Asia-Pacific

Chinese protesters flock to trial

Protesters outside Wu Yuren's trial
Image caption Protesters make their point outside the trial of artist and activist Wu Yuren

China's government goes to great lengths to prevent its citizens staging public protests, particularly in sensitive places.

Uniformed and plain clothes officers roam Beijing's Tiananmen Square on the lookout for any would-be demonstrator.

But there is one type of event where protesters seem to be tolerated - high-profile trials of dissidents or activists.

With foreign journalists present, protesters are given an opportunity to reach a wider audience - and get some measure of protection.

Imperial tradition

The recent trial of artist Wu Yuren is a case in point.

The first day of the trial took place at a district court on the outskirts of Beijing, miles away from anywhere and surrounded by building sites.

But that did not prevent dozens of people turning up. Outside the court were the defendant's supporters, protesters, journalists and the authorities.

The protesters were pushed to one side, but they were determined to be heard - and shouted loudly throughout the morning.

Many of them were petitioners, individuals who make their way to Beijing to highlight their own particular grievances.

This tradition of coming to the capital to seek redress is an old one that began when China still had emperors.

Image caption Journalists are urged to moved into a specially prepared police pen

And unlike many traditions that were done away with when the communists came to power in 1949, this one remains.

One of the petitioners was a woman in a wheelchair, Chen Shuyun. She sat outside the courthouse with a picture of her dead husband hanging around her neck.

She claims her husband died after the couple were thrown out of their home to make way for a new development project.

"Hooligans go into the mountains and steal resources. Thugs enter the city and demolish houses," she chanted to anyone who would listen.

Other petitioners held up placards, shouted about their own problems or handed out printed copies of their stories to waiting journalists.

Some protesters though were there to make a wider point about China's political system.

"This has become a police state," said the artist Ai Weiwei, whose criticism of the government has got him into the foreign news as much as his work has over recent months.

Tempers were occasionally hot.

Ai Weiwei managed to get into an argument with a police officer who was trying to persuade journalists to stand in a cordoned-off area.

"How are they supposed to interview anyone if they're stood there on their own - what kind of logic is that?" he shouted.

The officer tried to keep his cool, mechanically repeating phrases that every Chinese police officer seems to know by heart.

"Please don't interfere with the traffic. Thank you for your co-operation," he said, although no one seemed to be listening.

Pancake lunch

Most people were outside because it is difficult to get inside a Chinese courthouse.

Wu Yuren's trial, like many in China, was technically open to the public, but there did not seem to be much chance of getting in.

A court official said there were only five vacant seats - and two of those were occupied by the artist's wife and a police officer.

The three free seats were supposed to be handed out on a first-come-first-served basis. No-one seemed to know who had got them.

It was getting cold, and many outside the court were tucking into pancakes, made by a couple with a hotplate fixed to a cart.

They pushed it ever nearer the crowd, realising that there was money to be made.

But before long the trial was adjourned for the day. Wu Yuren, charged with "obstructing public services with violence", was sent back to prison.

He is accused of attacking police officers, although his family and friends believe this is a trumped-up charge initiated because of his political activism.

His wife, Canadian Karen Patterson, came out of the court and gave an impromptu press conference.

She said she was speaking up not just for her husband, but for the all the people with complaints in China who did not have access to foreign reporters.

She was speaking, in part, about the people who had turned up to her husband's trial.

They had been to many court cases before, including the trial of this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. They will probably be back at the next trial of a high-profile activist.

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