Beijing activist lawyer Pu Zhiqiang’s trial for “picking quarrels and causing disturbances” lasted just three hours, when it was finally held on December 14, after he had already been held in detention for 19 months.

Journalist and diplomats were harassed outside the court in disgraceful scenes; there is little doubt in China’s brutal Communist Party-controlled legal system, Pu will be sent to jail for many years.

Yet Pu’s only real “crime” has been to critique the CCP for decades, mainly in defence of human and legal rights campaigners (including online) against the ongoing and increasingly concerning suppression of any semblance of free speech in China.

Pu has been battling the ruling Communist Party since the massacre of hundreds of people and injuries to thousands on June 4, 1989, and since his arrest last year he has emerged from the thicket of brave human rights lawyers as a leading dissident.

His reputation is now so strong that the Australian government broke its usual radio silence on China’s appalling human rights when he was detained in May 2014, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop admonishing Beijing for its actions. Last week, not a peep.

The basis for Pu’s charges was a number of posts he made on his popular Chinese Twitter-like micro-blogging site Weibo; the government regularly shuts down sites whose commentary it does not like.

This appears to fly in the face of some comments made by Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the grandly named and very much self-styled second World Internet Conference in the city of Wuzhen last week — but not others.

In a display of hypocrisy not unfamiliar to those who follow China, in his opening keynote address to the conference on December 9, Xi said:

“As in the real world, freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace: freedom is what order is meant for, and order is the guarantee for freedom.”

Then, later in the conference came the kicker:

“No country should interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or engage in, connive at or support cyber activities that undermine other countries’ national security.

“On one hand, we should respect the freedom of expression. On the other, we need to create a fine cyberspace order following relevant laws.”

Lu Wei, China’s de facto chief censor (the head of Cyberspace Administration of China), said that China does not, in fact, censor the internet; rather, China “regulates it”.

“If we really censor the Internet, how come our Internet user population and their reliance on the Internet keep growing?

“Let me tell you, China has four million websites, nearly 700 million Internet users, 1.2 billion mobile phone users as well as 600 million WeChat and Weibo users. Every day they post 30 billion messages. It’s simply impossible for any country or organization to censor 30 billion messages.”

“Not censoring doesn’t mean there is no bottom line: If you touch that line and violate the law, you will be held responsible.”

New cyber laws in China will allow the government to legally do what it does already: cut the internet off to any person, or group of people, in the name of national security. In 2009, for instance, Beijing cut internet access to the entire province of Xinjiang for six months following bloody sectarian riots.

Only a few days after Pu’s trial, Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb was encouraging Australian businesses to do more business with China — a country that legally executes more of its citizens than any other, does not have an independent legal system and has a track record of throwing in jail not just its own citizens but Australian business people, too, such as Matthew Ng and Charlotte Chou, for crossing local CCP cadres. Once again, China’s stated intention on amping up censorship could give Australian business pause for thought.

The number of Australians in Chinese jails and detention centres has doubled in the past three years. While many are related to the increase in drug-smuggling busts, it is also understood that there are plenty involved with business disputes, but the Chinese government won’t clarify the exact number — perhaps fearful it might dent its trade plans.

The schizophrenia on display over Pu was typical of an Australian government, under both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, that has regularly sacrificed any principles for either financial or human trade opportunities. (And its worth noting the latest Coalition government has simply continued a long-term bipartisan policy on this.)

Diplomats like to point to Australia’s annual Human Rights Dialogue with China, but nothing concrete ever comes of it — certainly not the early release of any Australian from prison or statements from China that it will mend its ways. In the time the dialogue has been ongoing, China’s human rights record has arguably deteriorated further.

As everyone knows, the theory that China, or the Communist Party that runs the country with an iron fist, will change when it is exposed to more market forces and engagement with the world has proven to be a chimera.

Countries like Australia link trade and aid to human rights as and when it suits them. Sanctions for Myanmar and Iran with whom Australia has minuscule trade stand in stark contrast to the free kick for China and its gazillions of trade dollars.

And it’s not just China: it happens all around the region as per Australia’s reprehensible refugees-for-cash deal with one of Asia’s most repressive regimes in Cambodia.

Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull could mull some innovation in these areas over his Christmas break, as he ponders the message of goodwill to all men (and women).

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey