Updated: Mar 12, 2022
The trial of Chinese lawyer Pu Zhiqiang drew condemnation from human rights groups and foreign diplomats on Monday.
Pu joins a long list of civil society activists, free-speech advocates, feminists, and intellectuals who have been detained, arrested, or sent to prison in China over the recent years as Communist Party authorities have cracked down on acts of dissent.
Authorities have leveled various charges at the activists such as advocating separatism, inciting subversion of state power, gathering a crowd to disrupt public order, and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
Here is a look at some of the most prominent figures currently behind bars:
A poet, literary critic, and former professor who participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for "inciting subversion of state power” after coauthoring a controversial manifesto called Charter 08 that called for multiparty elections and democratic reform in China. The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but was forbidden from attending the ceremony by authorities.
China reacted to the Nobel Prize with fury, imposing a virtual news blackout on Liu’s selection. Limited mentions in state-run media called him "an incarcerated Chinese criminal" and said the prize had been "degraded into a political tool that serves an antiChina purpose.” The award soured relations between Norway and China.
More than 300 people, including some of China's top intellectuals, signed Charter 08. It was made public in December 2008.
Liu was a visiting scholar at Columbia University when the democracy movement began sweeping China in 1989. He rushed home to participate.
After the demonstrations were crushed, he was branded as subversive and served 18 months behind bars. From then on, he faced obstacles to publishing or lecturing, but he stayed in China and did not give up. In 1995, he was placed under house arrest, then ordered to a labor camp for "reeducation," from which he was released in 1999.
Shortly before going to prison a decade later, where he remains today, Liu wrote: "Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher lost his podium, a writer lost the right to publish and a public intellectual lost the chance to speak publicly. This was a sad thing, both for myself as an individual and, after three decades of reform and opening, for China."
Tohti, a Beijing economics professor and China’s most prominent critic of government policies toward the nation’s Uighur ethnic minority, was convicted on charges of separatism in September 2014 and sentenced to life in prison. The court ordered complete seizure of his assets.
The state-controlled New China News Agency said Tohti had used his website, Uighur Online, to advocate for Xinjiang’s separation from China, as well as to encourage other Uighurs toward violence. Tohti had “bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate,” the agency said. His website has been banned.
Tohti denied the charges, saying he never associated with any terrorist organizations or foreign groups and “relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request” human and legal rights for Uighurs.
International human rights groups and foreign governments, including the United States, described the case as the persecution of a moderate intellectual who sought to foster dialogue between Uighurs and China’s Han ethnic majority.
One of Tohti’s lawyers, Liu Xiaoyuan, stated that he was unable to call people to speak in Tohti’s defense. “Before Ilham Tohti’s trial, we had applied to the court to summon more than a dozen witnesses, but the court refused to send out the orders,” he said.
In 2013 Tohti was intercepted by security officials en route to the Beijing airport and prevented from traveling to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University.
Tohti was the 2014 recipient of the prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, though his daughter had to receive the award in Tohti's stead.
Legal advocate Xu was sentenced in January 2014 to four years in prison after being convicted by a Beijing court of "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
The Xu case was particularly disheartening to human rights activists because of his attempts to work within the system. He embraced causes the Communist Party authorities ostensibly support—equal education for migrant workers and regulations requiring government officials to disclose their assets.
Xu earned his doctorate in law at prestigious Peking University and was elected to the local People’s Congress, the representative assembly. In 2009, he founded the New Citizens Movement, designed to push for rule of law, upholding the rights enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.
Xu was charged with organizing a demonstration at the Education Ministry at which officials said people "unfurled banners, made a racket, and defied and obstructed public security police officers from enforcing the law, creating serious chaos at that location."
The Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court rejected the 68 witnesses Xu’s defense team tried to present.
"This destroys the last remaining dignity of the Chinese legal system," Xu told the court at his sentencing, according to his lawyer, Zhang Qingfang.
Guo, one of southern China’s most prominent activists, was sentenced in November to six years in prison for participating in anticensorship and protransparency protests. The 49-year-old was convicted by the Tianhe District People’s Court in the city of Guangzhou for “assembling a crowd to disrupt public order” and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”
Guo—whose birth name is Yang Maodong— was detained in August 2013 after he joined in an anticensorship protest at the Guangzhou headquarters of the newspaper Southern Weekly. The publication had recently grappled with censorship over an outspoken editorial, and several of its journalists were on strike. Guo’s lawyer, Zhang Lei, said Guo was also convicted for organizing protransparency demonstrations in eight cities across China. Zhang said Guo maintains his innocence and planned to appeal.
“Whatever he did—including what he did in front of the [Southern Weekly]—was just him exercising his freedom of speech, a normal citizen's right,” Zhang told the Los Angeles Times. “And when he went around pushing officials to declare their assets, he didn’t cause any social disorder—that was also a citizen's right.”
Guo was imprisoned for more than 800 days before his sentence was announced; his trial was held in November 2014. Zhang said Guo was held in a cramped cell with no natural light, causing him severe physical and psychological distress.
On the same day that Guo was sentenced, two other activists who took part in the Southern Weekly protests were also handed prison terms. Sun Desheng was given two and a half years in prison, and Liu Yuandong was given three years. Both were convicted of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.”