Pu Trial Could Define Free Speech in China

Several Chinese Internet users have been keeping close eyes on the trial of civil-rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who is accused of making seven criminally-offensive posts on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform in China.

Pu is facing charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”  He faces up to eight years in prison if convicted, according to his lawyers.

The case is particularly important as it could redefine what free speech means in China and it could determine how far the Chinese government can go in limiting it.

Pu’s posts in question criticized the national legislature, a legislative advisory body, and China’s policies toward ethnic Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang. His targets also included Mao Xinyu, Mao Zedong’s grandson and a major general in the People’s Liberation Army.

Although Pu said during his three-hour trial on Monday that he would apologize to anyone offended by his comments, his defense team also argued that his posts did not constitute crimes.

Mo Shaoping, one of Pu’s lawyers, had the following to say to judges.

“The significance of the case is this: Where is the boundary between using harsh and rude words to criticize public figures and events, and freedom of speech? Our viewpoints are:

“First, apart from speech that leads to immediate danger, speech should not be deemed a criminal act. For instance, if you spread the lie that a theater is on fire and that triggers a stampede where people are injured or die, this would be speech that causes an immediate danger. Anything else should just be tolerated as free speech.

“Second, the public has the constitutional right to criticize public figures. It’s enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. Public figures should be more tolerant and should not charge someone just because his or her language is rude.

“Third, Weibo is a special platform of expression, and it’s an instant channel where people comment on events and public figures. Therefore, control over Weibo should be more tolerant than control over conventional media. It’s different from conventional media because it involves the expression of emotions. There should be a greater degree of free speech there compared with conventional media.

“So this case should not be taken on as a public criminal indictment. If anyone is hurt by Pu Zhiqiang’s Weibo posts, that person can file a civil suit against him in court.”

Pu is currently awaiting a verdict.

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