On any given day, about a dozen plainclothes police officers mill around the entrance to Hu Jia's housing complex on the outskirts of Beijing, on the lookout for anyone attempting to visit the well-known human rights defender.
A former AIDS activist, Hu now helps other dissidents by funneling information about their cases to foreign diplomats, international human rights groups, and the media. He is both a way station for dissidents and a megaphone for their causes.
"Only if we help them can they help others," he says.
Over the past five years, the slim, bookish 34-year-old Beijing native has spent more than 600 days in detention or under house arrest. Authorities have failed to notify his wife and parents of his whereabouts on many of these occasions, and he says that he has been tortured while in detention.
He stands to demonstrate how police put their knees on his extended forearms until he lost feeling in his hands. Since Hu was released from his most recent detention, his house has been surrounded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His phone is tapped, and his Internet access and telephone are sometimes blocked. When he is allowed to leave his home, a phalanx of police cars follows; he can tick off the car models and license plate numbers from memory.
All this for a man who has not been formally charged with any criminal offense.
Dissidents Receive 'Special' Treatment
Hu’s experience remains typical for China’s dissidents, despite official promises that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would bring about change. “By hosting the games,” said Wang Wei, secretary general of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee, in 2001, “social progress and economic development in China would move forward, as would China’s human rights situation.”
Instead, the government’s recent actions — harassing activists, tightening domestic media restrictions, and continuing to carry out large numbers of executions — have exposed Wang’s words as newspeak.
"Many observers agree that human rights and political freedoms have contracted sharply under the Hu Jintao–Wen Jiabao regime," says Robin Munro, research director for the China Labor Bulletin, an influential Hong Kong-based labor rights group founded by former political prisoner Han Dongfang. "They're getting ready for the Olympics, so public displays of dissent and social protests are an anathema to the central government."
The Communist Party of China’s (CPC) dangerous ambivalence toward public dissent punctuates modern Chinese history. During the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956, the Beijing Spring of 1978 and the 1989 “Democracy Movement,” the CPC tolerated and even encouraged a degree of public dissent — only to crack down as soon as momentum picked up. In 2004, just a few years after the Olympic Bid Committee signaled the country’s willingness to reform human rights policies, housing rights activist Ye Guozhu attempted to organize the kind of demonstration authorities fear most: one that would have tapped into a tremendous pool of roiling discontent among the masses.
Ye wanted to protest the forced evictions of a large number of residents from their homes in the Xuanwu District of Beijing, because of collusion between developers and district officials. Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents have been displaced as large swaths of the city, some historically significant, have been razed in the effort to “modernize” Beijing’s image in time for the games. For challenging the authorities, Ye was sentenced to four years in prison, where he remains today.
Amnesty International reports that he is suffering from health problems, partly as a result of being tortured in detention, and that guards at Chaobai Prison beat him with electro-shock batons. In February, authorities assigned Ye to a period of “discipline” in Qingyuan Prison, apparently in connection with his ongoing attempts to appeal his conviction, reports AI.
Chen Xiaoming, a self-taught housing rights activist from Shanghai who sued the government over forced evictions, is one of many who did not survive the punishment for dissent. After Chen was imprisoned in January 2007, his family informed officials that he suffered from a chronic illness and repeatedly asked that he be given medical parole. Prison authorities refused the requests and his family’s attempts to see him or provide medicine to him.
By late June, he had been reduced to “skeletal condition” and was vomiting blood. Chen died July 1, the same day medical parole was granted.
Human Rights in China, a New York City-based group founded by 1989 Tiananmen Square dissidents, confirmed that “ill treatment and beatings in prison were major factors in Chen's death."
Death for Dissidents
In addition to stepping up house arrests and indefinite detention, authorities have also sought to deter mass protest by charging activists with subversion — a crime punishable by death in China. AI estimates that at least 1,010 people were executed and 2,790 sentenced to death during 2006, although actual figures are believed to be much higher. The U.S.-based Dui Hua Foundation, which has successfully intervened on behalf of many Chinese dissidents persecuted by authorities, estimates that the real number of executions in 2006 was between 7,500 and 8,000, based on its contacts with people in China with access to official information. Among these are an unknown number of political prisoners.
On Jan. 1, 2007, the Supreme People's Court (SPC) formally reassumed the role of approving all death sentences passed in China, a reform that AI welcomed in the hope that it would significantly reduce executions. An article by China’s official news agency, Xinhua, however, stressed that the SPC usually does not have the authority to issue a new decision or declare a defendant innocent if the court discovers errors in an original judgment.
