On Monday morning in front of a Beijing courthouse, the Chinese government’s ugly underbelly exposed itself to the world. Security agents — some in uniform, others in plainclothes but incongruously identifiable by yellow smiley faces affixed to their clothes — shoved and harassed diplomats and reporters who had gathered to monitor the trial of one of China’s most prominent lawyers, who has been locked up for almost 19 months.
Pu Zhiqiang, once lauded in Chinese media for his legal prowess, had defended everyone from dissident artist Ai Weiwei to unknown activists toiling deep in China’s interior. But in May last year, he was detained after participating in a commemoration of the 1989 democracy movement that ended on June 4 with tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square, gunning down students and other peaceful protesters. (Pu, then a graduate student, participated in the 1989 demonstrations.) Only after combing through the 50-year-old’s life for months were Chinese authorities able to formally justify Pu’s detention: he was charged with “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” largely based on seven social-media comments he had made over a three-year period.
International human-rights organizations and foreign governments alike have criticized the charges, which could earn Pu up to eight years in jail. Outside the Beijing courthouse on Monday morning, U.S. embassy first secretary Dan Biers tried to read out a statement on the man standing trial inside. “Lawyers and civil society leaders such as Mr. Pu,” went the statement, “should not be subject to continuing repression, but should be allowed to contribute to the building of a prosperous and stable China.”
But even as the American diplomat tried to deliver the embassy’s declaration, Chinese security forces jostled and hassled him. Ultimately, foreign reporters and diplomats were blocked from entering the courtroom and were forced to disperse from the immediate area. Outside, the Beijing air, often toxic, spiked to levels deemed “hazardous” by the U.S. embassy air-quality index. That was not, however, the likely reason why security forces were wearing masks that obscured their faces as they pushed away passersby.
Over the past couple years, even as China has surged to new economic heights and expanded its global reach, hundreds of lawyers, writers, academics, feminists and other civil-society stalwarts have been detained, often on what appear to be the slimmest of charges. Even teenagers and street artists have been locked up. The Orwellian shorthand for this campaign, which has intensified under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is weiwen, or “stability maintenance.” For all the freedoms enshrined in China’s constitution, the mounting crackdown makes clear that certain dissent against the ruling Communist Party will not be tolerated.
Last Friday evening, the weiwen crusade forged a new path, this time through a private Chinese company that is one of the world’s most successful ventures. Jack Ma, the former English teacher turned global tech magnate, bought Hong Kong’s storied English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post. Ma’s company, the e-commerce behemoth Alibaba, lavished $266 million on the SCMP Group’s assets, more than what Amazon’s Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post.
Although the SCMP has been accused of diluting its critical China coverage in the years since Hong Kong returned to mainland rule, the newspaper has continued to investigate stories too sensitive for mainland Chinese media to pursue. In an interview on the sale posted on the SCMP website, Alibaba Group executive vice chairman Joe Tsai explained one of the reasons behind Ma’s purchase of the Hong Kong daily. “The coverage about China should be balanced and fair,” Tsai said. “A lot of journalists working with these Western media organizations may not agree with the system of governance in China and that taints their view of coverage. We see things differently.” Tsai stressed that the SCMP’s editors would continue to exercise control over editorial policy. But what happens when these two aims diverge? How, for instance, will the SCMP be covering Beijing’s crackdown on dissent in the future?
“In published statements, Joe Tsai has said that he wants the Post to be used to better understand China,” Mark Clifford, editor in chief of the SCMP from 2006 to 2007, tells TIME. “He needs to understand that the media has the most credibility when it lets the chips fall where they may.”
In 2015, President Xi globe-trotted to more than a dozen countries, promoting the friendly face of the world’s second largest economy. Around the world, the Chinese government has unveiled Confucius Institutes to subsidize study of Chinese language and culture; at the same time, more than 300,000 Chinese students are now enrolled in American schools. At New York City’s Times Square, a giant screen has broadcast a slick video illustrating Xi’s leadership mantra, the “China Dream.” State media, like broadcaster CCTV, have expanded overseas, even as Western media organizations have diminished their global coverage. When President Xi visited Britain in October, he rode in a golden carriage to Buckingham Palace and pledged $46 billion in trade and investment. Xi’s tour of Africa earlier this month brought vows of $60 billion in dollar diplomacy.
But soft power loses its gauzy delicacy when human-rights lawyers are jailed and their supporters harassed. The world has one Nobel Peace Prize laureate in jail, and he languishes in a Chinese prison. For all the positive developments in China — and there are so many, from poverty alleviation and upward mobility, not to mention digital innovation and expanding consumer choice — official repression of free thinkers only serves to outline the steely fist of authoritarianism.
This week, the nation with the world’s most sophisticated digital censorship regime, will hold a World Internet Conference. Executives from Western tech giants that are currently banned from operating in China, such as Google and Facebook, will flock to the summit in a Chinese canal town, eager for the chance to tap the world’s largest digital market. Yet on Monday, the search term Pu Zhiqiang was banned from Weibo, China’s microblog service. Hundreds of Chinese online responded by turning their avatars into Pu’s portrait. Others posted images from a South Korean film called The Attorney in tacit support of the detained lawyer. (Pu’s trial ended on Monday morning without a verdict, according to his legal supporters.)
“Lawyer Pu is a good person who speaks for ordinary people,” said one Beijing resident in his late 30s, as he surveyed the scene in front of the courthouse where police were clearing out Chinese and foreign observers late Monday morning. “I trust him and think he’s innocent.” (The man declined to provide his name given the sensitivities of expressing support for Pu.) Shortly afterward, uniformed police shoved a 50-something bystander who veered too close to the courthouse. “Do we have human rights?” the man shouted in response. “Just look at how they treat the masses.”
Others were willing to speak up and identify themselves, despite the risks. Zhang Xuezhong, who has taught at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, wrote an open letter to the judges responsible for Pu’s trial. (The letter was soon deleted on Chinese messaging service WeChat.) “Dear judges, if you can obey the law and give Pu Zhiqiang an acquittal, it may affect your future career and your present job but your sacrifice won’t be useless,” Zhang wrote. “You will become the greatest judges in Chinese history.”
Meanwhile, in the shadows of the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court on Monday, Zhang Jie said she was politicized when authorities in northeastern Jilin province dumped her in a forced-labor camp after she protested the demolishment of her home. Pu’s legal campaigning helped formally end the system of such Chinese gulags, although other forms of extrajudicial imprisonment endure. After her release, Zhang began following Pu on Weibo, the Chinese social-media platform, where his barbed and sarcastic postings garnered tens of thousands of followers, along with official condemnation. Police may have prevented Zhang from entering the court where Pu was being tried but she used the one weapon she possessed. “What I have learned from my experience is that you have to have the courage to speak out,” Zhang said. “The government will not show its mercy just because you keep silent.”
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing and Nash Jenkins / Hong Kong
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