Civil Liberties

As Olympics Near, China's Most Famous Dissident is Imprisoned

Jailed for "inciting to subvert state power," Hu Jia is likely to become the poster-boy for critics of the Olympics.
As far as Hu Jia was concerned, the door to his apartment was always open to fellow Chinese who shared his desire for greater freedom, foreign friends, or activists with issues to discuss.

But it was always a question of when, not if, the Communist Party would lock up Mr. Hu, China's most famous dissident, who has been under house arrest for many months, guarded by state security officers.

Yesterday Mr. Hu, 34, was transformed into one of the world's most famous human rights defenders as China moved to stifle dissent before the Olympic Games in Beijing. He was jailed by a Beijing court for three and a half years for "inciting to subvert state power" through a series of articles about freedom and for his constant dialog with foreign journalists.

Mr. Hu would not have been surprised by the jail sentence. One of the last things he said to me defiantly after I interviewed him while he was under house arrest last year was: "I'm ready that the next step after house arrest will be jail."

Getting in to see Mr. Hu in his apartment complex, which is called Bobo Freedom City, involved flashing your press pass at the police who ran alongside your car as you entered the compound. Then you had to pick your way around groups of police officers playing cards in the stairwell and standing around outside the apartment block, smoking and chatting idly, or hassling Mr. Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, as she left for work.

Despite the constant surveillance, Mr. Hu kept a blog on an overseas website called Boxun. The prosecutors had 4kg of documents in evidence against him -- this was never going to end well for him.

Mr. Hu seems fearless. He has spoken out on Aids, Tibetan autonomy and free speech, while embracing the causes of the activist lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and Chen Guangcheng, a blind rural campaigner who has been jailed for four years.

He sometimes gives an impression of naivety. How can he survive? Long a thorn in the side of the Beijing government, the authorities say his case exemplifies how Western media are obsessed with human rights and other negative aspects of China's rise, while not paying enough attention to the progress made.

While the sentence is lighter than many in the human rights community feared, Mr. Hu's conviction for criticizing the Communist Party is likely to become a cause célèbre among rights activists, alongside the issue of Tibet, ahead of the Olympic Games. By formally jailing him, the authorities may have created a monster, a poster boy for the critics of the Communist Party's strict controls on dissent and protest.

Mr. Hu, an amiable, slight figure, who suffers from Hepatitis B, was carted off by state security police in late December after he had already spent more than 200 days under house arrest. He and his wife and their six-week-old daughter, Hu Qianci, were at home around Christmas time with Ms. Zeng's grandmother when 20 policemen burst in, cut their telephone lines and internet connection and arrested Mr. Hu. Ms Zeng and the baby remain under house arrest, and she left the courtroom yesterday visibly upset, before being taken home in a police van.

Speaking on the telephone recently, she told of how she was only allowed out a couple of times to take baby Qianci to the clinic for check-ups, but she wasn't allowed out to walk the child. Mr. Hu's sister and parents were keeping them supplied. She was furious and frustrated at her plight. Both of them are proud that the Olympics are being hosted by Beijing, but they think the Games have been hijacked.

"These Games are for the Chinese Communist Party and they violate the basic human rights of Chinese people," she said.

Living under house arrest was difficult for an energetic figure such as Mr. Hu, who spent so much of his time on the road defending the causes dear to his heart. The walls of his apartment are covered with still-life drawings, and a DVD boxed set of Friends on the coffee table bears testament to the tedium of imprisonment. In a basket on the table sat a pharmacy of medicines ranging from vitamins to kidney treatments.

During his confinement he kept a video diary, and one particularly affecting scene is of a police officer walking behind Ms. Zeng, cruelly mimicking her walk and making ape-like gestures.

By nature a cheerful person, Mr. Hu refuses to be bowed by his experiences and the events which have befallen his family. He doesn't look tough, but he has clearly learned resilience from his parents. Although a Beijing native, his parents were declared "rightists" during the Mao era in the 1950s, and then were sent to the countryside in Hunan during the Cultural Revolution for re-education.

"So I'm from Beijing, but I'm not really a Beijinger. I speak Mandarin rather than Beijing dialect," he said. A square peg in a round hole from an early age.

He studied in Beijing but by 1996 he had started on his path of activism and lobbying for change. He began doing environmental work, joining the Friends of Nature and heading into the desert to plant trees. Between 1998 and 2000 he was in Qinghai, protecting the endangered Tibetan antelope.

He is best known in China for his work with Aids victims. A taboo subject until the current leadership decided to take steps to tackle the problem, the government's slowness, particularly at local level, to acknowledge the epidemic contributed to its spread. This was particularly true in Henan province in the 1990s, when millions of people sold blood to unsanitary clinics.

A Buddhist since 1979, Mr. Hu's beliefs are a driving factor behind his activism. "I don't believe in taking life. This is why I helped the antelope and why I became an Aids activist. I saw a family, a man and his wife and their child, and all of them died within two months of my seeing them. I feel life is so precious, but so easily taken away. And so worth protecting," he said during our talk.

He has been involved in lobbying for HIV/Aids foundations and has had much success in boosting the profile of the disease and helping sufferers get acceptance in Chinese society.

"Inciting subversion" can earn you five years or more in jail and Mr. Hu's lawyer, Li Fangping, had feared a longer sentence. Another Chinese dissident, Yang Chunlin, who called for human rights to take precedence over the Olympic Games, was sentenced to five years in jail last month on similar charges, although the two trials were unrelated.

John Kamm, executive director of Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that works to free Chinese political prisoners, said the verdict seemed rushed. "From the point of detention to the announcement of the verdict, this case is the fastest we've seen and it raises questions here about whether due process was exercised.

"In my discussions with Chinese officials recently, after the events in Lhasa, I was told that any concessions would be seen as a sign of weakness. This appears to be the mindset," said Mr. Kamm. "The Hu Jia verdict to me speaks of this very hard attitude toward dissent and protest that we've been seeing for a while."

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said it was "appalled" by the sentence and called on the European Union to freeze its human rights dialogue with China.

"The Chinese justice system has, at the behest of the authorities, thrown oil on the flames just four months ahead of the Olympic Games by imposing this sentence on Hu Jia, a figurehead of the peaceful struggle to improve respect for human rights in China," the group said.

"In a sign of protest, we urge the European governments to immediately freeze the constructive dialog on human rights that has been conducted with China for the past few years."

Amnesty International said the verdict was a "slap in the face for Hu Jia and a warning to any other activists in China who dare to raise human rights concerns publicly."

The official news agency Xinhua said Mr. Hu had confessed to his crimes and accepted his punishment, hence the light sentence. His legal team said he had conceded to "excesses."

"Mr. Hu spread malicious rumors, and committed libel in an attempt to subvert the state's political power and socialist system," the court said, according to Xinhua.

Mr. Hu's profile has been high for a long time and this is not the kind of case that will be brushed easily aside, particularly when allied to the condemnation of China's crackdown on violent protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas last month.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, raised Mr. Hu's case when she visited Beijing earlier this year, and the US embassy in Beijing issued a statement about his sentencing, saying: "In this Olympic year, we urge China to seize the opportunity to put its best face forward and take steps to improve its record on human rights and religious freedom." The European Union and other Western governments, Germany in particular, have also pressed China on the matter.

Mr. Hu is unlikely to appeal against the sentence. Now his supporters in Beijing and elsewhere are waiting to see when he will be allowed to come back to Bobo Freedom City again to welcome people to his home.