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David Wertime

What’s In a Tweet, Or a T-Shirt? Chinese Case Has Implications For Future Of Online Speech

Ren Jianyu hopes to taste freedom again soon. Via Weibo

A recent viral tweet on China’s Internet starts this way: “He didn’t try to flee to the U.S. consulate, and he didn’t try to abscond to the U.S. with 200 million RMB. He’s not some big official with hundreds of apartments and countless mistresses. He’s just a little village official waiting for justice.”

This man, the 25-year-old Ren Jianyu (pictured at right), has been waiting eagerly indeed. In 2011, Ren was sentenced to two years’ of “re-education through labor” for attempted “overthrow of the government” after re-posting comments critical of Chongqing authorities on QQ, a social media platform. With Ren’s appeal finally getting a hearing in an intermediate People’s court, his story has captured the imagination of netizens all too aware of the case’s implications for online speech.

Ren’s mistake, it seems, was little more than using the Internet as any other opinionated netizen might. According to QQ news, from April to August of 2011 Ren re-posted a number of poems, essays, and songs that were critical of Chongqing authorities, all of which have been subsequently deleted. Significantly, Ren acted under his own name, did not author any of these materials–according to Sina, none of the original creators were punished–and he was far from alone in criticizing Chongqing’s authorities. Since then, Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai and his enforcer Wang Lijun have been removed from their posts and punished for a multitude of crimes. 

With Messrs Bo and Wang under deserved lock and key, a consensus has emerged across the political spectrum that it’s time to let people like Ren go free. Even the normally hard-line Hu Xijin (@胡锡进) garnered praise from Ren’s lawyer when Hu wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter:

“The appeal hearing of Pengshui University student village official Ren Jianyu’s sentencing to re-education through labor for Weibo retweets has begun. I believe he’ll win. Because [what he did] didn’t harm any individual person, and it was pure speech that didn’t create any social conflicts–the era when these kinds of commentary could be punished for being ‘against the Party [or] against socialism’ needs to come to a thorough conclusion. I hope that when this case is rectified, it will [cut down] the last straw of a thousand-year political tradition of criminalized speech. China needs to move forward.”{{1}}[[1]] 重庆彭水县大学生村官任建宇转发微博被劳教申诉案开审。我相信他能赢。因为不带来个人伤害、也不带来社会冲击的的纯言论——无它这些言论多么“反党反社会主义”——而被治罪的时代该彻底结束了。希望这个案子的纠正成为压倒“因言获罪”千年政治传统的最后一根稻草。中国要往前走。[[1]]

Chongqing authorities have little compelling to say in their defense. Procedural gambits have not worked, and their efforts to introduce evidence against Ren have proved public-relations disasters. At the time of Ren’s arrest, authorities confiscated from Ren’s apartment a T-shirt, bought online, which reads “Freedom or Death” (不自由,毋宁死) (see images below this article). They have argued the shirt, found at the bottom of a box, reveals Ren’s intention to overthrow the government.

Pu Zhiqiang, Ren's lawyer and savvy user of new media. Via Weibo

Netizens find that contention ridiculous, and have transformed the T-shirt into something of a meme. Images of a shirt reading “Freedom or Death” in English abound. Lawyer Xu Xin (@徐昕) wrote, “I’d like to buy a T-shirt like this, but I won’t hide it in a box, I’ll wear it…and read it aloud: Freedom or Death.” Lawyer Dan Hong showed solidarity by tweeting an image of himself with “Freedom or Death” photoshopped onto his shirt in Chinese. Watchers of American jurisprudence may recall a 1971 Supreme Court case called Cohen v. California, in which the Court ruled the government could not arrest a young man for wearing a jacket reading “F*** the Draft” in a California courthouse. China, one hopes, is slowly catching up.

Ren’s lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang (@哈儿浦志强有戏), has helped keep netizen interest alive with savvy use of the Weibo platforms. Cognizant of social media’s ability to crack open the judicial black box and, in some cases, to affect legal outcomes, the Chinese government has banned some lawyers from live-tweeting court proceedings. But that hasn’t stopped Mr. Pu, a large man with a kindly but formidable mein, from tweeting before and after each phase of the appeal. In multiple posts over the last two days, Pu has complained about the handling of the case, but also larded his widely-watched feed with personal details that humanize Ren and Ren’s family, not to mention Pu himself. 

Lawyer Pu with Ren's father. Via Weibo

On October 10, Pu likely surprised the police by thanking them. He wrote of seeing Ren and his girlfriend holding hands after being separated for over a year. “At that time,” Pu wrote, “I couldn’t stand it and I cried again. Thank you to the three police officers who permitted that brief encounter; although we are in a court room, the public is watching.” {{2}}[[2]]我看到这对男女执手捶肩,随时受不了,又涕泪横流了。感谢三位警察让他俩短暂聚首,虽说是在法庭上,众目睽睽之下。[[2]] Earlier that day, Pu tweeted about one of Ren’s supporters, a former colleague named Mr. Gao, who came from over 200 kilometers away to listen to the case and offer his support. A snapshot outside the courthouse showed Gao standing next to Pu, who towered over him. 

Pu has also employed humor, sticking his finger in authorities’ eye by posting a “warning” about Ren’s now-famous T-shirt. Pu wrote: “Friendly note: All those who wish to purchase a ‘Freedom or Death’ T-shirt must be careful to confirm it is a ‘Ren Jianyu’ brand, [and] take great care to avoid fakes! This design has passed the rigorous inspection of the Chongqing Labor Re-Education Bureau, and its effectiveness at inciting government overthrow is quite clear.” {{3}}[[3]]温馨提示:凡欲购“不自由,毋宁死”T恤者,请认准“任建宇”牌,千万谨防假冒!该设计通过重庆市劳教委的威认证,煽动颠覆的效果最为明显。[[3]]

While Ren’s prospects for freedom look good, some netizens have wrung their hands about what might happen should sustained online attention flag. The Chongqing court has asked for more time to consider its ruling. Meanwhile, chatter of Mo Yan’s recent receipt of the Literature Nobel has recently engulfed the Chinese blogosphere, so much so that @上官鹄 felt compelled to issue a warning: “Mo Yan’s hot, don’t let Ren Jianyu get cold! Reference News reported that Mo Yan’s winning the prize became a Weibo hot topic and generated 300,000 tweets. In comparison, [tweets related to Ren Jianyu]…were much fewer. [If] retweeting and signing your name online is overthrowing the government, [what about] others who do it? To closely follow Renjian Yu is to [care for] yourself.” {{4}}[[4]]【莫言热,任建宇别冷!】《参考消息》报道,莫言获奖引发微博热议转发30万条。与之相比,任建宇因转贴、印“不自由、毋宁死”文化衫、在林昭自由诗文上签名被劳教,关注度却小得多。转贴,网上签名就是颠覆政权,其他人做过吗?关注任建宇,就是关注自己,“莫言热,任建宇千万别冷!”[[4]]

Evidentiary picture of the offending T-shirt. Via Weibo
Dan Hong, standing in solidarity. The characters read "Freedom or Death." Via Weibo
Many netizens have re-tweeted this English image as a show of support for Ren. Via QQ

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.