Written by Jackie Sheehan.

At the time of writing, speculation continues as to the sentence Pu Zhiqiang can expect on the charges of inciting racial hatred and “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” on which he was tried a week ago. An acquittal can safely be discounted, as he was still put on trial after 19 months of detention, interrogation, and investigation, on the basis of seven tweets.

It’s possible the sentence will be announced at Christmas, as part of a pattern over the last few years of attempting to minimise Western press coverage by putting out trial results on days when the least attention is likely to be paid to the news. It doesn’t altogether work in the era of 24-hour rolling coverage, however, as the sentencing for peaceful self-expression of a prominent Chinese figure is likely to stand out all the more on an otherwise sparse running order.

The violent efforts of unidentified men to clear crowds of supporters, diplomats and journalists from outside the court as Pu went on trial certainly backfired, gaining more media attention than the hearing might otherwise have had. The melee even provoked the FCO to protest about the “unacceptable” treatment of British diplomats and journalists, in sharp contrast to the craven statement about China’s human-rights performance put out by the UK’s Beijing embassy to mark International Human Rights Day.

Sentencing is famously inconsistent in China’s criminal-justice system even where prosecutions are not politically motivated, and suggestions for Pu’s likely fate range from time served and immediate release up to eight years’ imprisonment. Actually, the “racial hatred” charge can carry a sentence of up to ten years in cases deemed serious (by police or CCP authorities, not judges). What Pu actually said about the knife attack at Kunming railway station in March 2014 was that it seemed to be a genuine instance (for once) of Uygur violence against Han Chinese which could be termed terrorism, but that this was a result of the way China governed Xinjiang, not the reason for it. Nevertheless, when as sensible and moderate a commentator on Xinjiang as Ilham Tohti is serving a life sentence for “separatism”, anything is possible in terms of vindictive sentencing for Pu.

That the case against him has come down to only seven tweets, out of 20,000 on his accounts over the five years in question, is all the more remarkable considering the lengths to which the authorities went to find more with which to charge him. When he was able to speak to his lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, in June 2014, Pu revealed that he was being interrogated nearly every day for up to ten hours, spending so long sitting motionless on a wooden bench in these sessions that his legs were beginning to swell up – so much for the padded “comfy chair” China claimed to offer those it interrogated when defending its record under the Convention Against Torture before a UN committee last month.

Pu himself described the charges he was then facing, seven weeks after he was detained following his attendance at a private seminar on the 25th anniversary of June 4, as “many and broad”, and in November 2014 it was announced that, as police handed the case on to prosecutors, charges of subversion of state power and illegally obtaining personal information were also being brought. But despite his detention being extended twice more in August 2015 on the grounds that his case was “complicated”, efforts to find more to throw at him in court seem to have failed – he pays his taxes, doesn’t cheat on his wife, and probably puts his recycling in the right boxes and returns his library books on time as well.

His other tweets, apart from being pithily expressed, aren’t particularly outspoken. Public opinion and much of the media were equally scathing about the aftermath of the Wenzhou high-speed train crash in 2011, and Mao-style boasts about training the drivers in ten days rather than the months or years taken in other countries soon gave way to dismissals and prosecutions within the railway ministry. Nor did anyone noticeably leap to the defence of Shen Jilan, the NPC’s longest-serving representative ever, whom Pu mocked for her statement that she’d never once voted against the CCP government in sixty years in the institution.

The “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” charge is being used more frequently now, probably for cases where Re-education Through Labour might have been used before its November 2013 abolition. Trouble can be stirred up in cyberspace as well as in the street, making it a handy accusation to use against those who have only ever peacefully expressed their views.

The number of cases being brought has prompted the Supreme People’s Court to issue sentencing guidance for the offence, and it does not bode well for Pu Zhiqiang. A relatively light sentence of one to three years is only recommended for cases involving one instance of picking quarrels and stirring up trouble, whereas three or more instances merits a sentence of five to seven years. Other aggravating factors can include the harm caused by the offence, which the authorities are free to define and quantify however they please.

Signs that the authorities wish to keep others guessing about where the line is drawn can be detected in the treatment of Pu’s supporters detained outside his trial. Four of them remain in criminal detention in Fengtai, and when friends asked if they would be held for a limited time only, “not necessarily” was the discouraging reply, while activist Chen Yulan was threatened with five days’ detention if she said anything else to the police after questioning why they would not accept clothes and money for the other detainees. Between these actions and the Supreme People’s Court’s advice, Perry Link’s prediction of a long sentence for Pu designed for a chilling effect across all online expression looks closest to the mark.

Jackie Sheehan is a professor in the School of Asian Studies at University College Cork. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.