05/09/2014 02:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chinese Netizens Speak Out For Arrested Rights Lawyer

User Generated, Censor-Chosen Keywords on China’s Weibo

“Sensitive words” are those terms which are liable to be blocked on the Chinese Internet. Often they are words or phrases invented by Internet users to skirt censorship. China Digital Times tracks words that have been blocked from the search results of Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, and other online forums. Instead of deleting millions of posts, Weibo simply shields from view posts containing offending terms. For instance, if you search for “Dalai Lama” (达赖喇嘛), you will get nothing but the message, “According to the relevant laws and regulations, search results for ‘Dalai Lama’ cannot be displayed.” These words may be unblocked (and reblocked) at any time.

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One of China’s most prominent free speech and human rights lawyers is now in police custody, and Chinese netizens aren’t taking it lightly.

On Sunday, May 3, lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and 14 other activists, scholars, and writers gathered for a seminar on the pro-democracy protests of 1989, one month before the 25th anniversary of the June 4th military crackdown. By waiting until Tuesday to detain Pu and other attendees, police appear to be using 30 day criminal detentions as a convenient means of holding the activists until June 5th, the day after the anniversary.

Pu and at least four others have been accused of “creating a disturbance,” a crime under Chinese law.


Pu Zhiqiang, himself a student protester in 1989, has defended several high-profile free speech and civil rights cases in recent years, including artist Ai Weiwei and activist Tan Zuoren. His willingness to take on politically sensitive cases and his outspoken nature have earned him the respect of many in the Internet generation.

Chinese netizens are now speaking out against Pu’s detention, and Internet censors are trying to keep pace. On May 6, an unnamed government agency issued a directive to Internet companies: “All websites must strictly search out and delete content related to the detention of Pu Zhiqiang and the so-called XX Commemoration Seminar. Take care to delete related images from Weibo and other interactive platforms.” The next day, another directive instructed websites to “identify through search and completely delete harmful information related to ‘creating a disturbance.’”

Now, Weibo users are resorting to film references to show their support for Pu.

On May 6, actress and model Zhang Ziyi did her part by invoking the 2013 South Korean film The Attorney (변호인), a story inspired by the life of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun. Prior to being elected president of recently democratized South Korea in 2003, Roh was a tax lawyer who, after defending student protesters, became a human rights lawyer

稀土部队: The Attorney: A lawyer who pursues democracy, rule of law, and justice fights for the truth and deeply inspires. The story is adapted from the real accomplishments of former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun. No need to say more here, go see for yourself what it’s about!


User QuyaoMac responded to Zhang, “If our country could show this kind of film, we would already have democracy and rule of law.”

Netizens are also reinterpreting a line from the 2011 film The Founding of a Party to show their support for Pu. Released on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, the film did poorly at the box office, while user reviews were disabled on popular websites. But people are quoting from a scene where Li Dazhao speaks to fellow Party founder Chen Duxiu after Chen has sat in jail for three months:

Since you went to prison, the whole nation has been shaken. Nothing in a person’s life could be more glorious than this.


On the bulletin board site KDnet, one user wrote a post titled after the quotation from The Founding of a Party. It starts, “Even though your face has been blocked, everyone knows who is in this image,” and shows a blank JPEG.

Like Chen Guangcheng’s extralegal house arrest several years ago, Pu Zhiqiang’s detention is eliciting a strong reaction online. By quoting films, netizens are building a vocabulary to talk about Pu without using his name, keeping themselves a step ahead of the censors.

Blocked Weibo Keyword Searches: As of May 6, the following Boolean searches related to Pu Zhiqiang’s arrest are blocked from Weibo search results.

● 浦志强+律师 Pu Zhiqiang+lawyer
● 浦志强+失联 Pu Zhiqiang+lose contact
● 浦志强+失踪 Pu Zhiqiang+missing
● 浦志强+抄家 Pu Zhiqiang+search home and confiscate property
● 浦志强+被抄 Pu Zhiqiang+be searched
● 哈儿律师+失联 Lawyer Har+lose contact: Pu often refers to himself online as “Lawyer Har” (哈儿律师 Hā’ér lǚshī).
● 哈儿律师+失踪 Lawyer Har+missing
● 哈儿律师+抄家 Lawyer Har+search home and confiscate property
● 浦+律师+失联 Pu+lawyer+lose contact
● 浦+律师+失踪 Pu+lawyer+missing
● 浦+律师+抄家 Pu+laywer+search home and confiscate property