South China Morning Post, Jan 27, 2008

Beijing silences 'one-man rights organisation'


A little after 1am on December 27, human rights advocate Hu Jia finished an article on the situation of the wife and two children of dissident Guo Feixiong , and hit the send button, pushing the e-mail to his list of recipients around the world - diplomats, journalists, human rights organisations and others who are interested in human rights on the mainland.

Added to the bottom of the e-mail was the fact that the day marked his 222nd day of 'illegal monitoring and control' by the public security apparatus and that there were 225 days left until the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The message was to be his last for a long while. About 14 hours later, some 20 police broke into the small apartment on the outskirts of Beijing and detained the 34-year-old activist. The police seized his mobile phone, laptop computer, bank books and other items.

It was not until days later that the authorities announced Hu was suspected of 'incitement to subvert state power', the 'usual s*** they charge peaceful activists with when they decide to take someone down', one American human rights worker commented.

Observers of the human rights scene on the mainland say that Hu's detention was related to the Olympics, now less than seven months away. With the world's eyes focused on Beijing, the Communist Party has been keen to put on a good face, and Hu, who some describe as a 'one-man human rights organisation', was making that increasingly difficult.

'He did a lot of damage to the Communist Party,' says a journalist who knows Hu. 'When the government put Gao Zhisheng under house arrest, they thought the story would go away, but it was Hu Jia who kept on the story and who told the world what was happening to him.'

The journalist adds that Hu told journalists when prison staff attacked Guo Feixiong with electric prods, providing them with a letter from Guo's wife detailing the attacks, and it was Hu who reported the beating of blind activist Chen Guangcheng .

'These are the three people the party hates the most,' says the journalist of the three dissidents that Hu tried to defend. 'The party would like them to be forgotten, but Hu keeps coming back in their face.'

Sara Davis, executive director of Asia Catalyst, says he reached his peak as an activist after being put under house arrest. 'He sat back and analysed events as they happened,' she says. 'He became insightful and he mentored a lot of young Chinese activists.'

Unlike other human rights activists, Hu took a high profile. 'The thing about Hu Jia is that he believes in the idea of transparency,' says Eva Pils, assistant law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 'He wanted to protect people by publicising everything, making everything that happened to them known.'

She says that while others thought that exposing government wrongdoing might increase the risk of retaliation, Hu talks openly about things like illegal detentions and beatings. 'Rights defenders will, of course, disagree about what the right strategy is to promote their concerns, and they all work under very great pressure, in an atmosphere of general fear and repression,' says Dr Pils, 'but Hu Jia was special in that his response to repression was to become more outspoken.'

Hu became quite adept at gathering information about human rights abuses. He was in constant touch with leading dissidents and their families, and also lent a patient ear to poor farmers and factory workers who showed up in Beijing to petition the government about abuses.

The activist, who has a degree in computer science, used the internet effectively to disseminate news, photographs, video and audio files.

'He saw himself as in some kind of communication with the government, in the sense that he made his views public for everyone to read or listen to,' Dr Pils says. 'Of course that wasn't a friendly chat. It was putting challenges out there.'

Chine Chan, a Hong Kong-based campaigner for Amnesty International, says Hu knows the government monitored overseas Chinese websites, such as Boxun, and that his postings were an open challenge to Beijing. 'He was saying, 'Can you see this human rights violation? Can you do something to improve the situation?'' Recipients of his reports say he was very professional and that they could be trusted.

When Yuan Weijing , the wife of Chen Guangcheng, was dragged off a bus by police as she tried to go to Beijing, Hu quickly got a recording of the incident and sent it out over the internet, where recipients could hear Ms Yuan screaming as she was violently pushed off the bus. And when the daughter of Gao Zhisheng sneaked out of her house and past police, going to Hu with details about her father, Hu put the recording of their phone conversation in an e-mail and sent it around the world. 'When he reported about the persecution of Gao's family after his detention, it was very hard to dispute that it was indeed Gao's 14-year-old daughter crying on the phone and reporting her experiences,' Dr Pils says.

Also important was the moral support he offered to people who were being persecuted and who felt helpless. When Ms Yuan slipped past police guarding her home in Shandong last summer, it was Hu who sheltered her in Beijing, and who helped her publicise the news about her husband being beaten in prison - the beatings stopped after this.

Hu may have had his greatest impact as an organiser in a country where organising is strictly prohibited. 'I think his biggest impact was to foster mutual understanding between activists and lawyers working on different issues,' Ms Davis says. 'That was new for China. China now has a social justice and human rights movement. That is a significant and historical step forward, and he was and is part of it.'

But if Beijing was intent on keeping human rights abuses hidden from smiling Olympic fans by removing Hu from the scene, the move may have backfired.

Prominent Chinese public intellectuals have written open letters supporting Hu, and fellow bloggers have continued to post comments on his situation, which are quickly taken down by cyber-censors. Reporters Without Borders reported that some 40 bloggers made an unsuccessful attempt to visit his wife, Zeng Jinyan , in her home and that some cyber-citizens had sent powdered milk to the family's apartment for their baby.

His detention has led to rare public denunciations around the world. European Parliament president Hans-Gert Pottering issued a statement calling for Hu's release on December 31. On January 14, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Hu's detention was 'disturbing', adding that Washington was watching the case closely. On January 17, the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for his release.

Human rights experts say that while Hu's detention has left an obvious gap, the flow of information has only slowed.

'By shutting down people like Hu Jia, they are just creating 10 more people to fill his shoes because the conditions have not changed,' Ms Davis says.