Before Olympic Games, China quells dissent
BEIJING: When state security agents burst into his apartment on Dec. 27, Hu Jia was chatting on Skype, the Internet-based telephone system. Hu's computer was his most potent tool. He disseminated information about human rights cases, peasant protests and other politically touchy topics even though he often lived under de facto house arrest.
Hu, 34, and his wife, Zeng Jinyan, are human rights advocates who spent much of 2006 restricted to their apartment in a complex with the unlikely name of Bo Bo Freedom City. She blogged about life under detention, while he videotaped a documentary titled "Prisoner in Freedom City." Their surreal existence seemed to reflect an official uncertainty about how, and whether, to shut them up.
That ended on Dec. 27. Hu was dragged away on charges of subverting state power while Zeng was bathing their newborn daughter, Qianci. Telephone and Internet connections to the apartment were severed. Mother and daughter are now under house arrest. Qianci, barely 2 months old, is probably the youngest political prisoner in China.
For human rights advocates and Chinese dissidents, Hu's detention is the most telling example of what they describe as a broadening crackdown on dissent as Beijing prepares to stage the Olympic Games in August. In recent months, several dissidents have been jailed, including a former factory worker in northeastern China who collected 10,000 signatures after posting an online petition titled "We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics."
"This is a coordinated cleansing campaign," said Teng Biao, a legal expert who has known Hu since 2006. "All the troublemakers ? including potential troublemakers ? are being silenced before the Olympic Games."
With fewer than 200 days before the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies, Beijing is in the full throes of preparations. Roads and subway lines are being completed, and the city's new sports stadiums are nearly finished. But with more than 20,000 journalists expected for the Games, Beijing is also tightening controls over information.
Early this month, the authorities announced that only state-sanctioned companies would be allowed to broadcast video and audio files on the Internet, although the practical effect of this edict remains unclear. China has also extended a crackdown on Internet pornography and "unhealthy" content that some rights groups consider a tool for arresting online dissidents. China has jailed 51 online dissidents ? more than any other country ? and last year blocked more than 2,500 Web sites, according to Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocacy group.
Hu used his own Web site to post updates about other dissidents or peasant protests. He also did not hesitate to describe his semi-regular encounters with the police and state security officers assigned to monitor him.
"The police force mobilized is much, much larger than before," Hu told Agence France-Presse in October as the Communist Party clamped down on dissidents during an important political meeting. "Now, they just arrest people very publicly and arbitrarily, without the necessary legal procedures."
Last year, Hu became involved in the case of Yang Chunlin, the former factory worker who organized the "We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics" petition drive as part of an effort to help local farmers seek legal redress over confiscated land. Yang was arrested last summer and charged with subverting state power, according to human rights groups.
Hu told Agence France-Presse that Yang's arrest was part of a government effort to "clean up" politically touchy cases before the Games.
"I'm helping Yang Chunlin to hire a lawyer," Hu said. "The authorities have threatened Yang's family and relatives. Yang's wife dares not speak to anyone because of the threats."
Hu also participated via Webcam in a European Union parliamentary hearing in November in Brussels about human rights. He said China had failed to meet its Olympic promise of improving human rights.
Rebecca MacKinnon, who teaches journalism and media studies at the University of Hong Kong, said that any Olympic host country faces domestic critics of the Games and that such dissent is usually freely discussed in the public arena. She said efforts by security agencies to round up critics and other dissidents made the Communist Party look insecure and would backfire in the court of international opinion.
Others who have been detained in recent months are Liu Jie, a longtime protester of land issues in Beijing; Gao Zhisheng, an outspoken lawyer; and Lu Gengsong, an online dissident in Zhejiang Province.
"It shows that China is once again shooting itself in the foot," said MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices Online, a nonprofit forum for bloggers around the world.
"This is very predictable," she added. "Hu Jia is not an opponent of the Olympics. He has just been saying: 'We have problems. Our government needs to address them. As an Olympics host, we need to be treating our people better.' "
This month, Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, described Hu's case as a legal matter and offered no elaboration.
"I believe that related authorities will deal with that case in accordance with the law," she said at regular news briefing.
If the authorities hoped Hu's arrest would bring more silence, the opposite has happened. More than 60 intellectuals have signed a public petition calling for his immediate release. A prominent rights lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, posted a lengthy open letter online to President Hu Jintao in which he described Hu Jia as "modern China's conscience."
"If he is brought to trial, then it is a trial of the fragile conscience of 1.3 billion Chinese," Xu wrote. "If nobody stands up for him, it is an everlasting national shame."
Chinese bloggers have also taken up Hu's cause. One blogger, Guo Weidong, wrote a poem that began:
Call on the Beijing government!
Immediately release Hu Jia!
The Chinese people, shackled in chains, welcome the Olympics!
Another blogger, alluding to the president's call for a "harmonious society," wrote, "The common speculation now is that Hu Jia was arrested in order to take out some nonharmonious noise prior to the Olympics."
Hu began his activism in 1996 after he mailed a donation in response to a newspaper article about efforts to stop the encroaching Gobi Desert. He learned that no one else had contributed any money. So he quit his job as a television editor and volunteered to plant trees.
He converted to Buddhism, became a vegetarian and joined a nonprofit environmental group as a full-time volunteer. He later became well known for helping AIDS patients and met his wife, Zeng, when they were volunteering at the same nonprofit AIDS group.
Zeng began blogging in response to the intense surveillance of the couple. When security agents detained Hu without charges for 41 days in February 2006, she generated publicity with her blog. When Hu was placed under house arrest in 2006, she blogged about life in detention and posted online photos of herself wearing a T-shirt that read, in English, "House Arrested Again."
Now Zeng has been cut off from the Internet. Only her parents and Hu's parents are allowed to visit. Friends who have attempted to bring baby formula have been turned away. Last week, the police turned away a reporter from the couple's building. Officers hurriedly unfurled a roll of tape and declared the area a "crime scene."
Mr. Hu has been detained several times, but never before on formal charges. The authorities have forbidden his lawyers to meet with him on the grounds that the case involves a state secret. One of his lawyers, Li Fangping, said no one knew whether Hu's arrest was linked to a specific case or was a result of his overall criticism of the country's human rights record.
Hu's mother, who asked not to be identified by name, said security agents had seized his bank cards, computers, mobile phones and other pieces of personal property. She said agents had tried to bully Zeng into signing statements about her husband and even threatened to take away her baby for several hours each day when the newborn was not feeding. But Zeng has refused to sign.
"Hu Jia loves the country so much," his mother said. "He always cares about how China is making progress. How can he be accused of subverting the state? He is someone who can't bear to kill an ant."
But, his mother added, her son is also not afraid. She said that he had told her: "If I don't shed blood for the country, who will? If I don't go to hell, who will?"