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Opinion

Opinion: At the mercy of the Chinese state

Pu Zhiqiang is innocent. His sentence may be mild by Chinese standards, but it is still unjust. DW’s Matthias von Hein calls it a face-saving compromise to ward off a PR disaster.

There is widespread

relief following Pu Zhiqiang's sentencing.

The prominent human rights lawyer will not have to spend any more nights in jail; he had faced a possible sentence of eight years in prison.

But there's also widespread anger. Because if this case had anything to do with justice, then Pu never would have been imprisoned in the first place. He should have been declared innocent and given compensation for the 19 months he has spent in custody. A guilty verdict combined with a three-year suspended jail sentence is a clear attempt by the Chinese authorities to save face while ending proceedings against Pu. His case had turned into a veritable PR disaster - one that put the Chinese legal system in a very bad light indeed. And that, in turn, is not good for business.

Lawyers lead a dangerous life

Since the 1990s, China has been rebuilding and expanding its legal institutions, which were abolished under Mao. It has laws, state prosecutors, judges and yes, lawyers, too.

But lawyers live dangerously in China, at least in the China under President Xi Jinping. Since he took office three years ago, he has ruthlessly cracked down on anything and anyone that could be perceived as a threat to himself, and the leadership of China's Communist Party: Corrupt officials and political opponents, civil rights activists, trade unionists, and lawyers, too. Pu Zhiqiang's arrest in May 2014 was just the beginning of a massive intimidation campaign. This past summer alone, more than 200 lawyers were arrested; around 20 of them are still in jail.

Intimidation campaign

Pu's arrest was also meant to intimidate others. The message: If a national hero and internationally recognized lawyer like Pu - a man who, in 2013 was chosen by a Chinese weekly as the most influential person working in the area of civil rights - can be arrested, then no one is safe from the whims of the Chinese state.

The members of China's Communist Party operate above the law. And when they want to, they'll bend, shape and twist the law until it fits. The Chinese authorities usually try to make it appear as though their actions are constitutional, but in the case against Pu Zhiqiang, it didn't quite work. The accusations were absurd: "Picking quarrels and provoking trouble" and "inciting ethnic hatred." The state prosecution tried for over a year to build a case. In the end, they had just seven tweets in their hands, chosen out of thousands of tweets posted over a period of three years.

Yes, the tweets were impertinent, and sometimes rather coarse in style. But illegal?

One of them poked fun at a member of the National People's Congress who, over the course of 60 years, had not once voted "No" on anything. Another criticized China's handling of a train accident in 2011. Another in part blamed Beijing's policies on minorities for a deadly terror attack by extremists from Xinjiang. But nothing in these short statements in any way justifies a guilty verdict for Pu. It's good that diplomats from Germany, Canada, and the US protested against the case last week in front of the court building.

But we'll never know what role that may have played in his relatively mild sentence.

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