The seven tweets that could cost a Chinese human rights lawyer eight years in jail

Pu Zhiqiang in Beijing in 2010.
Pu Zhiqiang in Beijing in 2010.
Image: AP/Ng Han Guan
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Before his detention last year, Pu Zhiqiang, one of China’s best-known human rights lawyers, was an outspoken Internet commentator on the Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo.

Between 2011 to 2014, the former defense lawyer for artist Ai Weiwei had sent some 20,000 tweets—most of them sarcastic criticisms of the ruling Communist Party’s policies—via 12 accounts in order to avoid censorship. “From top to bottom,” he said in one post, “the Communist Party cannot survive without telling lies.”

Since attending a seminar on the the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests last May, Pu has been criminally detained without a trail. Beijing prosecutors indicted Pu in May on charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “creating a disturbance” for about 30 of his Weibo posts (paywall) while dropped the other two charges of “inciting separatism” and “illegally obtaining personal information.”

On Tuesday (Dec. 8), the prosecution said for the first time that the charges against Pu—which could carry an eight year jail sentence—are now based on just seven of his tweets. In them, Pu mocks Communist Party officials and criticizes government policy in Buddhist-heavy Tibet and Muslim-heavy Xinjiang.

It is very rare for prosecutors to reduce evidence before a trial, as they have with the number of messages in Pu’s case, Pu’s lawyer Shang Baojun told Quartz by phone on Wednesday (Dec. 9). The date of the actual trial is not public, and Shang said he could not comment further before that happens.

Pu’s detention came amid a massive crackdown on human rights activists. At least 940 Chinese citizens working on human and civil rights—some who made public their own torture and abuse—were detained in 2014. More than 100 lawyers and human rights defenders and their relatives were detained across the country over one weekend earlier this year.

Here’s a full translation of Pu’s seven Weibo messages (link in Chinese) in the indictment, according to Beijing’s Mo Shaoping Law firm, which represents Pu. Some messages were sent via several different accounts, so the comments and re-tweets reflect the total for all the accounts.

Prosecutors have presented the tweets with no context in the pre-trial information. Quartz has tried to put them back in context, by explaining what they refer to below.

Three messages that are “creating a disturbance”

2011-07-29 Comments: 49 Retweets: 47
My old sister is bored at the press conference. But the reporter has personal safety. She also proves that railways ministry spokesperson Wong Yongping is very excellent—I believe it anyway. After all the railways ministry allows you to ask questions. CNPC almost blew Dalian away on July 16 last year. This year it set a fire again like it’s an anniversary. But it just wouldn’t tell you anything. Luckily my old sister is a sow. If she’s a mad dog, she would ask: “Who do you work for? I know your boss well. How about lending me your recorders for me to play?”

The message refers to a press conference after 40 people were killed and 200 injured in a high-speed train crash in eastern Zhejiang province on July 23, 2011. The public was angered by a government cover-up, after information about the crash was censored from social media and news reports.

At the press conference, when trying to explain why the front carriage of the train was hastily buried, railways ministry spokesman Wang Yongping said “Whether you believe or not, I believe it anyway.” Tian Zhenghui, spokeswoman with a state-backed institution on railway signals, is the “old sister” Pu refers to. She reportedly gave no substantial answers at all and even answered her phone (link in Chinese) during the press conference. The reporters “personal safety” refers possibly to their right to ask questions. The government later determined that design flaws and sloppy management were to blame.

Pipelines of state-owned China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) exploded on July 16, 2014, causing an oil spill into the sea in China’s northeast.

2013-01-31 Comments: 242 Retweets: 249
Besides luck and bloodline, the reason Shen Jilan could become a delegate and Mao Xinyu could become a committee member is because they are either playing fools or being real fools. This means the NPC and CPPCC are nothing. If one wants to live like a duck in the water, either you play the fool or become a real fool. I don’t expect Mao to be smart. I hope Shen [could realize] being alive is lighter than a feather, death is weightier than Mount Tai. How good it would be if you die! You are already 84 and have been a NPC delegate for 60 years. Now it finally comes to a crucial point. Why not die on the battlefield and blackmail the NPC to win the title of an upright and principled woman?

Shen Jilan, then 83 years old, was a 12-time legislator at China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). A former farmer, she never voted “no” on a single legislative matter in 60 years. Mao Xinyu, the only surviving grandson of Chairman Mao Zedong, was a committee member at Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament.

