On Monday, the Chinese government will defend its claims against one of China’s most celebrated activists in one of the most controversial and closely-watched cases in Xi Jinping’s presidency.
World-recognized political activist and civil-rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang will stand trial after spending 18 months behind bars. He is facing up to 8 years in jail as he fights charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “inciting ethnic hatred.”
The charges stem from controversial posts critical of the ruling Communist Party, which he made via Weibo or China’s Twitter.
But Pu’s battle against the system spans back far before the age of “hashtag” revolutions launched from the comfort of one’s home. Pu emerged from the protests and chaos-filled streets of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Back then, he was a 24-year-old law student at Beijing’s elite China University of Political Science and Law. His academic prospects were shattered, however, when he refused to denounce his role in the 1989 pro-Democracy. movement.
The massacre on June 4, 1989, which claimed the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands, solidified him as a life-long activist.
“Our generation all suffers from the ‘4 June complex’,” said friend and film critic Hao Jian in an interview with the Guardian. “Once, in the 80s, we breathed some fresh air. But on 4 June, our minds received an electric shock. [That day] is central to our mental condition.”
Flash forward to 2015 and Chinese dissidents are still gasping for that breath of fresh air.
Today, the government is saying Pu’s comments are a threat to China’s stability.
In his unlawful posts, Pu criticized a government official following a deadly rail crash at Wnezhou in 2011. In another, he raises questions about the government’s link to terror attacks in the volatile region of Xinjiang.
A total of seven posts, some sarcastic in nature, have put him behind bars.
Still, some have hope for the activist.
“Pu Zhiqiang is influential in the Beijing legal world. He has many friends, and that might help him,” Zhang Xuezhong, a fellow lawyer, told the New York Times. “I’m not a fortune teller, but there is the possibility of a lighter verdict.”
Nonetheless, others fear he will receive a harsh punishment meant to silent other activists.
“This is someone with an incredibly far-ranging and impressive intellect that could have been applied in a million ways,” said William J. Dobson, an American writer who spent time with Pu. “And in some ways, the Chinese Communist party determined his future by closing those doors and really not giving him any recourse but to become an enemy of the state.”.