It took me about a month in Beijing, and my first investigative story in the adjacent hills, to realise that the question of 'human rights in China' was not a concern only for trouble-making dissidents and well-meaning Western NGOs. Rather, it was a core concern to every single one of China's 1.3 billion people, from workers in illegal coal mines to leaders in Zhongnanhai.
Increasingly, from cyberspace to China's maritime periphery, we are seeing that China's commitment to rule-of-law (or otherwise) is a matter for the rest of the world, too.
China's 'rights protection' lawyers have long been the best barometers for measuring China's progress. What the best of them are saying and doing, and how they are being treated, is the most reliable measure of progress I know of. And there are none more important than the charismatic Hebei lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, whose clients include the artist Ai Weiwei.
I once asked Pu why he persisted in holding the system accountable to its own laws, given the enormous personal costs.
He told me many things, all eloquent and powerful, but the one I've thought about most often is this: he acted as he did so that he could hold his head up high up in front of his son. Pu's formal arrest on Friday – for doing his job — has implications not only for dissidents and NGOs but for everyone who deals with China at home and abroad. These days, that means all of us.
Before Pu's formal arrest he was finally able to have a discussion with his lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, who circulated notes of their discussion online. Zhang passed on a message from Pu's wife. She said: 'Whatever happens, keep calm, don't lose your head. Take care of your health. Remember that staying healthy is the most important thing. Afterwards, I'll do all I can to take care of you.'
Zhang says Pu was visibly moved by this, and replied: 'I understand. Please tell her to tell our son that I believe this experience will be good training for him in toughness. He'll learn a lot from it, and he'll be better for it in the future.'
Pu's statement from prison tells us everything you need to know about the state of 'rule of law' in China. He tells his lawyer that his police interrogations sometimes last for ten hours: 'My legs are getting swollen, probably from sitting on a bench without moving for so long...If this continues, my body’s not up to it.' And when Zhang passes on the concerns of a relative for Pu's welfare, he replies, 'Tell [X] to find another line of work...It's not the right time, nothing will come of it.'
As Zhang said about his client's predicament: 'the prospects are grim'.
The future, however, remains wide open. Clearly Pu's body is at breaking-point but his mind is not. Others in similar predicaments have recently submitted to power, for the sake of their children, but for Pu it is the other way around. He is still setting an example that will serve his son well in a different kind of world, after the Leviathan has fallen.
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Republished with permission.