonder that China is ranked 173rd out of 179 countries in a press freedom index published by Reporters Without Borders.
In the face of prosecutions for ill-defined crimes and the new regulations on lawyers and journalists, what is the boundary between permissible and punishable public expression of views? Evan Osnos, author of an excellent book on China, has commented on the problem:
“Living and writing in Beijing from 2005 to 2013, I found that the precise boundaries of the censored world were difficult to map. Though some rules leak to the public …..most of the censored world is populated by unmentionable names and untellable stories, defined by rules that are themselves secret.”
On top of prosecutions for vaguely defined crimes such as “picking quarrels,” the rules for journalists and lawyers restrict public expression of views by the two groups who should be most involved in interpreting party-state policies and actions. Ordinary citizens who might contemplate taking their grievances to the streets can’t discern a “line” other than one that suggests that they should keep their dissatisfactions to themselves.
In light of the dark context of current policy, Mr. Pu’s trial seems likely to end with a harsh penalty. It would be a sad development in the life arc of a man who has devoted himself to applying the law to defend human rights – and a sad commentary on the state of freedom of speech in China today.