In most instances, such cases must be returned to a lower court for retrial, and there appears to be no limit to the number of possible retrials, raising fears that capital punishment cases could be retried repeatedly. Ultimately, it has been impossible to assess whether this reform has teeth due to lack of information about the SPC reviews. Indeed, gauging the authenticity of any recent reform in China is difficult when the flow of information is so restricted.
As part of China’s pre-Olympics “reforms,” the government announced in December 2006 that it would temporarily lift restrictions on foreign journalists seeking to travel within the country — increasing the likelihood that, for a limited time at least, foreigners could gain new insights into China’s complex internal politics.
Yet the government has simultaneously put domestic Chinese media on notice, giving new meaning to “One Country, Two Systems” — the slogan once meant to reassure Hong Kong that Chinese sovereignty was nothing to fear. In February, China’s Propaganda Department established a new penalty point-system for the domestic print media and notified news organizations that they would be subject to closure if all their points were deducted. In typical fashion, officials did not clearly define the infractions for which organizations can be penalized.
Propaganda officials have also recently dismissed editors and journalists at about a half dozen newspapers, including staff at the legal newsweekly Minzhu yu Fazhi Shibao (Democracy and Legal Times), one of China's most influential newspapers. Furthermore, many journalists have been detained, arrested, and beaten for reporting on corruption, land seizures, and disasters. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 32 journalists and 50 “cyber dissidents” are imprisoned in China, more than in any other country.
"There will be no real improvement of press freedom in China if the journalists are not released before the Games. It has a huge chilling effect," says Vincent Brossel, head of the organization’s Asia–Pacific Desk.
While the CPC has clearly made recent gestures to address the international community’s human rights concerns, those who dare challenge the government continue to play the deadly cat-and-mouse game that has defined political protest for decades. Dissidents have borrowed a few techniques from the Underground Railroad, James Bond, and China's own tradition of Samizdat.
Last summer, when Yuan Weijing observed that undercover police had lifted her house arrest in Shandong Province, she planned her dash for Beijing. Once there, she would meet with lawyers helping her husband, Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught legal activist who is in prison for accusing local Shandong officials of forcing women to undergo late-term abortions.
She would also meet with Hu Jia and other dissidents who support her husband.
On July 3, Yuan visited a friend who lived nearby, in Linyi City, and slipped out the back door. She climbed three 2-meter-high walls and walked to a nearby bus station — where a relative was waiting according to plan with Yuan’s 2-year-old daughter — and hopped on a bus for the 11-hour ride to the capital. Hu was quietly notified of her arrival by a middleman using Skype — activists believe it cannot easily be tapped — and was waiting at the Beijing bus station. He drove her past unsuspecting public-security officers and ushered her into his small apartment in the early morning hours.
Since the discovery of Yuan’s escape, a dozen or so police and officials have traveled all the way from Shandong Province to station themselves apart from the Beijing plainclothes police monitoring Hu. Someone has affixed a small photograph of her inside the guardhouse nearby. Thus far, the Shandong police have restrained themselves from barging into Hu's home in order to avoid a scene that might embarrass the Beijing authorities.
Inside, Yuan pulls out a photo of Li Fangping, one of a small number of lawyers who have dared to take on human rights cases like that of her husband. In the photo, Li is lying in a hospital bed in Linyi, suffering injuries sustained when unknown attackers beat him over the head with metal instruments.
China's Version of Human Rights
"It was probably the Shandong police, but it was done mafia-style" says Hu, who is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Chen and the words "Blind man/Chen Guangcheng/Freedom." Chen's lawyers have been attacked and detained on earlier occasions, preventing them from being present at his trial. Yuan pulls out another photo, this one taken from the second floor of her home. It shows eight plainclothes police officers sitting in front of her house.
As Hu and Yuan sit in Hu's home, surrounded by the muscle of China's security apparatus, the jarring discrepancy between China's "party line" and the real-life travails of its human rights defenders is evident. In May, the Chinese Olympic Committee's Wang Wei told The Associated Press, "Human rights conditions keep improving in China." But Hu says the Communist Party is in fact intent on wiping out all forms of dissent before the 2008 Olympics kick off. "By the time that day comes, there will be no sound at all," he says.
This article appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Amnesty International magazine, published by Amnesty International USA. It is reprinted here with permission.
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