Ai Weiwei: Courage on Trial in China

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Reprinted from the New York Times 

BERLIN — In April 2011, I was kidnapped by the Chinese undercover police at a Beijing airport and detained at a secret location for 81 days. After my release, the government charged me with tax evasion, even though most of the questions during my confinement centered on my political activities. They demanded that I pay back taxes and a fine totaling $2.4 million, and when I asked why the shakedown, one official replied, “If we don’t penalize you, you won’t give us any peace.”

I decided not to give them peace. I contacted Pu Zhiqiang, one of the few courageous lawyers willing to defend political activists who suffer abuse at the hands of China’s authoritarian regime, to file an appeal. Zhiqiang took my case. I was impressed with his thorough preparation and clear thinking. In court, he was sharp, persuasive and fearless.

Signs depicting the human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong last week. Mr. Pu was tried on Dec. 14 before a three-judge panel in Beijing.Chinese Rights Lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, Is Given Suspended Prison SentenceDEC. 21, 2015
Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent lawyer, was charged with “picking quarrels” over web comments.Chinese Rights Lawyer’s Trial Over Online Comments to Begin SoonDEC. 10, 2015
Over the years, Zhiqiang has defended many journalists, petitioners and human rights activists. His legal advocacy, along with his valor and superior skills, made him a target for political persecution. The leadership sees his rising influence as a threat.

After being detained for the last 19 months, Zhiqiang was put on trial on Dec. 14 by the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and for “inciting ethnic hatred,” based on seven of his microblog posts that criticized Communist Party policies. The government found him guilty on Tuesday and gave him a three-year suspended sentence. The verdict automatically strips Zhiqiang of his attorney’s license — and eliminates the platform from which he has given voice to the voiceless.

The outcome is better than expected, perhaps due to international pressure, but upon his release from detention, Zhiqiang’s life will be anything but normal. The police will monitor his every move, and they can jail him at any time if he resumes his political activities in the next three years.

When I was freed from police custody in June 2011, the authorities took away my passport and prohibited me from posting articles on the Internet. I was barred from speaking to the media. Surveillance cameras were installed on buildings and utility poles outside my studio, while police officers were stationed outside. I had to get permission to leave the house, and when it was granted, I was followed closely. Zhiqiang will be subject to similar treatment.

I first met Zhiqiang in the summer of 2009 when he represented the writer Tan Zuoren. I didn’t know Mr. Tan, but I knew that he had started a citizens’ investigative project similar to mine. We both sought to uncover the truth that the deaths of more than 5,000 children in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake were due, in large part, to shoddy school construction. When Mr. Tan posted the results of his investigation online, the police arrested him.

As Mr. Tan’s lawyer, Zhiqiang came to my studio to compare notes. I saw a tall, large-framed northerner who talked with a resonant but calm voice. Zhiqiang believed that my own findings would aid Mr. Tan’s defense. His dedication touched me. Without hesitation, I agreed to testify.

On the day of Mr. Tan’s trial, the police raided my hotel at 3 a.m. and brutally forced me and my colleagues to remain inside until the trial was over. I sustained life-threatening head injuries. Despite Zhiqiang’s eloquent defense tactics, Mr. Tan was sentenced to five years in prison.

China suffers a severe shortage of independent lawyers brave enough to fight for the universal value of human rights. But Zhiqiang is different.

In 1989, when Zhiqiang was a law student in Beijing, he took part in the pro-democracy hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. He told me that on the night when government tanks rolled into the city, he and a female medical student were among the last to retreat from the square. They got lost in back alleys on the way to their dorms. This proved a blessing; they avoided the random shooting of protesters by soldiers who prowled the main streets. That student later became Zhiqiang’s wife.


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Zhiqiang never ceased calling for the government to recognize the 1989 massacre. In May of last year, the police arrested him after he attended a private gathering to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen student movement. Neither I nor his friends imagined he would be detained for so long without a trial. During that time, investigators interrogated his friends and colleagues, and combed through his firm’s financial records, hoping to charge him with economic crimes, as they did with me and many other activists. When such attempts failed, they resorted to using his microblog posts.

But while Zhiqiang is one of a kind, his case is not unique. Since his arrest, many human rights lawyers have disappeared. Nobody outside the system knows where they are or how they are being treated. Their families can’t visit and their children are forbidden to leave the country. We can expect that trials and guilty verdicts like Zhiqiang’s await them in the near future.

As the world gushes over China’s economic power, no one should forget that its rise comes at the cost of freedom and human rights. Sadly, many people inside and outside China have resigned themselves to the fact that the judicial system submits to the power of the Communist Party.

But I reject such habitual indifference and numbness. I reject the belief that we have to accept what we are given in China.

The presence of a large group of Chinese supporters and Westerners who braved police harassment outside the courtroom during Zhiqiang’s trial gave me hope. In the face of threats from a powerful state machine, if all of us could summon enough courage to shout out what we think, we will eventually force change.

Ai Weiwei is an artist and activist. This article was translated by Wenguang Huang from the Chinese.