2013-7-26 Comments: 357 Retweets: 581
“Why wouldn’t China work without the Communist Party?” How the hell I know why? Except for cheating and shirking, ax and sickle, what damn secrets does the Party have to hold on to power? Let me tell you Xiang Ping: China will work without anyone. Don’t tell me how. “A book Chinese people should read?” Your shitty book is extremely shameless! If Wu Hongfei was not caught, your ancestor would be sexually violated! You make me sick!”

Xiang Ping, author of China’s Big Logic: Why wouldn’t China work without the Communist Party?, described his own book as “A book Chinese people should read.” Wu Hongfei, a Chinese singer, was allegedly detained for five hours after tweeting on Weibo that she would bomb a government bureau (link in Chinese). The Mo Shaoping Law firm says Pu may not have written the reference to Wu, and that there is a possibility he did not write the entire tweet.

Four tweets accused of “inciting ethnic hatred”

2012-1-25 Comments: 22 Retweets: 2
Temples in the Tibet region are required to follow “Nine Have.” They should hang up the portraits of Mao, Deng , Jiang, and Hu. Yining forbids Muslims to wear beards and veils. This series of action is the so-called dilution of religious consciousness. Is it people of Han ethnics gone crazy or their leaders gone crazy?

The “Nine Have” policy (link in Chinese) is the government’s project to make all Tibet temples have the portraits of the four generations of the party leaders (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao), as well as a national flag, roads, water, electricity, state television broadcasts, movies, study rooms, and party mouthpiece newspapers. Yining is a city of Xinjiang. Authorities in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi officially banned women from wearing burqas in public in January, and Xinjiang’s government has long tried to curb religious dress. A later amendment to China’s criminal law incriminates forcing someone to wear terrorist and extremist clothing, which is interpreted as a reference to the burqa.

2012-1-25 Comments: 38 Retweets: 0
Yining has forbidden Muslims from wearing veils, calling it the dilution of religious consciousness. Have all Han ethnics gone crazy?

2014-3-2 Comments: 1071 Retweets: 1930
What happened in Kunming was too bloody. The murders are very sinful. I believe this time that it is Xinjiang separatist forces that made the terror attack. But it is the result, not the cause. Such a severe result, with so many people dead and injured, you just explained to me with one sentence: That it is because of Xinjiang separatist forces, but not your responsibility. I am not satisfied with that. You have been boasting of the Party’s policies, saying Uygur ethnic groups support the Party, how come the bloody thing happened? President of the Law Society Wang Lequan, you reigned over the west region for over a decade, and you are familiar with the region. You tell me, why is this happening? Who is the target?”

A group of black-clad men and women armed with long knives killed dozens and injured more than 130 in a train station in southern Kunming city on March 1, 2014. Officials blame the terror attack on Xinjiang Muslim separatists, and Pu is challenging their one sentence explanation. Wang Lequan served as Xinjiang’s top offiicial from 1994 to 2010.

2014-05-01 Comments: 65 Retweets: 141
“Under the whole heaven, every spot is the sovereign’s ground. To the borders of the land, every individual is the sovereign’s minister.” If Xinjiang belongs to China, then don’t treat it as a colony. Don’t be an invader or predator. No matter whether you take actions to control people beforehand or afterwards, it is all about control. It is treating others as enemies and it is a ridiculous policy. If the trouble has been brewing for some time, it is impossible to avoid the trouble. If a man doesn’t fear death, then you can’t threaten him with death. The attackers hope to be the heroes for Allah, then no matter whether you take action beforehand or afterwards, who could you intimidate? It’s time to adjust the policy in Xinjiang.

The quote about the “whole heaven” is an ancient Chinese poem, and again Pu is criticizing China’s policy in Xinjiang.

Pu’s case is garnering widespread attention internationally, and China’s authorities appear to already feel pressure ahead of the upcoming trial. “China’s judiciary will not accept the West setting the tone on Pu’s case,” an editorial (link in Chinese) published Wednesday (Dec. 9) in the nationalistic state-run tabloid Global Times said. Judges could be a bit “willful,” the article said, as long as they “stick to the law and evidence.”

Pu is “one of the evocative anti-system figures” in the Chinese society, the editorial goes on to say. “His words and deeds have obviously formed some destructive power to social governance,” the editorial said, “This destructive power occurred after China entered the Internet era, forming a new challenge to legal authority.”

May Shi and Echo Huang contributed to this article.